President Levon Ter-Petrossian's resignation this month marks the lowest point of a steady decline in the health of the Armenian republic. The most progressive of Soviet republics under Mikhail Gorbachev, Armenia's post-Soviet record has been marred by widespread poverty, state-sector corruption, a casebook of human rights violations, and a presidential election that was neither free nor fair.
Military victories over Nagorno-Karabagh, a contested enclave of Armenians in neighboring Azerbaijan, have further resulted in Armenia's occupation of that region and its environs, leaving Azerbaijan with hundreds of thousands of refugees.
The roots of the problem can be found in Mr. Ter-Petrossian's 1996 reelection. Corruption and poverty kept him unelectable. But he also couldn't lose. With no regional politics and virtually no resources, Armenia was controlled by its powerful ministry officials, who had no intention of stepping down. Ter-Petrossian stole the race, using force to quell popular demonstrations and arrest the opposition. Observers maintained that in the absence of widespread violations, opposition leader Vazgen Manukyan would have won.
Stripped of electoral legitimacy, the president sought to bolster his authority in other ways. Ter-Petrossian appointed Karabagh President Robert Kocharyan as prime minister, ensuring support of the military, a worrisome prospect after pitched battles between the Ministries of Defense and Interior and rumors of an attempted coup.
It was a bizarre appointment, as if a Quebecois separatist suddenly had been appointed French premier. It also was a mistake. The Armenian government had claimed for years that it had nothing to do with the Karabagh war; Kocharyan's appointment revealed the full extent of this fiction. Negotiations became untenable.
Ter-Petrossian's unwillingness to give up on Karabagh proved his downfall. He supported the OSCE proposal for phased settlement of the dispute, withdrawing Armenian forces from occupied Azeri territory and negotiating Karabagh's status. Those who had assured the president's hollow victory were steadfastly opposed, forcing his resignation.
But all is not lost. On March 16, Armenia must elect a new president. Free and fair elections could bring about a government willing to engage in constructive dialogue with its neighbors. Unlike the power ministries, Armenia's democratic opposition recognizes that conflict over Karabagh is expensive, destabilizes the region, and makes economic cooperation and development all but impossible. Most important, they understand that continued occupation of Azeri territory and unwillingness to negotiate on Karabagh independence makes Armenia all but a pariah state. The majority of Armenia's population does not want to see their country embroiled in a permanent war.
But Karabagh Armenians don't share this opinion. With Ter-Petrossian's resignation, they have greatly increased their influence over Armenia's political fate. Karabagh separatists can control the media and ballot box in upcoming elections. Kocharyan's unconstitutional candidacy (he's not an Armenian citizen) means they will be inclined to do so.
The US can make a difference. We should send monitors now, to ensure the fairness of procedures before, during, and after upcoming elections. We should employ all diplomatic efforts, including bilateral talks with Russia, to guarantee there are no interim provocations over Karabagh. We should make clear we will not support an illegitimate government. Last year we gave $100 million in foreign aid to Armenia, more per capita than any other state but Israel. The administration should make future support contingent on it going to a leadership chosen by the Armenian people. In one of the richest, most conflict-ridden regions in the world, helping Armenia up from the bottom is worth it.
* Ian Bremmer is senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and president of Eurasia Group, New York.