Armenia’s California Dream

The unlikely candidate shaking up the country's political establishment.


The scenario seems all too familiar for a former Soviet republic: An incumbent uses machine politics to secure reelection, Western observers cautiously praise progress but note shortcomings to be fixed in the future, and the opposition campaign gathers supporters to protest the outcome. Welcome to Armenia, where on Feb. 18, incumbent Serzh Sargsyan officially secured nearly 59 percent of the vote to the main runner-up’s 37 percent.

But what makes Armenia different is the challenger, Raffi Hovannisian — or just Raffi, as he is known to nearly everyone in Armenia. This American-born Georgetown Law graduate has shaken up the politics of his adopted homeland. Defying widespread expectations that he was too foreign to rally support in Armenian elections, the 53-year-old Hovannisian won more votes than any presidential challenger since independence. His success has thrown Armenia into a fresh political tumult. Tens of thousands continue to protest daily within the country and throughout the Armenian diaspora, with another protest held by Diaspora Armenians in Los Angeles this past weekend.

Some observers have pointed to the correlation between higher turnout and more votes for Sargsyan, but that more likely reflects local vote mobilization by the ruling party than clear evidence of fraud. Nonetheless, Hovannisian filed an official challenge of the election results in the country’s Constitutional Court on March 4.

Although Armenians have widely contested the electoral outcome, U.S. President Barack Obama and leaders of the European Union, Russia, and even Turkey have all congratulated Sargsyan, citing positive reviews by international observers.

They "can say whatever they want," Hovannisian shot back. "I’m telling them, ‘I respect you, but don’t you dare to breach [our citizens’] rights.… I won’t allow you to. And let nobody teach me lessons of American, Western, or Russian democracy and law because the Armenian citizens are the masters of our country."

Rallying his supporters after the election, Hovannisian said he will seek to overturn the official results and indefinitely continue peaceful street demonstrations throughout Armenia. Small groups of protesters have also shown up at Armenian diplomatic missions in Los Angeles and New York.

"This popular struggle will not die down. We will achieve victory," Hovannisian repeatedly promised. Despite nearly half the population favoring a change of government, it remains unclear how such a victory could be achieved.

Graduating from Georgetown University’s law school in 1985, Hovannisian began what appeared a typical path for an international corporate lawyer. The white-shoe firms of Hill, Farrer & Burrill, Whitman & Ransom, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, and Coudert Brothers all appear on his résumé.

But Hovannisian’s life took an atypical turn after the devastating earthquake that struck Armenia in December 1988. Unable to cope with tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands homeless, the Soviet Union opened up to international aid, driven in significant part by diaspora Armenian communities in the United States.

Armenia had always been part of Hovannisian’s life. His father, Richard, is an authority on Armenian history who recently retired from the University of California/Los Angeles. His grandparents are both survivors of that all-engrossing Armenian experience of genocide in Turkey. He grew up learning the Armenian language and stories of the country’s tragedies and perseverance. And with Armenia suddenly accessible and in peril, Hovannisian, then 30, quit law and moved his young family from California to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, where he went to work for the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA) as its in-country relief coordinator.

"Hovannisian was one of the early diaspora pioneers returning to serve and live in the homeland," remembers Ross Vartian, Hovannisian’s boss and the AAA’s director from the 1970s to early 2000s. "He was one of the Armenian Assembly’s most talented, informed, and dedicated staff members." The AAA soon became a key link between Armenia and the world, organizing and funding first visits by leaders of the newly independent Armenia to the United States. In Armenia’s first few years, the country’s embassy in the United States operated out of the AAA’s Washington headquarters, and the AAA’s Yerevan office for a time hosted Armenia’s only fax machine.

In effect, the AAA was serving as the country’s de facto foreign ministry, so it wasn’t too surprising following independence in 1991 when President Levon Ter-Petrosyan made things official and invited Hovannisian to become Armenia’s foreign minister — a remarkable appointment given that he wasn’t even an Armenian citizen at the time. The stint proved relatively brief, as Hovannisian’s popularity as an activist diplomat soon began to overshadow the increasingly withdrawn Ter-Petrosyan, who was seen as unable to deal with an ever-expanding economic crisis exacerbated by the ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and fighting in Georgia that cut off landlocked Armenia’s routes to the world.

In October 1992, after Hovannisian raised the extremely controversial subject of the genocide on a trip to Turkey (at a time when Armenia was facing famine and when other officials were begging their counterparts in Ankara to sell them grain), he was let go.

Rather than return to the life of a well-to-do Los Angeles lawyer, Hovannisian stayed put, establishing the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS), the country’s first think tank. His wife founded a charity for homeless children.

For a while, Hovannisian could not take part in Armenian politics, as first Ter-Petrosyan and then his successor, Robert Kocharyan, declined to grant him citizenship. This dragged on until 2001, when finally after much cajoling and many court appeals, Kocharyan relented and Hovannisian officially became an Armenian citizen, surrendering his U.S. passport. But the caveat was that he would be ineligible to run for president until after 2011, well past Kocharyan’s second and final term.

That didn’t stop Hovannisian from entering politics. He roared back into Armenia’s political life during the 2007 parliamentary elections, after which his newly established Heritage party — composed of local lawyers, human rights activists, educators, and ACNIS researchers — formed what a WikiLeaked U.S. Embassy cable called a "true oppositional force in parliament" with a "moderate, reformist political agenda."

Heritage didn’t do as well in the May 2012 parliamentary vote, and it was eclipsed by an alliance led by former President Ter-Petrosyan as well as by a new faction, led by businessman-turned-philanthropist Gagik Tsarukyan, that sapped away Hovannisian’s support from Armenians who had come to see the government as too powerful and unaccountable. Even after both Tsarukyan and Ter-Petrosyan bowed out of this year’s presidential campaign, most local and foreign observers dismissed Hovannisian’s chances and claimed that Sargsyan’s reelection was a foregone conclusion. Remarkably, one of the main Western-observer criticisms of the election — presumably written well before vote results — was the alleged "lack of competition."

Armenian political parties tend to be focused more on individuals than ideologies — though Heritage has promised more taxes on the wealthy and anti-corruption initiatives. Other than a minority of die-hard patriots, most local Armenians always looked on Hovannisian with either incredulity or suspicion. About a million Armenians left the country during and since the crises of the 1990s; Hovannisian’s repatriation made no sense to most of those who stayed. Why would anyone leave a good life in America to come to the ravages of Armenia? Only a few hundred Armenian-Americans have done so since independence.

In a 1992 profile, the Los Angeles Times quoted an Armenian photographer who (in typical post-Soviet conspiratorial speak) claimed, "The CIA would have paid $100 million to control Armenian foreign policy, but they got it for free" with Hovannisian as foreign minister.

Those views may have shifted more to the margins of Armenian political discourse, but they were echoed in this year’s campaign as well. One commentator noted Hovannisian’s past employment with the AAA as evidence of "closeness to the [U.S.] State Department," while a nutty minor candidate in the race opined that Hovannisian was an agent of a "Masonic conspiracy."

"I respect everyone," Hovannisian said in a pre-election interview, "including all my opponents, as well as their right to express their viewpoints, but I do not respond to lies." Hovannisian is not unaware of his otherness, however. In the last four years, he has gone through a tremendous physical transformation, shaving off his dramatic mustache and losing some 40 pounds to look more like a mainstream Armenian politician. In campaign videos, you could frequently hear Hovannisian dropping words in Russian — a practice common in Armenia, but not among Armenians in the West.

But when it came to running his presidential campaign, Hovannisian broke all the local rules of politicking — practiced by both the government and opposition figures — which favor set-piece events with screened participants at which candidates launch into personal attacks and threats against their competitors. His speeches tended to avoid personalized attacks, focusing on government corruption more broadly.

His message was universal: Let’s take our country back from the corrupt hacks in government.

"The struggle [is] fought between the ordinary citizens of Armenia and their candidate on the one side and the ruling authorities on the other," he explained before the election. "Armenia is but one, and we must decide what it is going to be like — a free and open Armenia, or a shadow Armenia, whether it will belong to the ordinary citizen or it will cringe before the authorities."

Wearing his trademark turtleneck and jeans, he rode public buses and the metro, toured nearly every town and many villages, helped with house and car repairs, got his hair cut at a small barbershop, and got his lunch from a roadside kiosk.

A pre-election survey found that 7 percent of respondents around the country reported to have talked with Hovannisian or his representatives during the campaign, hearing his message of wealth redistribution and transparent government. This is remarkable given his shoestring budget and lack of institutional support. (His most prominent endorsers were an aging singer-songwriter and a reggae band that performs a song called "Spoonful of Love" at his events.)

This outpouring of love and attention may have been exactly what many Armenians (who, according to a Gallup poll, are the world’s most love-deprived people) needed. More than half a million, according to official reports, voted for Hovannisian. Pro-government political machines crumbled. He swept Armenia’s second-largest city by more than a 40 percentage-point margin, and he won in the third-, fourth-, sixth-, and seventh-largest towns as well.

But of course, Armenia does not have normal elections. The presidents or their designated successors have never been defeated by voters in more than 20 years of independence. Incumbents always win, and frustration and cynicism about the political process persist and solidify.

None of the losing candidates in Armenia has ever conceded defeat, not even in 1991 when Ter-Petrosyan won by more than a 70 percentage-point margin. The 1996, 2003, and 2008 elections sparked opposition protests and government crackdowns; the 1996 and 2008 crises were particularly violent, and the military was brought into Yerevan to maintain order.

Widespread public distrust of the system and enough cases of electoral deviations — such as intimidation and inducement of voters and widely suspected but rarely proven fraud — muddy the process and raise questions about voting results. The oppositionists can’t really prove that they won, but neither can incumbents credibly claim the opposite. And foreign observers are seen to be politically biased in favor of one side or another.

The latest election appears to be following a similar pattern. Thousands of Hovannisian’s supporters have been demonstrating every day since the election. They are claiming that the election was rigged and that their candidate is the rightful winner. There is much excitement in the streets of Armenia. Students have joined the strikes. Hovannisian has embarked on a "victory tour" through smaller towns, many of which he won. But the pressure of events is also beginning to expose Hovannisian’s less-appealing qualities.

His speeches are filled with platitudes and contradictions. Rather than announcing plans, he is asking the crowd: What do you want to do? Stay for an hour or longer? He says he will stand and wait until the "outgoing" President Sargsyan comes and "recognizes the peoples’ victory." The next day, however, he walks to the president’s office for a closed-door meeting with the incumbent.

"Many consider Hovannisian too volatile and impulsive to be president," says Asbed Bedrossian, founder and publisher of the Los Angeles-based "Groong" Armenian News Network and a longtime watcher of Armenian politics. "He seems to have problems calculating a few steps down the line."

Still, with all his shortcomings, Hovannisian today is seen by many as the country’s best hope for change, if not as president, then as part of a governing coalition. A number of government figures, including the influential parliament speaker, have said that a coalition with Hovannisian is possible as long as he recognizes the official results. (Armenia does have some experience of coalitions, but for the most part this meant government’s co-optation of the opposition.)

The very fact that Hovannisian and Sargsyan met and shook hands is a first in Armenia’s post-electoral political world. A decent rapport between Sargsyan and Hovannisian may be an indication that there will be no violent incidents this time around. The police have been unusually accommodating to protesters. For now, Hovannisian plans to hold more protests and file an appeal with the Constitutional Court to try to annul some or all of the election results; at the same time, he hasn’t dismissed a possible coalition with Sargsyan. Hovannisian has already made Armenian electoral history with his unprecedented campaign. The coming weeks and months will show whether the American-Armenian political contender is able to convert his electoral popularity into real-world gains for his constituents.

<p> Emil Sanamyan is editor of the Armenian Reporter. From 2000 to 2006 he worked for the Armenian Assembly of America. </p>