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Feb 14, 2013 | 11:30 GMT

For Armenia, Promising Changes Amid Elections

For Armenia, Promising Changes Amid Elections
FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images

Armenia's presidential election on Feb. 18 is unlikely to lead to any significant political changes within the country, but it comes amid a broader strategic shift in the South Caucasus. Due to an ongoing political thaw between Russia and Georgia, the Armenian economy could see a boost from increased regional economic integration, which may also reduce Yerevan's own political isolation. 

Unlike in neighboring Azerbaijan and some other authoritarian states in the former Soviet Union, Armenian presidential elections typically have been heavily competitive. In both 1998 and 2003, presidential elections went to a second round because no candidate was able to obtain the requisite 50 percent of the vote to win in the first round. In the past, this competitiveness has occasionally led to violence and instability in the country. The 2008 elections that ushered current Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian into power were accompanied by protests in the capital involving tens of thousands of supporters of the challenger, Levon Ter-Petrosian. The demonstrations turned violent and ended only after security forces intervened, resulting in several deaths and hundreds of injuries.

Unlike previous elections, this one is not expected to be competitive; no candidate is seriously challenging Sarkisian and two of the country's other top political figures, former presidents Ter-Petrosian and Robert Kocharian, both declined to run. Consequently, the prospect for instability or violence surrounding it is diminished. Sarkisian is projected to win comfortably, with most polls showing him taking 60 percent to 70 percent of the vote.

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In terms of foreign policy, the election is unlikely to lead to any significant shift regardless of who emerges victorious. All candidates broadly support Yerevan's close relationship with Russia. Moscow is the primary provider of Armenia's energy, foreign aid and investment, and Russia also owns many of the country's strategic assets such as railways, telecommunications infrastructure and natural gas pipelines. More important, Russia has 5,000 troops stationed in Armenia and serves as a security guarantor in the country's ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia's geopolitical orientation is unlikely to change.

However, a significant shift is under way beyond Armenia's borders. For the past decade, the country has served as Russia's main anchor in the Caucasus, while Georgia pursued close ties with the United States and NATO and Azerbaijan attempted to balance its allegiances between the West and Russia. But since the election of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili in 2012, Tbilisi has been in the process of improving ties with Moscow. While countries such as Azerbaijan and Turkey are worried about this shift, Armenia strongly supports the move. Strengthened ties between Georgia and Russia have led to renewed interest in projects such as reviving the Georgia-Russia railway via Abkhazia, which would give Armenia a direct rail link to Russia and could boost the Armenian economy.

Though this project and others still face obstacles, they could reduce Armenia's isolation in the Caucasus. Yerevan has long been a stalwart ally of Moscow, and the emergence of a more pro-Russian tilt in the region could boost the country's political and economic prospects.

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