Monthly Archives: June 2012

Healthcare

I’m posting this primarily because of the massive news in the US that the Affordable Care Act survived Supreme Court review. While this may be a step on the path of providing health insurance for all Americans, it isn’t universal healthcare, a standard of many European countries. One of the common arguments against universal healthcare in the US is that we can’t afford it.

Now here comes poor little Armenia planning on having a majority of its citizens enjoying universal healthcare in 5-10 years. If Armenia can do it, then the US can too.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Internal Politics

Weapons, Weapons Everywhere

Many Americans bemoan America’s lost manufacturing might. Regardless of the fact that that view is false, one area that has always been strong is America’s military hardware output. In the last fiscal year, the State Department approved $44.28 billion in arms shipments to 173 nations. This level of selling makes the US the world’s main provider of conventional weaponry.

One limitation of US military sales is that, by tradition, all buyer countries must be approved by the State Department.

This is significant because today the State Department provided a list to Congress that didn’t include Azerbaijan. The sale to Azerbaijan was already in the plans, making this change surprising. Israel is selling $1.6 billion worth of weapons to Azerbaijan to check Iran and there’s no reason US wouldn’t want to follow suit. As the Armenian National Committee of America points out, the recent Azerbaijani attack coincided with Senator Clinton’s visit to Armenia. While Clinton doesn’t seem like someone who would react brashly to such an incident, maybe this change of heart is meant to punish Azerbaijan for their use of force.

Leave a comment

Filed under Foreign Affairs

Genocide Recognition

One of the constant issues on Armenia’s foreign policy agenda, especially for the Diaspora, is genocide recognition. Currently, 21 states in the world recognize the Genocide with countless sub-national entities (e.g. US states). To Armenians, the minimal recognition is the equivalent to state-level Holocaust Denial and must be corrected immediately.*

The big limiting factor on recognition is the pressure from Turkey. Turkey criminalizes recognition of the Genocide and fines people that speak only about it. Turkey is also a populous state, geographically strategic, a NATO ally, a regional powerhouse, growing economy, supporting the West’s view on the Syrian conflict and generally is a state you’d rather have on your side than against it. In contrast, Armenia is a tiny corrupt landlocked country that doesn’t even have a domestic violence law.

While the US is still disappointing Armenia, there has been movement in France and Israel on recognition.

In December 2011, the French National Assembly passed a bill that would criminalize the denial of officially recognized genocides, which includes the Armenian Genocide. This was the second time that the National Assembly took on this topic. In 2006, the National Assembly passed a similar bill but it died in the Senate. This time, the Senate also passed the bill. In response, Turkey suspended military cooperation and threatened to pull out of joint economic deals. Much to Turkey’s pleasure the French Constitutional Court struck the bill down.**

Round two began with the Socialist Hollande promising to bring back the bill in March and Hollande winning the presidency in May. After his election, Hollande promised that the genocide law is on the table but it faced “constraints.” At the same time, Hollande is opening a “new page” in Turkey-France relations by being the first French President to visit in 20 years. In response, Turkey dropped their sanctions and resumed military ties with France. While the Armenian community in France is quite vocal, it’s unclear how much Hollande will pursue the law when it comes with such high geopolitical costs. There are still members of the National Assembly that are working on passing the law, but it’s unclear if they’ll need or have the president’s outspoken support. [Update from July 7: Looks like the law is dead. Update from July 9: Now it looks like the law might make a come back.]

The other state where things are moving is Israel. Israel’s Knesset spent a session discussing whether to recognize the Armenian Genocide. As with France, Israel hasn’t wanted to strain relations with Turkey, but after the Gaza flotilla raid, those relations are already pretty strained. While it may seem natural for the Jewish state to recognize another genocide, the Anti-Defamation League didn’t recognize the Armenian Genocide until after protests in 2007 and is still against official American recognition.

Also important for Israel is its relationship with Azerbaijan and Armenia’s relationship with Iran. Israel and Azerbaijan are close and recognition will undoubtedly anger Azerbaijan (I apologize for the link to a blatantly anti-Armenian website). At the same time, Armenia is never ever going to do anything that could anger its ally Iran. With such little geopolitical benefit and much cost, it’s not surprising that Israel hasn’t and likely won’t recognize the genocide anytime soon.

* Please note that I have no interest in engaging in a historical discussion about whether or not there was an Armenian Genocide.

** For the record, while I am in favor of official recognition of the Genocide, I’m very hesitant to apply criminal sanctions to speech. The American approach of absolute protection of speech protects an excessive amount of socially detrimental speech including genocide denial. The American logic is that good speech can’t be separated with the bad and that no one should be able to judge what is good or bad speech. This, in my opinion, is too cautious of an approach and protects too much detrimental speech for the amount of positive speech that is protected.

Legitimate good-faith attempts to better understand history, which can include challenging core beliefs if those beliefs aren’t supported by evidence, should be protected. My worry is that criminalizing certain speech could stifle too much of this good-faith speech. A more balanced approach is to not criminalize certain speech but not to protect it (e.g. hate speech can be unprotected but not criminal).

The Genocide Memorial in Yerevan

The Genocide Memorial in Yerevan

Leave a comment

Filed under Foreign Affairs

Elections: Final Statement

This post is the conclusion of this, this, and this post.

This is the final post on the May 6 National Assembly Elections. The net result is that the predicted storm of fury, criticism and calls for a do-over never came. Don’t get me wrong, the opposition parties still raise the issue of election rigging, but there haven’t been protests in the streets like after the 2008 presidential election. The people have accepted the results for better or for worse.

There is no doubt in my mind that this election is the best election Armenia has had in terms of legality and legitimacy. The fact that this more legitimate election changed very little in the National Assembly sticks a feather in the Republican’s cap: they can win through rampant vote stuffing and thuggery as well as through the less awful gift giving and vote buying.

My viewpoint above is not universal. There are some international groups that think that “voters showed even less confidence in the election process [than in previous elections]” like the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly. Thankfully, I do have some heavy weights on my side including the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Republic of Armenia.

Today, the Human Rights Ombudsman releases his report on the elections. The one sentence summary is that the elections were pretty good. There were hundreds of complaints of violations but many of the complaints were minor (e.g. the ballot boxes were not at least 1 meter apart from each other), especially compared to the last election.

The biggest concern that’s highlighted in the report is that while the Armenian people were willing to call in cases of violations, the police were simply not willing to investigate the cases. In complaint after complaint, the police say that they investigated and were not able to verify the complaint and thus dismissed it. Supposedly, the police interview all witnesses before determining there is a lack of evidence. However, my friend and Birthright Armenia alum Greg Bilazarian not only reported possible fraud, but recorded it and published it through the well known and respected CivilNet. He contacted the police at 6:45pm; no one came even though the election was still ongoing. Eventually he got a letter from the police basically saying “nobody saw anything.” Somehow, the police were able to come to this investigatory conclusion even though they never even attempted to interview Greg, the main witness to the fraud!

Undoubtedly, there are also concerns listed about the Central Election Committee and the Prosecutor’s Office, but possible failings of these institutes are masked by the failings of the police. The failing of the police to properly investigate the complaints, whether from ineptitude or political corruption, stunts whatever faith the people can have in the police. The few cases where the police themselves pressure complainants to drop their complaint doesn’t help (see pages 14-15 of the report). This lack of faith has massive negative ripple effects throughout society, especially as the police are being given new responsibilities to deal with new challenges (e.g. the domestic violence law).

Addendum: It turns out the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights released their report on the same day. It’s available here. Very briefly, they comment on but avoid discussing the irregularities and instead provide technical advise for the next election.

Addendum 2: I want to be clear that there were still huge amounts of corruption occurring during the election, predominantly in the form of vote buying. My above analysis isn’t about making a holistic evaluation as to whether the election truly represents the will of the people, but whether the election procedure was followed well. Both election reports focus on the technicals of the election (the OSCE on the direct functioning of the election, the Ombudsman’s on the number, type and institutional responses to the individual complaints received), and I limit my analysis to that sphere.

Voting stamp

The stamp one gets in their passport to stop one from voting again.

1 Comment

Filed under Elections, Internal Politics

Out with the Old, in with the New

Please note that this post may stem entirely from my western developed-country bias, and I want to acknowledge that early on.

I’m painting in a very broad stroke when I say that the people of Armenia, as well as people in most developing countries, are always looking at the new and not interested in the old. This was clear when I asked a coworker where I could find a store that sold old classic soviet watches. He told me that no one here wants old soviet things and my best chance was to go to Vernissage [the largest flea market in Armenia with lots of pieces of art mixed in with other things] where they have lots of old things (he didn’t use the word junk, but it’s clear he had zero interest in such things).

Now combine this interest in the new with the promise of wealth and corruption and you have Yerevan’s construction industry. After a 52% drop in the construction industry during the global economic crisis, construction in Yerevan is booming again. As there isn’t much available land, especially in the center, anytime something new goes up, something old comes down.

A recent example is a historic covered market that was sold to the oligarch Samvel Alexanyan, who has a monopoly on sugar and flour imports. Even though the Mayor says the destruction of the market isn’t authorized, he didn’t stop it. Fortunately, a special committee formed by the city and national government has said that the destruction must stop.  However, the committee based its views on violations by the contractor, implying that Alexanyan will be able to continue as soon as he resolves these violations.

A protest march was held to protect all of Yerevan’s cultural monuments including the covered market. How much the protesters will be able to protect historic buildings is unclear. Armenia is past the days of blatant cronyism surrounding the forced expulsion from people that used to live on what is now Northern Avenue. Protests at the time were powerless to stop it. While things are better, that eviction is only one of many where families were evicted without sufficient compensation to find a new home within the city. Perhaps the best hope for the protestors is to cynically point to the luxurious apartments of Northern Avenue that sit empty as the expected rush of rich Diasporans and Iranians never appeared.

In contrast, one of the reasons Armenians hate the Azeris so much is because of their disregard for Armenian’s culture and history. Azeris lived in some of the lands that were outside of the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous oblast that are now a part of Artsakh, which held old Armenian churches and graveyards. The Azeris had no respect for those structures and cut up the khachcars (stone crosses) and used the pieces as building material.

2 Comments

Filed under Urban Development

Artsakh’s Airline

Palestine has recently resumed its national airline. While it only flies biweekly and to only two airports, it’s a significant step for Palestine. It will lower the distance the people of Gaza have to travel to get on a plane, and it can become a source of pride and a symbol of the state of Palestine.

Artsakh is trying to do the very same thing. The airline will only travel from the Artsakh capitol city of Stepanakert to Yerevan, but that flight will shave hours from the current ~8 hour bus ride that’s often treacherous in winter. The flight will cost about 40,000 Dram ($100) and should be operational within a month. The airport is built to international standards and it is only the finalization of international agreements that’s delaying the start date. Well, that and that Azerbaijan has threatened to shoot down any planes (including civilian) from Artsakh.

The Armenian President Serzh Sarksian, who is from Artsakh, has stated he’ll be on the first plane.  In the worst case scenario, this could lead to a full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Leave a comment

Filed under Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Regional Politics

“A woman is like wool, the more you beat her, the softer she’ll be.”

Domestic Violence is a problem in Armenia. A major problem. Amnesty did a great report in 2008 on the problem and not much has progressed on the issue. The problem isn’t just the Armenian code is backwards (which it is), but that the Armenian people haven’t had an honest discussion on discrimination. This includes diasporans as well.

The conversation began with the killing of 20-year old Zaruhi Petrosyan by her husband in 2010. Zaruhi was constantly beaten by her husband and mother-in-law. The husband and mother-in-law wanted to exhort money and generally to cause suffering to someone below them. She even went to the police multiple times but they did nothing.

The police say they get very few calls on domestic violence, implying there is no problem, but the police here are not regarded as generally useful. In non-gendered disputes between private citizens, the view is that the police will support whoever pays the larger bribe. In gendered disputes, police are much much more likely to believe the man rather than the woman (see the quote in the picture below). In fact, non-marital rape is low in Armenia not because perpetrators are worried about female victims calling the police but because she’ll call her father, brothers, and uncles who will kill the perpetrator.

Recently, the horrible story of Mariam Gevorgyan’s 10 months of abuse at the hands of her former husband and mother-in-law came out. Mariam, unlike most victims of domestic violence here, told her story to the police and is pushing for criminal punishment for what happened to her. Unfortunately, her former husband was cleared of charges in an amnesty and the case against the mother-in-law isn’t going forward smoothly. Fortunately, there are relevant NGOs that are raising attention on the case including conducting protests in front of the President’s Office. she’s going to court again today and the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women will be protesting in front of the courtroom.

"Women, Do not be afraid to speak up."

I’m in the fortunate position where I’m able to do something about this. The Government of Armenia is currently drafting a law on domestic violence. No longer will traditional, gender-insensitive, and insufficient criminal laws (e.g. battery) be the only legal tools to combat against domestic violence. The Human Rights Ombudsman has the mandate to provide recommendations on draft laws with human rights impacts. As the only native English speaker in the legal analysis office, my task is to review international best practices to ensure the draft law meets international standards. I’ve reviewed relevant UN handbooks, recommendations from CEDAW and UPR to Armenia, and discussions with people connected with local women-focused NGOs. If anyone has any recommendations for what should belong in the law, please contact me. I can’t release a copy of the draft law, but I’m willing to work with anyone to ensure this law is as good as possible to combat domestic violence.

1 Comment

Filed under Women's Rights