Moving Forward in Stages: An Interview With ARF’s Armen Rustamyan

Rustamyan on Freedom Square in February 2013. (Photo by Photolur)

Rustamyan on Freedom Square in February 2013. (Photo by Photolur)

(, 31 March 2013)—The Armenian Weekly’s correspondent in Yerevan sat down on March 28 with ARF Supreme Council representative Armen Rustamyan, to talk about developments in the aftermath of Armenia’s presidential election and the ARF’s outlook on the eve of Yerevan’s municipal vote.  Rustamyan heads the ARF’s electoral list in the upcoming city elections, scheduled for May 5.

The Armenian Weekly—How would you characterize the post-election period in Armenia and the protest movement that has coalesced around Raffi Hovannisian?

Armen Rustamyan—Something of a tradition has developed in Armenia where after every election, especially presidential ones, the country enters a state of tension. One of the main reasons for this is that the majority of the public simply does not believe in the results. They don’t believe in the legitimacy of the elections. Irregularities make it impossible to confidently state who the true winners and losers are.

Such a state of affairs naturally brings us to a point of post-electoral turmoil, which once again proved to be unavoidable. This is now the second election since 2008 that has not gone past the first round and we see the polarized environment the country has been placed in.

The presidential candidate [Raffi Hovannisian] who, based on official results, came in second continues not to recognize the outcome of the election, began a hunger strike, is rallying in the streets, and is traveling to the regions.  The public’s disappointment is also very obvious. Thus, it is apparent that we are in a post-election crisis.

The country will continue to experience such crises as long as there are two fundamental problems that are not resolved.

First, the public’s mistrust comes from the fact that, until today, elections in Armenia are not a means for changing the regime. They never have been. Since independence, there has not been one administration that has replaced another through an election. This is a fact. No country in the world, especially one undergoing transition, can afford to have such a low level of democracy, where the authorities constantly maintain their power. This state of affairs suggests that something is clearly wrong.

Secondly, not only is the electoral system not improving or becoming more democratic but, rather, just the opposite is occurring. Each regime does everything it can to reproduce itself and fortify its position. We have seen this phenomenon with every administration since independence. Each regime has unsparingly abused its official position and its executive resources for the benefit of maintaining power.

In addition, there are no mechanisms in place for the true volume of electoral fraud to be detected, so as to legally protest the results and reach a point where elections can be contested. Both the public and opposition lack the tools necessary to comprehensively document the extent of the violations and prove the illegitimacy of elections. This is one of the key reasons the authorities are able to announce after each election that some violations did occur, but were not significant enough to affect the overall outcome of the race.

We have yet to be able to come out of this defective situation and, today, we are seeing the same scenario repeating.

A.W.—Many people in both Armenia and the Diaspora had hope that the movement around Raffi would open up a new page for a healthy opposition to form in the country and struggle for change collectively. Where does the ARF stand today vis-à-vis this movement?

A.R.—We naturally joined the movement because, for us, it was clear that it was not about Raffi Hovannisian but, rather, about the situation in the country. In other words, we feel strongly that we must overcome this defective situation and reach a point where elections are actually a means for changing the regime. This can happen only when citizens understand their democratic rights and raise enough of an uproar to affect change in a proper manner. Thus, we naturally were in Freedom Square from the very beginning, stood with the people, and we continue to remain at their side today.

We simply need to understand that in Armenia—since there is no immediate way to reverse the outcome of an election (either legally or politically) or to form a new government—we must work toward change in a step-by-step, phase-by-phase fashion. The maximalist “everything now” approach can either lead to bloodshed (which we have seen in the recent past and which is unacceptable to us) or disillusionment. If the goal is “everything now” and that is not realized, what would the people who believed in that be left with? They will naturally be disillusioned.

That is why we’ve suggested a middle-ground option that moves forward in stages, achieving tangible results and securing regime change gradually.

We saw two fundamental opportunities to go down this route, and we’ve begun that process. We proposed this strategy to the movement leadership and Raffi Hovannisian personally, from day one. Given such an approach, we were prepared to have a much more direct involvement in the movement, helping organize it and shape it. For us, one thing is clear: the movement must become a strong actor which directs changes on the ground and has an affect on the government. In this regard, we suggested several concrete steps.

For example, one necessary step is to steer the government toward critical and meaningful reforms. That is why we put forth three problems that must be resolved right away and are at the core of so much public discontent.

First, the state and the ruling party are indistinguishable—this needs to change. If we can’t free ourselves from this situation, we will not have normal elections nor will we change the reality in the country. So, we must naturally eliminate this root problem.

Second, we must change the government structure to a parliamentary system and change the voting system from a majoritarian to a fully proportional one.

Finally, we must give the citizenry and opposition the tools necessary to actually monitor electoral violations. They must be able to document the real volume of fraud so as to challenge electoral outcomes through legal means when necessary, without civil disturbances.

A.W.—Those tools don’t exist right now?

A.R.—No, they don’t. For example, one of the tools that we suggested to the government—and which was rejected—is that the voter lists be made public after elections. This would give us the ability to identify the number of voters in the country, and see if others are voting in the name of people who are outside the country. That would allow us to document the true scope of fraud. We have put similar proposals forward but it is no accident that the authorities categorically reject them. They don’t want to give the opposition such tools that detect violations.

Furthermore, after these systematic changes are made, new National Assembly elections must be called. This would give the country a new parliament of greater quality and authority.

We also need to make it possible for the opposition to monitor and counterbalance the activities of the government. For that, we need new legal levers in the sphere of electoral monitoring. We began negotiations on this process but, I have to say, they were not given much value by the leadership of the movement. They felt that going down this path would somehow weaken them. That same approach of “everything now” affected their decision-making in this regard. This initiative was not fully pursued, but the possibility of resuscitating it is still on the agenda and we stand by it.

Of course, the upcoming Yerevan municipal election is another timely opportunity for us to move forward, given its close proximity to the presidential election. That which was not achieved in the presidential race can be realized during the Yerevan city elections. We believe we can secure a more thorough electoral process and come to power in Yerevan. We would all only benefit from such a result because it is one thing to have a movement without a mayor; it’s another to have a movement with an opposition mayor in place. The movement would take on a whole new quality.

It is in this regard that we have put forward proposals to politicize the municipal elections and unify all of the non-regime forces under one list. This would have secured us a guaranteed victory. Unfortunately, that unification did not take place.

It didn’t take place due to the ambitions of the other parties involved. Now, some are trying to say that they didn’t have ambitions; that they did everything they could to make it work. But let them explain why exactly the talks to unify the ARF, Heritage, and Prosperous Armenia parties under one electoral bloc failed. Whose fault was that?

It is clear that the ARF did everything in its power to make unification work, including minimizing its aspirations and requirements for heading the list. Meanwhile, the other parties did just the opposite. When they didn’t receive an agreement sufficient to their ambitions, the unification talks failed and the process of reaching our collective goals only became more difficult.

Afterwards, we continued to pursue partial solutions such as pairing up under a dual party bloc, even though we knew this would not be as effective. However, we did everything we could to achieve unity—but on a political basis, not a civic one which our colleagues advocated. They could not recognize that a political struggle is what’s needed for these elections. A civic approach is what the ruling authorities want so they can blur the political significance of this struggle.

Only by giving the elections political significance will the people understand that this contest is on the scale of the presidential race—just that, for now, confined to the borders of Yerevan. This is what needs to be stressed. Unfortunately, until now, our approach has not been fully appreciated.

But let me say that everything is not lost. Each political power has entered the race separately and we can still reach power in Yervan’s municipal government by forming an alliance after the elections.

A.W.—What are your thoughts on the recent exchange of letters between Raffi Hovannisian and Serzh Sargsyan?

A.R.—I find the lack of formal negotiations between the two to be mostly posturing.  The main obstacle has become the location of the meeting, which, for me, is incomprehensible. It should be a public meeting independent of where the actual location is. But it should have been public from the very first sit-down they had [right after the presidential election].

The negotiations should be broadcast live, not only for people in Freedom Square, but for all Armenians and all of Armenia to see. Broadcast it on TV, sit down with each other, speak for a few hours, and let the citizens understand what is happening. Putting so much emphasis on where to meet is not very productive, in my opinion.

Of course, the more fundamental question is what the people would gain from such a dialogue. To have dialogue for the sake of dialogue or to demonstrate civility is something we have seen in the past, and the people have not gained much from that. The public will only benefit, in our opinion, when the real issues at hand are addressed.

If, for example, there is agreement over the three issues we noted, we will have a new Armenia in two-three years, with a completely new character. New elections will take place in a new system, a new parliament will be formed, and the process will take place properly because the opposition will have the tools to oversee it. It will have the levers to check and balance the government.

A.W.—If none of your proposed electoral reforms have been implemented so far, how are the elections in Armenia going to change for the Yerevan race in May? How can you ensure that free and fair elections worth participating in are conducted?

A.R.—Well, look, this same issue could have been a good topic for the dialogue with the regime we spoke of earlier. Establishing clear mechanisms for supervising the elections and guaranteeing that they will take place without fraud could have been one of the items on the top of the agenda. We could have cleaned the slate of violations from this last presidential race with the example set by the upcoming Yerevan municipal elections. This was and still is possible to do.

The opposition parties today also have the power to fill 50 percent of the precinct committees and carry out monitoring of the elections more thoroughly. After all, each party has its own interest to protect votes this time and that will give us greater possibilities to oversee each precinct.

Of course, the authorities will try to move their sphere of violations outside of the precincts, as they did in the last National Assembly elections. When the monitoring and observation increased in the precincts last year (through the unified opposition headquarters which was established, and so on), we saw the degree of violations decrease on Election Day. As a result, the regime needed to increase the volume of bribes it gave out to compensate for what they could no longer get away with. And the distribution of those bribes took place outside of the precincts.

The same situation can arise again because the monitoring of precincts will likely be on a higher level in these elections than in this last presidential vote. There is a serious danger that the regime will try to resort to bribery again.

A.W.—The ARF’s official slogan for the upcoming Yerevan elections is “Yerevan, Change Armenia.” What is the message you are trying to convey with this slogan and campaign?

A.R.—What we are saying is that these upcoming elections are tied to the fundamental issues facing the country. We are convinced that if we succeed in changing the regime in Yerevan, we will also change the reality in the country overall. A victory for the opposition in Yerevan will open up a new page in our modern history. Something like that has not happened yet.

A.W.—Seeing as you are at the top of the ARF’s electoral list, what would you do if you were to become Mayor of Yerevan?

A.R.—If I was mayor I would show through the example of Yerevan what people’s rule truly means. That would be what I would do, first and foremost.

People would see that there is law and order in the city and that rules are actually implemented. That is what I would do. Along these lines, the office of mayor has various tools at its disposal that today are not being utilized.

For example, to establish such law and order, the mayor today has the power to appoint municipal police. Right now, there is no such thing. Why? Because they are all from the same team; they are members of the same political party. It would make absolutely no sense for them to create a parallel police force next to the state one they already control. That makes no sense for them.

But for us, if we were in power as an opposition force in the mayor’s office, that makes complete sense. Because I don’t trust those police and I’ll say that openly. Therefore, that tool that I spoke about will be something I would utilize to make sure nobody in Yerevan is above the law, no matter who they are. I would have that tool. Right now I don’t have it.