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After a period of dormancy, politics is back to the countries of the South Caucasus, Thomas de Waal, a senior associate at the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, says in his article "Political Tremors in the Caucasus".
The countries of the South Caucasus - Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia - experienced mass political turbulence in the 1990s, but for years it looked as though people had lost faith in public engagement and were content to tolerate any ruler who guaranteed a modicum of stability. That is no longer the case: After a period of dormancy, politics is back, Waal says.
"Now the country under the spotlight is tiny Armenia. The country held a presidential election on February 18 in which serving president Serzh Sargsyan was elected to a new five-year term. An easy victory for Sargsyan appeared pre- ordained as two other presumed rivals dropped out of the race. But in the last two weeks of the campaign, opposition candidate Raffi Hovannisian, independent Armenia's first foreign minister, surged forward", he says. "Had the campaign lasted two weeks longer it is quite possible that Hovannisian's momentum would have carried him into a second round run-off", he says.
"Armenia's problem was not so much election day as the playing field itself: A media heavily controlled by the government, local officials serving the narrow ruling elite rather than the state as such. The head of the OSCE election observer mission, Heidi Tagliavini, picked up on this when she commented on "the blurring of the distinction between the state and the ruling party", Waal says.
"Raffi Hovannisian is a decent man, unsullied by the corrupt practices of post- Soviet politics. But he is also a California-born outsider whom few imagined could be president of Armenia. Evidently, he has mobilized a protest vote that is bigger than himself. Hovannisian himself has not recognized the result, and he has been surprisingly effective at organizing mass rallies across the country. But it is hard to see how he can prevail in the short term against a president who now has international legitimacy and controls all the levers of power in Armenia", he stresses.
"Over the longer term, however, the president has a problem. Opinion surveys show high levels of discontent in Armenia about corruption, poverty, and abuse of power. This manifests itself in mediocre economic performance and a continuing brain-drain from emigration. Sargsyan is a man of consensus who likes at least to listen to his opponents. If he does not want a very long and bumpy second term, he must now think about what steps he can take that will meet the population's discontents half-way - while he knows that tinkering with the system may end up undermining his own authority", Waal says.
Thomas de Waal thinks that as president of a nation whose compatriots are scattered across the world, Sargsyan also faces the challenge of continued competition with the Armenian diaspora.