Armenia’s velvet revolution wears thin

Two years ago, Armenia’s velvet revolution sparked hopes for sturdier democratic institutions and even a turn toward the West. The new leadership, however, has thrown cold water on those aspirations.

Prime Minister Pashinyan votes in December 2018 parliamentary elections
In December 2018, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his party won an overwhelming victory in snap elections. The victory heralded a slide away from pro-democratic aspirations for Armenia, however. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Armenia’s political transition has disappointed many
  • It has not led to democratic reform or closer ties with the West
  • The country remains heavily dependent on Moscow

Two years have passed since Armenia’s velvet revolution took place. Following just 11 days of peaceful mass protest, the country’s political opposition forced an orderly transition of power. Serzh Sargsyan, who had just completed two terms as president, was ousted a mere six days after having been elected prime minister. As soldiers began joining the ranks of the protesters, he was compelled to resign.

Widespread enthusiasm followed the political transition. Many thought that it would result in a breakthrough for liberal democracy and anti-corruption efforts. Hopes were also high for rapprochement with the European Union, a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and less dependence on Russia.

Western observers were especially keen to see a realignment of South Caucasus geopolitics. With Georgia already firmly in the Western camp and Azerbaijan steering a middle course, rolling back Russian influence in Armenia would be an important step. Yet the developments in the months since the revolution have dashed those hopes.

March toward change

It was the opposition’s grievances that fueled such optimism. Mr. Sargsyan had won the premiership amid mass protests against alleged election-rigging. Having been reelected as president in 2013, he embarked on a gambit to retain power at the end of his second term.

Western observers were keen to see a realignment of South Caucasus geopolitics.

Through a referendum in 2015, he orchestrated a constitutional change that transferred power from the presidency to the parliament, anticipating that he would be able to make a smooth transition from one office to the other. That was a serious miscalculation. Marred by irregularities, the referendum was generally viewed as a ploy by the incumbent to win a third term by the backdoor.

The two terms of his presidency had been marked by mounting protests calling for advances in human rights, women’s rights, environmental protection and similar causes. The protest movement that brought about his downfall was led by opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan, a former newspaper editor who had spent time in prison for fomenting unrest. His clarion call was to rid the country of what he called an oligarchic, nepotistic political system, a message that resonated with a younger generation frustrated by a lack of opportunities.

On March 31, 2018, Mr. Pashinyan set out on a protest march from the country’s second-largest city, Gyumri, to the capital, Yerevan. When the procession reached its destination, on April 13, it had attracted thousands of followers who were ready to confront the regime with nonviolent protest. Eleven days later they had achieved their objective.

Limited ‘revolution’

Although many drew parallels to the “color revolutions,” like the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Armenia’s case was fundamentally different for two reasons.

The first was that, unlike in Georgia and Ukraine, the winners did not seek complete victory. The initial phase was marked by bargaining and coalition building within the existing constitutional order. When the Armenian parliament elected Mr. Pashinyan prime minister on May 8, it was after hours of grilling by Mr. Sargsyan’s Republican Party. It looked like a parliamentary democracy based on the rule of law was possible.


Facts & figures

A map of the Nagorno-Karabakh region with Armenia and Azerbaijan
Artsakh is a non-recognized state that controls most of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. © macpixxel for GIS

The second distinction was that Prime Minister Pashinyan went to great lengths to emphasize that his revolution was a reaction to exclusively domestic problems. In stark contrast to the strongly pro-Western ambitions of Georgia and Ukraine, he vowed to maintain a strategic alliance with Russia. He even held a meeting with the Russian ambassador to underline this fact and to win assurance that the Kremlin would not intervene.

As time went on, both these differences began to fade. While the prime minister found it increasingly difficult to work with a parliament that remained dominated by the Republican Party, his liberal followers developed increasingly negative attitudes toward Russia. Calls for a “European choice” grew louder.

The turning point came on October 16, 2018. Announcing his resignation, Prime Minister Pashinyan triggered snap elections for that December. The outcome was an overwhelming victory for his Yelk (Way Out) Alliance. The Republican Party failed to win a single seat. While the size of the win showed that Mr. Pashinyan had retained substantial popular support, it also heralded the fading of optimism about the country’s direction.

Subsequent events would make clear not only that the early aspirations for a liberal breakthrough and rapprochement with the EU had been overly optimistic, but also that relations with Russia would also come under increasing stress. Ambitions for a settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh would fall flat.

European optimism

From a geopolitical perspective, closer relations with the EU had been the most critical prospect. After the transition, optimism had risen on both sides. While Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief at the time, noted that “relations have reached new highs,” Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan mused that the two had reached a “completely different level of relationship,” and that they “share the same democratic values.”

The relationship operates within a framework agreement called the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership (CEPA), signed in November 2017. A meeting between the two sides in June 2019 welcomed the December 2018 elections and the adoption of a CEPA implementation road map. In December 2019, another meeting endorsed 20 goals for 2020, including judicial and anti-corruption strategies.

Although economic relations are crucial, with the EU accounting for a quarter of Armenia’s foreign trade, the paramount significance of EU relations lies in the impact on core institutions. The outlook on this front has also deteriorated. Mr. Pashinyan’s government has stepped up its pressure on holdovers from the Republican Party and restricted media freedom, undermining the rule of law.

Mr. Pashinyan’s government has stepped up its pressure on political opponents, undermining the rule of law.

Having long kept a low profile, toward the end of 2019 former President Sargsyan began harshly criticizing the government. Appearing at a conference in Croatia on November 20, he claimed that “dangerous developments” were “jeopardizing democracy” in the country. He lashed out at political persecution and aggressive crackdowns against opposition activity, as well as mounting intolerance and hate speech.

Two weeks later, he was charged with embezzlement in connection with a 2013 government fuel contract. Pending trial, he was banned from traveling abroad. Robert Kocharyan, a former president and prime minister of Armenia, is already in jail awaiting trial on charges related to his role in the violent suppression of protests in 2008. Prime Minister Pashinyan is now on track to have two of his predecessors incarcerated.

In early February 2020, Mr. Pashinyan launched an attack on the country’s judiciary. In a heated extraordinary session on February 6, the Armenian Parliament approved holding a snap referendum on the Constitutional Court. In his address to lawmakers, the prime minister claimed that “The Constitutional Court represents the corrupt regime of Serzh Sargsyan, rather than the people, and it must go.” The referendum will call for seven of the nine judges to be fired.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has responded by calling on the Armenian authorities to ensure that the draft legislation would comply with the constitution. It also suggested that Yerevan quickly request an opinion from the Venice Commission.

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

It has also become increasingly clear that the political change has not brought the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute any closer to resolution. It is by far the longest and seemingly most intractable of the frozen conflicts that involve Russia. Following a cease-fire in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh was established as a non-recognized state calling itself Artsakh. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has ever since been involved in fruitless mediation.

The election of Mr. Pashinyan gave rise to optimism that a breakthrough might be possible. In early 2019, it seemed as if both sides were ready to turn down the heat on tensions, paving the way for serious talks. Events toward the end of November poured cold water on those hopes.

Prime Minister Pashinyan and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev seemed to give credence to already discredited conspiracy theories regarding tragic events, like the pogrom of Armenians in Sumgait in 1988, and the massacre of Azeris in Khojaly in 1992.

At the Munich Security Conference in February 2020, the two leaders locked horns in a debate about these massacres. In the words of Laurence Broers, the Caucasus program director at Conciliation Resources, “Both leaders missed almost every opportunity to step away from the same tired routine we’ve heard for years.”

Both sides are using the struggle as a force to weaken their domestic opposition, allowing security to trump democracy.

It is also becoming clear just how tightly the conflict is linked to domestic politics. At a press conference on January 25, 2020, Mr. Pashinyan delivered a broadside against opposition press loyal to former President Sargsyan, refuting accusations that he had squandered an opportunity to ensure security and development in Nagorno-Karabakh.

On February 25, when Serzh Sargsyan had his first day in court, his followers showed up to salute him as a hero, accusing Mr. Pashinyan of wobbling on the issue and holding placards proclaiming that “Artsakh will never be Azerbaijan.”

Both sides have been locked into what Mr. Broers calls “mutual existential denial” – they increasingly claim more of the same space as theirs. In this sense, the conflict is better compared to the conflict between Israel and the Arab states, or between India and Pakistan, than to other frozen conflicts such as those over Abkhazia and Transnistria. Both sides are using the struggle as a force to weaken their domestic opposition, allowing security to trump democracy, and cementing authoritarian rule.

Moscow’s role

The implications for Russian influence are mixed. On one hand, Armenian dependence on Russia is overwhelming. It accounts for about 25 percent of Armenia’s foreign trade, while remittances from Armenian guest workers in Russia amount to 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Russia delivers natural gas and supplies fuel for the Metsamor nuclear power plant, which furnishes 40 percent of Armenia’s electricity. Most importantly, Russia provides security. Troops from its 201st military base patrol the border with Turkey and ensure that balance is maintained in Nagorno-Karabakh. Many Russians believe Armenia is not showing due gratitude.

On the other hand, Russia is as much a prisoner to Armenia as it is its protector. Yerevan remains one of the Kremlin’s very few friends and genuine allies and it serves as a linchpin for Russian influence in a strategic region. The consequences if this were to change could be dramatic. The main beneficiary would not be NATO and Western governments. It would be Turkey and Azerbaijan, raising the specter of pan-Turkism spreading not only in the South Caucasus but also into Central Asia.

If Armenian domestic politics continue to sour against Russia, the Kremlin will ratchet up pressure.

The implication is that the Kremlin will play a balancing game. It is wary that before he was elected, Mr. Pashinyan’s movement was campaigning on leaving the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. Media affiliated with his liberal supporters have also pumped out substantial criticism of Russia, especially about the conduct of its soldiers in the country.

If Armenian domestic politics continue to sour against Russia, the Kremlin will ratchet up pressure. The risk of a military response can probably be discounted. It would provide an opportunity for Azerbaijan to intervene in Nagorno-Karabakh, an outcome that would fundamentally shift the balance of power in the region toward Ankara and Baku.

But there are plenty of other tools available. Moscow could increase the price of gas deliveries or upgrade relations with Azerbaijan. President Vladimir Putin already has an excellent personal rapport with President Ilham Aliev. The Kremlin could drop hints that if Baku were to attack Artsakh, Russia might find an excuse not to intervene.

Despite its warming relations with the EU, Armenia will remain heavily dependent on Russia. Its borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan will remain closed. The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh could quickly escalate into renewed war. The West has its hands full with the COVID-19 crisis, giving it little energy to spare for an increasingly authoritarian regime in Armenia.

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