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  • Armenia’s New Autocrats
  • Ian Bremmer (bio) and Cory Welt (bio)

While the postcommunist states have experienced no dearth of twists and turns, few have seen changes as abrupt as those in Armenia. During the era of glasnost’, nationalist and prodemocratic movements regularly attracted Armenia’s best and brightest, such as the veteran dissidents who stood at the forefront of mass demonstrations supporting Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. When the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, Armenia’s future seemed bright. There was strong grassroots support for democracy, a weak communist apparat, and no serious ethnic division. These favorable conditions, plus a wealthy diaspora in the West, raised hopes that Armenia would soon adopt democratic and economic reform.

Such, however, was not to be Armenia’s fate. War with Azerbaijan broke out over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous, heavily Armenian enclave completely surrounded by Azeri territory. The war cast a shadow across Armenia’s immediate postindependence prospects. Adding to the challenge of mobilizing for Karabakh’s defense was the energy-import blockade that Azerbaijan and Turkey imposed. Already strained by Soviet disintegration, Armenia’s economy was soon reduced to barter, crime, and starvation. Chaos threatened. The government, led by the very dissidents who had spearheaded Armenia’s drive to independence, turned toward tight centralized rule.

After an uneasy cease-fire brought the fighting to a halt in May 1994 with the Karabakh army in control not only of the enclave but also of a large portion of Azeri territory, a semblance of normality returned to Armenia. Many observers believed that Armenia’s political development would pick up where it had left off in 1991. But such hopes were [End Page 77] dashed, as members of the ruling Armenian National Movement (ANM) discovered the benefits that centralized rule could bring to those building a state from scratch. Obsessed by power and the prospect of vast wealth, governing elites sacrificed their population in order to secure the ANM’s political hegemony and attendant economic rewards. In so doing, Soviet Armenia’s national heroes became independent Armenia’s autocrats.

President Levon Ter-Petrosian had become Armenia’s first popularly elected chief executive in 1991. After he won another term in a flagrantly undemocratic September 1996 race, opposition protest threatened to turn into full-scale rebellion. Although he had managed to stay in power, Ter-Petrosian had also squandered what had been considerable popularity. To shore up domestic support, he reshuffled his government, released jailed opposition leaders, and started talks with banned political parties. Such largely cosmetic moves, however, were undergirded by a more serious shift—the appointment of Robert Kocharyan, president of Nagorno-Karabakh, to the Armenian premiership. By playing on nationalist sentiment, Ter-Petrosian was seeking to regain the public support that he had lost through antidemocratic rule.

Whether this tactic can succeed is unclear. It is more certain that Armenia’s turn toward nationalism, if unaccompanied by an embrace of democracy, bodes ill for the Transcaucasus as a whole. In direct control of the region’s most effective fighting force (the Karabakh army), and free to govern as he pleases, Ter-Petrosian may be tempted to provoke a renewal of the Armenian-Azeri conflict to secure domestic gains. If he does so, prospects for a lasting peace in the region will be dim.

The ANM’s Rise to Power

The ANM’s roots in Armenian society run deep. On 24 April 1965, the Opera Theater in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, hosted an official commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the genocidal massacres that Ottoman troops inflicted on Armenians during the First World War. While a carefully orchestrated ceremony took place inside, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered outside to petition the Soviet government to help Armenians regain territories lost to Turkey as a result of that war. The protestors’ demands evoked a typical response: police broke up the rally and jailed scores of participants.

The rally provoked a flurry of nationalist and democratic activity, especially among the young. A pro-independence movement, the National Unification Party, was organized in 1966; its founders were arrested two years later. Less radical movements seeking democratic reform emerged at the State University in Yerevan and from local...