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.