BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
While visiting a youth camp on August 18, President Serzh Sarkisian was asked several questions on domestic and foreign issues. One particular question attracted the most attention due to the President’s unexpected answer.
When asked which candidate’s election in Azerbaijan’s upcoming presidential race is in Armenia’s best interest, President Sarkisian surprised everyone by endorsing the reelection of incumbent President Ilham Aliyev.
Normally, when politicians are asked for their preferred candidate in a foreign election, they refrain from expressing an opinion or simply state that it’s the choice of that country’s voters. In this case, President Sarkisian did not shy away from expressing his clear preference and provided the following explanation as to why President Aliyev’s reelection in October for a third term is in Armenia’s interest:
“For Armenia, and not only for Armenia, neighbors that are on the democratic path of development are more beneficial. Hence, the conclusion that as a neighbor, and particularly as a negotiating partner, a democratic Azerbaijan is definitely more beneficial to us. But, if we set aside this consideration, the answer to the question is: The victory of incumbent President Ilham Aliyev would be most beneficial for us. We have gone through a long, albeit difficult, negotiating process and the path for a resolution is practically outlined, at least through public acceptance of the principles proposed by the Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group. We have been actively negotiating for the last four years. Certainly, I wouldn’t say that the negotiating process is very active right now; nevertheless, we have made some progress, and if, after the election, Ilham Aliyev could muster the will and rise above his impetuous Armenophobia, I think this is the most acceptable and beneficial option for us.”
President Sarkisian’s statement was promptly criticized both at home and, not surprisingly, in Azerbaijan. Opposition leaders in Yerevan were appalled that Armenia’s president would favor the reelection of President Aliyev who has repeatedly threatened to attack Karabakh (Artsakh). They wondered how the authoritarian and warmongering president of Azerbaijan could be beneficial to Armenia. Azeri leaders were also unhappy with President Sarkisian’s endorsement. Novruz Mammadov, Senior Advisor to President Aliyev on Foreign Affairs, harshly condemned Armenia’s president for claiming that Aliyev’s reelection would be in Armenia’s best interest. In addition, Mammadov criticized Azerbaijan’s opposition parties for exploiting Sarkisian’s endorsement in their “dirty campaign” against Aliyev. Mammadov concluded by boasting that Azerbaijan’s president does not need Sarkisian’s support, because Aliyev enjoys the backing of such prominent world leaders as US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While Sarkisian conditioned his support for Aliyev on the merits of continued progress in the Artsakh negotiations, one can think of additional reasons why Aliyev’s reelection is in Armenia’s best interest:
— President Aliyev is a vulnerable leader who is universally condemned for being autocratic, corrupt and a major violator of human rights.
— Aliyev has wasted huge amounts of his country’s oil wealth in enriching himself, his family, and cronies.
— He has spent billions of dollars buying weapons that have not helped him recover a single inch of Artsakh territory.
— The reelection of an inept Aliyev is a liability for Azerbaijan and an asset for Armenia. If he loses the presidency, his replacement could be a more effective leader who can pose a clear danger to the security of Armenia and Artsakh.
— Sarkisian’s endorsement of Aliyev diminishes his credibility in the eyes of the Azeri people who would wonder why the leader of Armenia, demonized as the enemy of Azerbaijan, is supporting their president. Indeed, conspiracy theorists must be having a field day in Azerbaijan! Since Aliyev’s reelection to a third term is a foregone conclusion due to the country’s traditionally fraudulent electoral system, President Sarkisian’s preference for Aliyev may not lead to his defeat, but would certainly cast a cloud of suspicion on his already tarnished reputation.
Finally, in international relations, it is important to have a predictable counterpart, whether friend or foe. President Aliyev’s behavior toward Armenia and Artsakh has been thus far quite predictable. Giorgi Lomsadze, writing in EurasiaNet.org, has accurately depicted President Sarkisian’s endorsement of Aliyev as: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”