Vahan Hovhannesian seeks to restore checks and balances in Armenia’s governance
Calls for an Armenian-Georgian union
by Vincent Lima
Published: Saturday January 26, 2008
Yerevan - "Guaranteed changes in a politically stable environment." That's what Vahan Hovhannesian promises to bring about if he is elected as Armenia's next president. It's not a promise, however, he insists; it's a contractual obligation. His major commitments are listed in a short contract that he has signed; as of January 20, some 120,000 citizens have countersigned, according to the candidate.
Mr. Hovhannesian, 50, is a member of the Bureau, or global executive body, of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun) and is his party's nominee. He spoke to the editor of the Armenian Reporter, Associate Editor Maria Titizian, and correspondent Armen Hakobyan on January 7. Armenia's presidential election is slated for February 19.
"There's one extreme that sees no need for change," he had said in Glendale on December 15, referring to Prime Minister and presidential candidate Serge Sargsian. "‘All is well, everyone is smiling, there's construction throughout the city, what need is there for change?' they say. We see the need for change. But the other extreme, the former authorities, that have set out to demolish everything, are unacceptable to us too," he had continued, referring to presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian.
This middle position may seem odd to some, who have long seen Dashnaktsutiun as a hard-line force in Armenian politics. But "balance" appears to be the new watchword for the party, which has been part of the government and a critic of government policies at the same time. Even on foreign policy, where Dashnaktsutiun traditionally has taken a maximalist position, the soft-spoken Mr. Hovhannesian speaks of a peaceful process of regional integration.
"Under the constitution, the president's basic responsibility - besides the obvious responsibilities to maintain national security and the constitutional order - is to maintain balance among the arms of government," said Mr. Hovhannesian, who is a deputy speaker of Armenia's National Assembly. "It is that balance that is upset in Armenia today. The Constitution lives a separate life; real life is something else entirely."
Mr. Hovhannesian said he seeks to bring "the Constitution and real life into the same plane."
To do so, and to restore faith in government, Mr. Hovhannesian would start with "the places where the citizen comes into contact with the state" and above all, the courts. Judges would come "under very strict oversight on the part of the president, and all intervention in judicial processes by other state entities, other officials, or ‘the strong' in general" would be "out of the question."
Asked whether strict presidential oversight would not be a form of intervention by the strong, Mr. Hovhannesian said there is "an established mechanism for oversight of the judiciary. It is not the personal phone calls and pressure of the president. There is a Council of Justice, which has the right to really review the performance of judges. What we need is to plug this mechanism in and use it. I'm not talking about some sort of extraconstitutional intervention."
Mr. Hovhannesian was asked about the recent dismissal, through that constitutional process, of Judge Pargev Ohanian, who had rendered a rare not-guilty verdict in a criminal case brought against businesspeople who had confronted the state Customs Service. In this case, as in the case of member of parliament Khachatur Sukiassian, whose businesses were audited and heavily penalized after he announced his support for Mr. Ter-Petrossian, there were elements of corruption, Mr. Hovhannesian said. But punishment came only when their activities "became politically sensitive."
An official openly violates the rules and the laws and his or her violations are overlooked, he said, because that makes officials more manageable. "And only when they try to come out of this environment of manageability" are the violations acted on. "This practice must come to an end. You messed up, you must be held accountable: you're loyal, you're disloyal, that should not matter," he said.
Independence and justice
How does he hope to reach this point? "The solution is very simple, and at the same time, very difficult. Very simple because I can see it. Difficult because making it happen will create certain tensions. One of our slogans, and the most important, is ‘guaranteed changes in a politically stable environment.' All these solutions must avoid bringing about upheaval."
His first step, Mr. Hovhannesian said, would be to change the way elections are carried out in Armenia.
"The strong, who are able to circumvent the principles and rules of justice and apply pressure on the judge, the police chief, the tax inspector, the customs agent: Where does their power lie?" Mr. Hovhannesian asked. It lies, he said, in the fact that the authorities need them in order to win elections. "'You must bring me votes; I don't care how,' they are told. ‘If you want, buy them; if you want use your powers of persuasion. You are necessary to me for this purpose. And in return for that, I will turn a blind eye to certain deficiencies in your carrying out of your tax obligations, and in general in your relations with the law. I will be more tolerant toward you. You will be more equal than the others, as Orwell would have it.' These are the relations."
As president, Mr. Hovhannesian said he would invite "the strong" and say, "Guys, ‘there shall not an hair of your head perish,' but henceforth . . . you will go pay all your taxes, you will provide all the services prescribed by law, you will not interfere with the ship of state, the court process, etc. You will live like everyone; no one will touch your wealth: go enjoy it. But I owe you nothing because I was not elected thanks to your intervention; I was elected by the people."
Asked how he hopes to get elected in this context, Mr. Hovhannesian said the ruling circle has three reserves through which it perpetuates its power: These are outright fraud, the poor, or rather "those among the poor whose votes can be bought," and the "administrative reserve: urban district heads, village heads, provincial governors, and the like." They, "in large part - but I would not say in its entirety - provide for the perpetuation of that circle and thereby for their own positions."
He said he plans to do all he can "to minimize the negative consequences of the use of these three reserves by the authorities."
Asked about Armenia's economic growth and the distribution of wealth among the people, Mr. Hovhannesian said, "Armenia's economic development is obvious and cannot be denied. We, too, with our participation in the coalition government, have helped the government take some of the right directions. And the progress is obvious."
He noted that certain sectors have grown especially fast. Others have not. "Let's factor out the reasons that are out of the hands of Armenia's government: blocked export routes. But there are also other reasons: Armenia's tax and customs laws do not support the local producer. They are more supportive of the importer. For that reason, imports grow constantly, and our trade balance is always negative, and that gap is growing."
Mr. Hovhannesian was particularly critical of the terms of Armenia's membership in the World Trade Organization. In the absence of protectionist tariffs, local producers have to compete with cheap imports from abroad, such as cheap tomatoes from Iran, he said.
Fighting in Karabakh
"When the ARF started its first underground operations in Armenia, I was among the first who joined," Mr. Hovhannesian said when asked about his role in the Karabakh Movement. "It was clear to us that standing in public squares with our fists in the air, appealing or making demands of this or that international forum, the Karabakh question would not be resolved. For us it was clear that a confrontation was unavoidable. And we prepared for that physical confrontation."
With Azerbaijani massacres of Armenians in Sumgait and with attacks on Armenians all across Azerbaijan, especially in Mountainous Karabakh, the "violent, bloody stage of the Karabakh struggle began. It was clear that the only possible response to that was armed rebellion. Which is what our battalions did - in northern Artsakh, in Hadrut," Mr. Hovhannesian said, adding that he "participated from that stage. I participated because having served in the Soviet Army in the Special Forces, on the border with China, I had gained knowledge that was necessary to our young people at the time."
Asked how he sees the future of Karabakh, Mr. Hovhannesian said, "There are political forces that look at the Karabakh issue as a separate question, the resolution of which brings regional stability once and for all. For us the Karabakh question is only one of the components of the permanent struggle for the Armenian Cause. So any resolution today is a stage after which we must prepare for the next stages, which may take decades.
"We understand very well that what has been lost over 700 years will not be restored through one miracle or one stroke," he continued. "The ARF will never go to any adventure to put the people or the state at risk. But, conscious that this is one of the stages, you must gain the most you can, to help the future development of your country. Because you can reach the other stages only after a certain amount of time in peaceful, normal conditions, of strengthening your country, making your people a nation."
In this context, Mr. Hovhannesian said he welcomes the continued efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group to achieve a peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict. "We salute all those approaches that have the idea of a peaceful resolution at their core," he continued. "We must, yes, insist and work on a peaceful resolution. And a peaceful resolution unavoidably requires mutual concessions. It doesn't work that in a peaceful resolution one side gains the maximum. Armenia has repeatedly announced its willingness to engage in mutual concessions. This approach is not alien to us. (I mean to the ARF and to me personally.)"
He did not, however "find it useful for Armenia's president to get ahead and speak of the content of our concessions when we have not heard a word from Azerbaijan about its concessions." He noted that top Azerbaijani officials tell their people that they will concede nothing; "they speak of restoring the Soviet reality in its entirety. This is naturally unacceptable."
A Caucasian Union
The program of the Dashnaktsutiun calls for an integral Armenia that includes the historically Armenian territories now in Turkey and Georgia. What would Mr. Hovhannesian, as president, do to further that program?
"I would, as president, propose to the Georgians to take the example of the European Union and to create a common customs and economic zone: Georgia and Armenia," he said. "Yes. They would freely use our rail facilities and our routes to Iran, etc., and we would freely use their ports. The investments that came to us would encompass Georgia as well."
In this case, he continued, "there could come a moment when the Armenian-Georgian border would lose its essential meaning." He said that the Armenian and Georgian peoples, "after a few thousand years of being neighbors, live side-by-side only in the Javakheti area today. In all the remaining areas, a Turkish belt has inserted itself between us like a wedge. And today, with the Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad, various energy programs, Turkey and Azerbaijan seek to close off the neighborly relations of the Georgian and Armenian peoples, inserting a Turkish-speaking wedge.
Peace with Turkey
"Turkey is another matter," Mr. Hovhannesian continued. "We understand very well that the geopolitical reality that has taken shape over decades cannot be changed easily. And our issue today is not to snatch something from Turkey. Our issue is to have our just cause recognized. When it is recognized, and first of all Turkey recognizes the Genocide, this will bring us unavoidably to the idea of reparations. The idea of reparations can develop in various ways. Our issue, then, because we'd like to resolve these issues peacefully, is to develop the idea of reparations in the right direction."
Mr. Hovhannesian argued that Turks as well as Armenians could benefit from a just resolution of the Turkish-Armenian conflict. Armenians must, he argued, "operate in such a flexible and smart manner with the powers of the world and with Turkey, so that the Turkish people and the Turkish state begin to understand that warming relations with the Armenian people and the Armenian state also benefits them.
"The future will show which points of the ARF program can be achieved in what order and at what time as part of those reparations," he continued. "The position of Armenia in recent years, efforts toward the recognition of the Genocide worldwide, are having very positive results. But if the next president is not Dashnaktsakan," he warned, "we cannot be sure what direction these processes will take and whether we will not experience retreat, which can take us to a dead-end."
Mr. Hovhannesian also noted that the "president takes an oath, upon inauguration, to serve the security of the Republic of Armenia." He added that he would have to work closely with other political forces in Armenia's National Security Council.
The lessons of history
What keeps Mr. Hovhannesian up at night? "There are the issues of today. And then there are the mistakes that have been made in history and what Armenia's destiny would have been if in the 18th century we hadn't done this, and in the 19th century we hadn't done that, and in the early 20th century we had done this, etc. But history is worth nothing if you don't take lessons from it. I take one big lesson from all this: All our shortcomings come from a lack of faith in our own power, and from a lack of willingness to fight for our own rights.
"The difference between a people and a nation is not well understood among us," Mr. Hovhannesian said. "The people are those who live today. The nation is also those who came before, with all the values they created, their legacy, and those who have not yet been born. The nation is the people in history."
He said he would like to see his National Security Council, or a similar body, take the long view. "We, unfortunately, live with today's problems. We don't have a clear picture of tomorrow's challenges because there isn't in Armenia the forum for looking to that future.
Not all the problems in Armenia "have to do with errors in the high echelons of government. Some are rooted in our mentality," he said. "But we will be able to make a difference over five years: a new political culture, greater respect for the self. We have a nation that has constantly been divided into communities artificially; every citizen continues to live for the interests of his community: his family, his extended family, perhaps his village, his compatriotic union. But the consciousness of a common interest is what you must give the people, helping them understand that your personal interest can be realized only when the common interest is moving forward."