While President Serzh Sargsyan’s administration touts Armenia’s pending accession to the Russia-led Customs Union as likely to usher in an era of prosperity for the South Caucasus country, rights activists assert that when it comes to democratization, Customs Union membership means Yerevan will take “one step forward, two steps back.”
The founding members of the Customs Union – Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus – all feature authoritarian-minded political systems, in which freedom of expression is restricted, the judicial systems are firmly under executive control and non-governmental organization activists and independent journalists are generally viewed by officials as subversive elements.
Watchdog groups have offered plentiful criticism of the Armenian government’s democratization record since the 1991 Soviet collapse, but activists note authorities have made significant progress in some areas. Armenian legislation, for instance, now permits alternative military service and provides for equal gender rights.
Some reforms of the judicial system have begun to address complaints about institutional independence -- on pension reform, the constitutional court this year ruled against the government – and alleged police abuses. In addition, grassroots protests in Yerevan have led to changes in city-government policy, while greater attention also has begun to be paid to the widespread abuse of military conscripts.
Currently, the Washington, DC-based organization Freedom House gives Armenia a “partly free” ranking for its observance of democratic norms, but deems Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus “not free.” With Armenia set to join the Customs Union in the near future, some independent rights activists, including Zara Hovhannisian, believe Yerevan is going to come under pressure from other members to roll back political freedoms.
“We are facing tough times since we have rejected democratic processes and are entering a club where an authoritarian regime is enforced, just like in Russia and Belarus, where human rights organizations and activists are exposed to harassment,” said Hovhannisian. “We are moving to an area where we are going to lose ground.”
The Customs Union will do nothing to halt police use of violence, cases of abuse and harassment of investigation targets, and election fraud, among other weak areas, contended Artur Sakunts, head of the Vanadzor office of the Helsinki Civil Assembly and an outspoken government critic. “The Customs Union has nothing to offer but another exercise in dictatorship.”
“High-ranking officials in Russia have repeatedly stated that measures will be taken against those who speak against the Eurasian Union, and this threat is directly aimed at us as well,” added Sakunts.
A senior member of the governing Republican Party of Armenia argues that such concerns are misplaced. “We won't suffer any losses in terms of human rights and democracy after joining the Customs Union,” said 37-year-old parliamentarian Hovhannes Sahakian. “The Armenian government is determined to build a law-abiding and democratic state.”
Customs Union regulations do not contain provisions covering freedom of competition, independent judicial systems, or civil-rights guidelines. Some might say that is because the Customs Union involves an economic merger; not a political merger. But some Armenian critics see no such distinction.
“After 23 years of independence, we are facing the danger of losing our sovereignty and national security,” worried Avetik Ishkhanian, head of the non-profit Helsinki Committee in Armenia, a rights-monitoring group that receives funding from the Open Society Foundation-Armenia. [Editor’s Note: The Helsinki Committee receives funding from the Open Society Foundation-Armenia, which is part of the Soros foundations network. Eurasianet operates under the auspices of the Open Society Foundation in New York, a separate part of the Soros network.]
“One of the most important features of a legal state is predictability, a lack of ambiguity,” Sakunts said. “These principles are not secured in the regulations of the Customs Union.” Sahakian, the pro-government MP, refuted Sakunts’ claim as an exaggeration. “I do not understand why human-rights activists are in a panic,” he said.
The European Union, which continues to run civil-rights-related programs in Armenia and recommends various reforms, has said that it is not closing the door on the country. For his part, President Sargsyan stated in a February interview with the Czech newspaper Lidové Noviny that Yerevan intends to continue “productively cooperating” with the EU in such areas as the “reinforcement of democratic institutions, protection of human rights and others.” Reforms will “successfully continue,” he repeated on April 14, without specification.
But, after six years of such statements, some ordinary Armenians are skeptical. “Our government is doing everything the Kremlin wants, like marionettes,” scoffed 35-year-old lawyer Nvard Mnatsakanian. “Who will believe that the reforms will continue? The main idea [for authorities] is to keep everyone under control.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.