By Richard Giragosian
Armenia has never been known for either upholding the democratic standards or conducting truly uncontested free and fair elections, but even on Armenian standards, a controversial vote in the Armenian parliament has seriously undermined, and embarrassed, the country’s already feeble democratic process.
More specifically, as hundreds of demonstrators protested outside of the parliament, the ruling Republican Party demonstrated that to vote in the Armenian parliament, only a majority, and not the rules or procedures count.
After the parliamentary leadership called for an open vote with a show of hands, some 77 deputies from the ruling Republican Party “voted” to approve a highly controversial gas agreement with Russia, which critics consider a serious blow to Armenia’s sovereignty.
While the deal itself was already dubious, it is the manner in which the pro-government bloc forced the result, in violation of the democratic process, which raises even more serious concerns. Moreover, as the parliamentary opposition has pointed out, the conduct of the vote itself was in violation of the rules, and declared that the vote was therefore “null and void.” In a joint statement, they cited the National Assembly’s statutes stipulating that if the electronic system is not used, votes should be counted by a special parliamentary commission, comprised of representatives from all parties in the parliament. Instead, the vote count was done by parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian and his two deputies, with no participation of any opposition or independent deputies.
Thus, the real meaning of today’s incident is the message is sends to those aspiring to a more democratic Armenia: “not so fast.” But for those idealists who have not yet given up the fight for democracy, and for those opposition deputies fighting to defend the democratic process, the message is even louder: “NOT SO FAST.”
The issue was the ratification of a deal that was signed during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Armenia, and that formalized the sale of the Armenian government’s 20 percent share in the domestic gas distribution network to Russia’s Gazprom monopoly. In return, Gazprom promised to write off a $300 million which the government has incurred as a result of secretly subsidizing the price of Russian natural gas supplied to Armenia since 2011.
More importantly, the deal stipulates that the current and future Armenian governments cannot raise taxes or make any other changes in the regulatory environment for the Gazprom-owned network until January 2044. The Armenian side is also obliged to ensure that domestic gas tariffs in the country are high enough for Gazprom to recoup 9 percent of its capital investments in the network annually, which the media lambasted as undeserved and “unprecedented privileges” for Russia.
Clearly, a difficult year is ahead for Armenia.
Richard Giragosian is the Director of Regional Studies Center