Monday, July 9, 2012

Armenia and its Oligarchs

In an earlier post, I pointed to the dangers involved in ignoring the many deficiencies within Armenian society, arguing that progress would emerge not through accommodation with a corrupt and increasingly arrogant soi-disant elite, but through consistent critique of and principled resistance against its many excesses.  Unfortunately, events over the past few weeks have proved my assertion that government in Armenia is of some people, by some people and for some people painfully correct: in the absence of a state under the rule of law, all become prey to the whims of those higher-up in the echelons of power. 

Many will point to the recent parliamentary elections as an element of progress in the country’s ongoing democratisation.  The government triumphantly pointed to the final report by Western observers stating that the polls represented an improvement over their past iterations.  The different political parties had enhanced access to the electronic media, there was little pre-election violence, and the main problems lay in the use of administrative resources and the distribution of electoral bribes by various parties and candidates (of both the pro-government and opposition camps), as if a bought election that turns votes into a marketable commodity is somehow more legitimate than one that involves creative counting and tabulation.  

In the cat-and-mouse game between falsifiers and observers, it appears the falsifiers have simply perfected their methods - by limiting them to vote-buying, disappearing ink and a few other selected tricks - and the observers have been struck by fatigue.  A trend is seemingly emerging in OSCE/CoE observer missions in the former Soviet space: Western states seem to have given up hope of these states ever becoming democratic, and appear to put less effort in their observer missions than in the 90s or the noughties.  On the other hand, authoritarian regimes throughout the FSU have become more adept at hiding their electoral manipulations behind legalisms and social machinations that consistently pitch the playing field in their favour: whether it is their control over and alliance with wealthy oligarchs, their direct and indirect long-term usurpation of the (electronic) media, the timely elimination of potentially successful challengers, and their distortions of the judicial process, the electoral game been slanted towards the powers that be for decades.  Long enough, in any case, for electoral shenanigans to become institutionalized, reified, accepted as a fact of life.  And that is nothing to be self-congratulatory about.

But elections go only halfway in making a country fully accountable to its people; even if they had been held according to the highest democratic standards, the elected legislative bodies they would have produced would have been utterly worthless, because the laws they passed would not be applied onto society by a corrupt and insipid regime.  The other, often forgotten and possibly more important half of the liberal-democratic equation has always been the rule of law.  The legitimacy of a 21st-century state is, after all, based on its ability to maintain order while upholding the rights of its citizens, to safeguard the common good rather than the good of those in control of government, to banish violence from society and make the just life possible, for all, on a level playing field that, at the very least, provides everyone with security and equality before the law.  Armenian realities are even more depressing on that front.  For the vast majority of citizens, life is neither good, nor just, nor secure.  The economic, political, judicial playing field belongs to a small oligarchic class so conceited it does not even try to hide its contempt for society at large.

Take the explosion of balloons during a pre-election event by the Republican Party in the capital Yerevan.  That the balloons were filled with highly flammable butane gas instead of inert (and more expensive) helium would seem like an act of criminal negligence, for which no one has been charged to date.  And that president Sargsyan carried on and delivered his speech as scheduled despite of 150 fellow citizens being injured in the blast would seem like the height of tactlessness.  But why should all of this be surprising? The laws of criminal negligence are, after all, suspended for select members of the party in power; and how much respect can you feign if you see your voters as electoral meat, to be bought and sold by the kilogram?

But then, showing respect is not the oligarchs’ strong suit.  Take the former mayor of Yerevan, Gagik Beglaryan, aka ‘Chorny Gago’ or ‘Black Gago’ (FYI - You can’t be a self-respecting oligarch without an appropriate, dangerously sounding nickname).  Mr. Beglaryan was dismissed from his post a few years ago, apparently for assaulting one of the president’s bodyguards (nickname: ‘Gndo’) in a dispute over a seat at a Placido Domingo concert at the Yerevan Opera (roughly equivalent to Boris Johnson roughing up a member of the Queen’s household cavalry at the Royal Albert Hall).  Long before that, gangs of burly men reportedly made his fief in Yerevan a no-go zone for opposition candidates during previous election campaigns.  All of that did not disqualify him from becoming Minister for Transport and Communication in the current Armenian government.  In Armenia, ‘services rendered’, membership in the right political party and a bit of time wash away your sins more effectively than Ariel.

The recent, deadly icing on the cake – in terms of the arrogance of Armenia’s ruling class - was the violent assault by grunts working for Ruben Hayrapetyan (aka ‘Nemetz Rubo’ or ‘German Rubo’) on three patrons of his Harsnaqar restaurant near Yerevan, who happened to be military doctors.  The precise details of what preceded the assault are unclear; what is certain is that there was an exchange of insults between at least one of the group and an employee of Hayrapetyan’s establishment, ostensibly over the restaurant's dress code.  A group of security guards subsequently surprised the three medics as they were leaving, seriously injuring all of them, and thrashing one into a coma from which he did not recover.  In fact, he died a few days later, prompting the resignation of Hayrapetyan from his parliamentary seat in the face of a fierce public outcry, in a very rare instance of public accountability.

For those uninitiated to the wonders of Armenia’s oligarchy: Nemetz Rubo also happens to be the chairman of Armenia’s football federation.  And neither FIFA nor UEFA seem to have a problem with him openly admitting to electoral fraud, belittling the intelligence of female journalists or telling them that being ‘impregnated’ by his son would not be such a bad thing.  

The problem goes far beyond a few individuals and a handful of isolated incidents.  Armenia's oligarchic class stands far above and beyond the laws of the land. It steals Armenia’s natural resources and soils its environment through opaquely owned foreign-registered corporations.   It destroys Yerevan’s precious green spaces in its drive to fill the city with its and its relatives’ open-air cafes.  And it doesn’t really mind when the country’s barren villages bleed dry in the face of socio-economic hopelessness: better for the miserable to emigrate than to demonstrate.  In any case, when the emigrants send back their remittances into a blockaded and isolated economy, the oligarchy's cartels and monopolies ensure the money flows straight back into its bank accounts through over-priced and under-taxed imported commodities.  And it maintains this most literally parasitical status by usurping the Armenian state for its purposes, bending and breaking the law at will.  It does so with a broad grin, spitting on the faces of Armenia's ordinary citizens while openly bragging about its very ‘manly’ illegalities.

No comments: