Testing Times for Armenia as Sargsyan Wins Re-Election

Serzh Sargsyan has been re-elected as Armenia’s Prime Minister with a fairly comfortable win in the polls. This is fairly unsurprising given that Sargsyan effectively sidelined most of his opponents with intimidation tactics and legal manipulation before the election itself. With one presidential candidate wounded in an assassination attempt, another on hunger strike and a third refusing to take part in the vote, it is clear that faith in democratic procedure is at a low ebb in Armenia.

Regardless of who their leader is, Armenia’s people face a number of challenges. Economic growth has stagnated, unemployment is at 16% and 30% live below the poverty line. Armenia has become a victim of its recent history. Landlocked between several countries, it does not enjoy the strongest of relations with its neighbours.

Armenia's landlocked status means it cannot afford to be on poor terms with its neighbours
Armenia’s landlocked status means it cannot afford to be on poor terms with its neighbours

Firstly, there is Turkey, widely held as responsible for the 1915 Armenian Genocide, in which at least 600,000 ethnic Armenians were killed by the Young Turks in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. Relations have never been fully restored, with Turkey refusing to acknowledge that a genocide took place. The Armenians understandably demand a sincere apology and acceptance of responsibility by the Turkish state before relations can be restored. A country the size of Turkey should be an important trading partner for Armenia, yet it accounts for less than 5% of imports and exports.

Secondly, there is Azerbaijan, an oil-fuelled economy on the Caspian Sea. Ever since the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was completed in 2005, Azerbaijan has been able to transport crude oil to the Mediterranean Sea with relative ease, creating an economic boom. Turkey is, incidentally, now Azerbaijan’s biggest import partner. The pipeline should by rights, and geography, pass through Armenia yet it has been re-routed via Georgia. This is because Azerbaijan retains a trade embargo on Armenia, a phenomenon Turkey largely shares.

Oil transportation revenue eludes Armenia because of its foreign relations
Oil transportation revenue eludes Armenia because of its foreign relations

Between 1988 and 1994, the Nagorno-Karabakh War was fought. Nagorno-Karabakh was an enclave in southwestern Azerbaijan with a majority of ethnic Armenians. Demanding cession to Armenia, the restive province attempted to break away. Azerbaijan’s determination to prevent this from happening brought it into direct conflict with Armenia. The Armenians won the war with a lot of the responsibility lying with the then Defence Minister, Serzh Sargsyan.

The Nagorno-Karabakh War destroyed Armenian-Azeri relations
The Nagorno-Karabakh War destroyed Armenian-Azeri relations

Nagorno-Karabakh, although still officially recognised worldwide as part of Azerbaijan, is a a de facto republic affiliated with Armenia. Periodic peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the province continually break down and diplomatic relations between the neighbours are almost non-existent. With Sargsyan now confirmed once more as Prime Minister, a diplomatic breakthrough appears unlikely given his role in the War. The Armenians and their economy, however, could badly use some oil revenue which the absence of a pipeline prohibits.

Unlike many states that remain pariahs in their own region, the Armenians have not brought it all upon themselves. The Armenian Genocide was an horrific offence against the nation and yet Armenia is being made to pay for its legacy. Similarly, whilst accusations abound that Nagorno-Karabakh was encouraged to break free by the Armenian government, its people are mostly Armenians and deserve the opportunity, or at least the means to negotiate, to decide their own future.

But with a weak political climate domestically and internationally, and neighbours unwilling to compromise, Armenia’s future looks fairly bleak and one dependent upon the benevolence of its former Russian overlords. It is hard to believe that this state was once the heartland of the great Kingdom of Armenia.

Soviet Legacy in Kazakhstan: Economics vs Culture

When Kazakhstan was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1920, its people “remained illiterate and devoid of rights and had to bear the burden of Tsarist officials and their own feudal landowning aristocracy”. This according to a Kazakh Communist Party official during jubilee celebrations in 1945. The same official went further saying that “Soviet power lit up their [the Kazakh people] lives like a bright sun”.

The statements may sound propagandist, yet they were no ridiculous over-exaggeration. Soviet rule transformed Kazakh society in its early years, dragging the fiercely rural and still partially-nomadic people towards industrialisation and economic development. GDP rose 25% in its first twenty years and, after the devastation of WWII, surged again in the post-war era.

The hammer and sickle quickly made its mark on Kazakhstan
The hammer and sickle quickly made its mark on Kazakhstan

A vast country with a comparatively tiny population, the Soviets saw Kazakhstan as a potential “bread basket” for its larger cities. Collectivised agriculture on a massive scale was undertaken and was, on the whole, successful. Of course, this also necessitated population displacement, with rural communities from far-flung regions amalgamated into singular working groups in parts of the country foreign to many of them. Community and historic ties were severed. Additionally, cultural norms such as nomadic shepherding, were largely discontinued as they did not conform to the Soviet desire for efficiency.

Collective Farms disrupted local communities
Collective Farms disrupted local communities

A further byproduct of economic development was labour shortages, particularly during WWII when thousands of Kazakh workers were drafted into the Red Army. To make up for these shortfalls, workers were forcibly emigrated from Russia to Kazakhstan. After the war, the process continued until the Kazakhs were a minority in their own country.

This phenomenon has had important implications for present-day Kazakhstan, whose economic centres, Almaty and Astana, have grown rich from oil and mineral revenues. Without the Soviet investment in a sophisticated and efficient industrial base, Kazakhstan would probably not have the riches it has today. At the same time, the industrialisation process was carried out in such a way that native Russians secured the most prominent positions within the economic framework of Kazakhstan.

Herein lies the problem of the Soviet legacy in Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs, as a general rule, enjoy an excellent standard of living for the region they live in. Yet they remain subordinated to Russian dominance, despite their nominally independent status.

Astana's modern architecture is a far cry from the Kazakh hinterlands
Astana’s modern architecture is a far cry from the Kazakh hinterlands

Strongman president Nursultan Nazarbayev has sought to counter Russian dominance in his country by expanding ties with China and the West (he is friends with Tony Blair, for instance). However, given that ethnic Russians make up the majority of Kazakhstan’s population, breaking the country’s dependence on the Kremlin is virtually impossible.

The Soviets initiated a system, both economic and social, in which Russian life permeated  a vast, historically disunited nation. As such, it is tempting to see Kazakhstan as an extension of Russia, something the Soviet system attempted to achieve in all its semi-autonomous republics.

Some Kazakh nationals may appreciate such a scenario whilst others, mainly urban dwellers, can perhaps at least be grateful to the Soviets for setting the country on the path of economic development. Yet whether the indigenous Kazakhs, many who remain banished to the rural extremes of the country, feel this way, is rather suspect.