Armenia Strengthens Democracy as Turkey Elects a Dictator

Two historic rivals. Two historic referendums. One nation converted to a parliamentary republic. The other reduced parliament into a rubber stamp, subservient to an increasingly powerful and maniacal strongman President. Democracy grows stronger in the new Armenia while Turkey slides further into a dictatorship.

The Palace or The Promise?

Echoes of the Ottoman-era abound in a Turkey returning to old form. Ak Saray – which translates to ‘White Palace’ – was completed in 2015. Ak Saray is the largest palace built in 100 years with a price tag larger than the Gross Domestic Product of Belgium. But what’s 500 million Euros to a Sultan? Especially if financed by the subjects, or as the modern world would call them, tax-payers. Not convinced such opulence is possible in our era? Guy Adams for The Daily Mail elaborates on the avarice…

Perched atop a hill overlooking the city and completed three years ago, the Ak Saray — White Palace — extends to an astonishing 1,100 rooms, some 250 of which are for the sole use of the moustachioed 63-year-old and his immediate family.

Set in ornamental gardens and floodlit at night, when it’s visible to most of Ankara’s 4.5 million residents, the White Palace sends a clear message: President Erdogan covets absolute, unquestioned power.

Ak Saray - White Palace - Ankara, Turkey

Two out of every three children in Turkey live in abject poverty and more than two million people scrape by on less than £3 a day. That hasn’t stopped President Erdogan from spending £500,000 on his winter heating bill.

It is not only from within Turkey illustrations of the Ottoman era can be seen. An international audience will be able to witness for themselves what we may have to look forward to in the “New Ottoman Turkey”.


The Promise will debut worldwide this Friday, April 21. From the director of Hotel Rwanda, The Promise is similarly inspired by true events. Set in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, a powerful story of love, fear, and genocide against an entire people will hit theaters for a global audience to connect with. The Young Turks government carried out the murder and displacement of over 1.5 million Armenian Christians between 1915-1917. Historians and a growing list of nations including

The Young Turks government carried out the murder and displacement of over 1.5 million Armenian Christians between 1915-1917. Historians and a growing list of nations including Germany have labeled it “Genocide.”

Sadly many of the themes on display in the “Old” Turkey will be familiar to those observing events in Turkey today. Extreme Nationalism and unquestioning loyalty to a single man, the power of the mob, and abusive social chauvinism aimed at everyone from Greeks and Armenians to Turkey’s own Kurds.

To be called an Armenian in the Sultans realm was considered an insult in the 20th century. Not much has changed for Erdogan or his base…they said even uglier things: They called me an Armenian!

“They called me a Georgian. Pardon me for saying this, but they said even uglier things: They called me an Armenian!” Erdogan said.

“Excuse me, but please go and become the president of another country,” wrote prominent Turkish-Armenian columnist Hayko Bagdat in an angry response to Erdogan.

Armenians and Turks alike are taking part in new intra-political discourses. What those discourse shares in common? A reaffirmation of history. Where they differ is in how they have chosen to present their history and what role they have determined history should have in their futures.

Armenia looks to the future, Turkey to the past

While Armenians begin with the shared goal of preserving their heritage and building awareness in the world of the trauma they escaped, they end on a positive note and focus on the strides they have made in the Republic and abroad in the Diaspora to overcome the injuries of history. Increasingly they have developed liberal norms, and have shown through the power of the ballot box that they seek a more democratic future and friendly relations with both the East and West.

(Photo via MSNBC) People participate in a torchlight procession through the city to commemorate the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

Turks, especially the Islamist AK Party and Erdogan-insiders have with increasing frequency chosen to glorify the Ottoman and Young Turk past. Islamist mobs have pressured civil society, including the media, academia, and civil service to tow the line or be banished by pro-government mouthpieces who are ready to take their place and cast out dissenters. Erdogan will alone be able to dismiss judges and military commanders at will when the new constitutional amendments go into effect in 2019.

The Prime Minister-turned-President has isolated Turkey from the world, whether Europe to its West, Russia to the North, the governments of Syria and Iraq on the southern border, or with the continued provocations directed at their neighbor to the East, Armenia, often through Azeri aggression.

One of these nations is dealing with a historical grievance that should be recognized by the world. The other moves backward politically and socially in an effort to recreate some past glory. The Turkish government shifts between focusing abroad as the spokesmen for the “Ummah” (as they considered themselves this in Ottoman times) and cultivating at home deeply chauvinist attitudes about the rest of the world, particularly the West, international institutions, and any leader that stands in the way of a muscular foreign policy.

Armenia’s Democracy, Turkey’s Dictatorship

But nowhere is the diverge between these two nations more on display than in how the Republics of Armenia and Turkey handled their respective referendums. Both nations have changed their constitution. Armenia on December 6, 2015, voted to became a parliamentary republic. Turkey held an April 16, 2017, referendum that abolished the position of the Prime Minister and expanded further the powers of the executive branch headed by Erdogan. Armenia has empowered its parliament, Turkey has suppressed it.

Armenia’s Empowered Parliament

The Presidency became a largely symbolic position, and since the referendum, democratic reform has become a dominant theme of government, showcased critically in the April 2017 Parliamentary elections. They were the most competitive to date since the 1991 establishment of independence. The Prime Minister continues to hail from the founding Party in Armenia, the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), but

The Prime Minister continues to hail from the founding Party in Armenia, the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), but Karen Karapetyan is a relatively new face compared to the alternatives that have long-held the most important elected positions in Armenia.

Karen Karapetyan, the new Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia casts his ballot in the competitive April 2017 elections.

Karen Karapetyan, the new Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia casts his ballot in the competitive April 2017 elections.

This progress may not have been possible without the Armenian government agreeing to support many of the recommendations made in the aftermath of the referendum by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

“We welcome Armenia’s willingness to follow-up on our electoral recommendations in an inclusive and open manner,” said Richard Lappin, ODIHR Senior Election Adviser. “ODIHR is ready to support this process, including through the review of draft or final amendments to electoral legislation.”

Discussions focussed on ODIHR recommendations to build a broad consensus on legal amendments, improve the accuracy of voter registration, strengthen campaign finance regulations and review electoral dispute resolution procedures.

These recommendations were broadly implemented, and the April 2017 Parliamentary elections were welcomed by most of the world and international organizations as fair and free. The ruling RPA continues to hold an edge, but it is no longer as predominant and three other coalition blocs are now in Parliament.

Republican Party of Armenia (RPA)—which maintains its majority of seats after gaining 49% of the 1.5 million votes that were cast—the Tsarukyan bloc—with just under 28% of the votes—the Yelk bloc—which scored around 7.8%–and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF)—which ended up with around 6.6%.

It was not certain that Armenia would reach this new pinnacle. In 1991 Armenia, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the nation became an independent Republic. the Presidency was the most powerful political position as it was a Presidential system of government. The Republic Party of Armenia (RPA), a centrist and business-friendly political party has governed Armenia for most of its short history as a post-Soviet state.

Armenia maintained its cultural vibrancy even after Soviet Union funding for the arts and education disappeared. However, complaints about corruption became a problem in the nation of 3.5 million. Business, many felt, was too intertwined with government. The first-class education system Armenia enjoyed during the Soviet period was fading and subpar standards were becoming accepted. At the same time Armenia was reclaiming full independence it was facing a scarring war with Azerbaijan, which sought to control the ethnically Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The war had devastating effects on commercial and social life in Armenia. But Armenia, it appears, seems ready to move forward to a brighter future.

At the same time Armenia was reclaiming full independence it was facing a scarring war with Azerbaijan, which sought to control the ethnically Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The war had devastating effects on commercial and social life in Armenia. But Armenia, it appears, seems ready to move forward to a brighter future.

The Opera House in Yerevan, Armenia continues to be a landmark attraction for cultural life in Armenia.

The Prime Minister recently met with a delegation from the IMF, which received him as a reformer ready to attract foreign investment, reduce the shadows in the tax code, and develop a 5-year development plan with “ambitious landmarks“, the PM said.

“Besides the fact that we have had a quantitative increase in our own revenue, we can see a qualitative change: the shadow is being brought into the field of taxation. We have given up the practice of prepayment. Moreover, those entities that had long-standing advance payments are gradually depleting it. A number of VAT-return-related decisions have been adopted to reduce the return period, etc. We will strive to broaden the taxation field and introduce the principle of fair play in the SRC system. We are firmly determined and confident that we will achieve our goal,” the Premier said.

Two decades after the war and malaise of the 1990s, Armenia is prospering economically and politically. Armenia, if it can continue to hold to the principles of accountable government, economic growth, and friendly relations with both east and west, is likely to become even more democratic and prosperous in the future.

Turkey suppresses parliamentary democracy

Turkey is a much larger nation than Armenia. The Turkish population has grown to 80 million. President Erdogan has at times inexplicably thrown this number around as a threat to other nations. That said, it will surely continue to have a much larger economy than Armenia. This is not a comparison of size, as Erdogan may like to assert, but of political development, economic opportunity, and social openness.

In these respects, Turkey is sliding behind its historic rival. Indeed a growing population is worrying if the economy can’t afford to support it. Foreign investment has reduced. Tourism has dramatically decreased year-over-year. Conflicts in the region which Turkey has embroiled itself in are having a negative impact on stability at home.

The solution thus far in Turkey has been to root out opposition by brute force and concentrate power into the hands of the executive office headed by President Erdogan, who can, because of the referendum, conceivably remain in power until 2029, almost 30 years after becoming Prime Minister (by 2019, the position of PM will no longer exist).

The OSCE and much of Europe was dismayed by the climate of fear the referendum campaign was carried out amidst. Further, allegations of ballot box stuffing and irregularities in legal determinations were widespread. The OSCE released this scathing statement

The 16 April constitutional referendum took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities. Voters were not provided with impartial information about key aspects of the reform, and civil society organizations were not able to participate. Under the state of emergency put in place after the July 2016 failed coup attempt, fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed. The dismissal or detention of thousands of citizens negatively affected the political environment. One side’s dominance in the coverage and restrictions on the media reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views.

The words of the international community or global institutions are unlikely to have any impact on how President Erdogan’s AKP-dominated government represents itself. Turkey seems destined to slide into a dictatorship, where Islamist social norms are enforced on what was once a secular public. Where power is concentrated into the hands of one man who doles it out to those who support his agenda. And where vital elements of opposition from civil society are suppressed.

Conclusion

As Armenia becomes more free and favorable towards democracy and building goodwill abroad while celebrating its communities ability to overcome one challenge after another, Turkey has chosen to face challenges with a blunt object glued to the hand of Erdogan. Armenia will become more like a European Democracy, while Turkey turns into a Middle East dictatorship.

This path, for either nation, was not predetermined. There was a time when Armenia seemed helplessly under the reign of foreign interests and was unable to escape corruption. Turkey too at one point took its secular republican values seriously and welcomed foreigners and political discourse.

Those days seem far behind. Tens of thousands have been jailed and the state of emergency seems a permanent fixture of Turkish governance. As Armenia thaws from a long winter, Turkey enters a bitter period in its history, dreaming of past glory but failing in the most rudimentary services a good government should promote. Perhaps most concerning, President Erdogan will with the new constitution have the capabilities to carry out his objective of recreating a Tukey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

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