Armenia At The Crossroads?
Dr Pat Walsh, Historian and Political Analyst. Author of ‘Great Britain against Russia in the Caucasus: Ottoman Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis caught up in Geopolitics, War and Revolution’.
After its defeat in the Karabakh War Armenia is in political turmoil. It was reported that more than 20,000 protesters rallied in Yerevan on Saturday 5th December, chanting, “Nikol, you traitor!” and “Nikol, go away!” and then marched to the Prime Minister’s official residence. Armenia’s first President, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, has warned that civil war was possible and could end the country’s statehood.
It is evident that Armenia stands at a political crossroads. One direction may lead Prime Minister Pashinyan, freed of the Karabakh war, into resuming his reformist agenda in Armenia and taking the country toward an accommodation with its neighbours. This would have the effect of enhancing Armenia’s independence by establishing more stable and mutually beneficial relations within the South Caucasus region. Following on from this, the Russian presence in Nagorno-Karabakh would be rendered unnecessary. Conversely, it is possible that another road leads Armenia toward being pulled more tightly into the Russian orbit, becoming even more reliant on Moscow, and acting as its satellite in the area. On this road the Russian presence in what remains of Nagorno-Karabakh, would use its leverage over the Armenian population there to ensure Yerevan acts in accordance with Moscow’s interests. The Nagorno-Karabakh tail would continue to wag the Armenian dog.
There is now a distinct possibility that Armenia’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, may be ousted from power despite his popular mandate, as a result of defeat in an ill-advised war. During his two years as Prime Minister, Pashinyan has shown a disrespect for Russia’s interest in Armenia and his behaviour has not impressed President Vladimir Putin. Now, after Armenia has lost the war with Azerbaijan, it is Putin’s opportunity to settle accounts with Pashinyan. At present Russia’s President openly refuses to engage with the Armenian Premier, giving him “the cold shoulder”. Russia’s proxy political groups in Armenia have banded together to propose veteran pro-Russia politician Vazgen Manoukian as an interim, or as they say “temporary prime-minister” to replace Pashinyan.
However, Nikol Pashinyan is not going to resign at this moment. Despite the war defeat, he seems to be still popular among the people desiring reform, and his political party has a majority in the Armenian parliament. The opposition claim that the National Assembly no longer represents the popular will. The fate of Armenia’s democracy may now depend on how fast its elected government can achieve some reconciliation with Azerbaijan and foster regional cooperation with Turkey. But Russia may have different interests which will lead Armenia back along its traditionally hostile road with those two countries.
There was no chance that the Armenian people would be applauded by Russia’s leadership when they overthrew the pro-Russia dictator Serzh Sargsyan in April 2018. Putin has a strong allergy to any sort of colour revolution and democratic transitions in the former Soviet republics that might increase Western influence within the Russian hinterlands. Moreover, being a passionate supporter of the limitation of Russia’s influence in Armenia the leader of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution, Nikol Pashinyan, was the worst nightmare for Russia’s political elite since Georgia’s Rose Revolution and its leader Mikhail Saakashvili. Saakashvili was the main target of Putin’s attacks in August 2008 when Russia waged war against Georgia in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
The Russian media is happy to pour scorn on Pashinyan today, after he signed the ceasefire statement with Azerbaijan, mediated by Putin. Pashinyan destroyed Moscow’s careful manipulation of the frozen conflict in the South Caucasus through his needless provocations against Azerbaijan, then pleaded for Russian help during the War. He undermined two Russian brokered ceasefires with missile attacks on Azerbaijani cities and finally had to be saved from disaster by a Russian armistice and an Azerbaijani willingness to give peace a chance.
But while Pashinyan may have lost the war against Azerbaijan, he retains support through his original political manifesto of anti-corruption in Armenia, which set him on a collision course with the pro-Russia political elites who have been seen to have engaged in personal enrichment. Pashinyan now stakes his political future on the original agenda of the Velvet Revolution, and Russia is faced with the problem that in preserving its influence over Armenia it may have to remove him.
Armenia has built a narrow ideological identity around the tragic events of 1915 and the demonic Turks view. Due to Armenia’s continued hostility to Turkey and its perceptions of a Turkish existential threat, Russia has never lacked political parties, military officers, or public opinion leaders sympathizing with it in Yerevan and playing the anti-Turkish card. Russia is seen by many as its only security in the region. Many Armenians have migrated to Russia to do temporary work. Being pro-Russian is consequently deeply rooted in the mentality of Armenian society. However, today’s Turkey is Armenia’s most prosperous neighbour, where tens of thousands of Armenian citizens also seek employment, nearer to home. Good relations with Turkey offers a route out of political, social and economic isolation for Armenia if it can grasp that nettle.
The predecessors of Pashinyan, who ruled in Armenia since 1998, never attempted a reconciliation with Turkey, which could have reduced the level of hostility in the society. They were unable to develop an alternative security framework for Armenia, and a balanced foreign policy, which would facilitate the development of a more independent and self-confident state. The governments of Robert Kocharyan (1998-2008) and Serzh Sargsyan (2008-2018) were far too busy extracting financial subventions from Russia to keep Armenia and ‘Artsakh’ afloat to take a different path toward a more independent existence in the world. Both grew from low-ranking Communist party clerks of the late 1980s to become billionaires in post-Communist Armenia. Even more, Kocharyan, whom Vladimir Putin considers a close friend, is a long-serving board member and director of Russia’s holding company AFK Sistema (https://www.reuters.com/companies/AFKS.MM). The Pashinyan led government annoyed President Putin by pushing forward a criminal investigation against Kocharyan, who was forced to spend around a year and a half in police custody. When the Velvet revolution swept away the pro-Russia political regime in 2018, it was apparent that Armenia’s pro-Russian elite did not have an alternative leader popular enough to oppose the new pro-Western orientation of Pashinyan.
But having mustered up a groundswell of popular support for reform, Pashinyan made a serious error after he came under renewed political pressure from the former elite. They bided their time to trap Pashinyan on the issue that had undermined Armenia’s first leader, Ter-Petrosyan, back in 1998, when he tried to find a compromise settlement with Azerbaijan over Karabakh, trading territory for peace. Pashinyan seemed to be following on this path in his early relations with President Aliyev and this made him vulnerable to the old elite playing the ultra-nationalist card against him.
Rather than defending his position as an essential prerequisite for a functional settlement and peace with a neighbour, Pashinyan decided to out-flank his opponents by out “Karabakhing” them through bellicose nationalism. The incident that captures Pashinyan’s predicament most clearly was his fateful demand that ‘Artsakh’ be given official standing in the negotiations with Azerbaijan. That was a move that destroyed the peace process because it was so unacceptable to the Azerbaijanis. Why did Pashinyan do it? Probably because he was the first Armenian leader who was not from the Karabakh Clan. His opponents insisted that ‘Artsakh’ had to be represented at the talks, as it was by previous leaders who had simply combined within themselves Armenia and ‘Artsakh’. So Pashinyan was put on a leash that pulled him back from meaningful negotiations with the Azerbaijanis. That completely undermined any trust he had gained with President Aliyev and set Armenia on the road to war with its neighbour.
Pashinyan’s brinkmanship ended up with the actual war against Azerbaijan, whose territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent 7 districts Armenia had been occupying since the early 1990s. Some observers who suspected a conspiracy argued that Russia was behind the direction Pashinyan took. Somebody must surely have been advising Pashinyan with assurances that a real war would not begin despite the provocative statements and behaviour he was engaging in. Such a theory gained some credence, if the several openly pro-Russian military and security appointments Pashinyan made in his government back in 2018, but had to reconsider later, are taken into account (The former director of the National Security Service, now the leader of a pro-Russia opposition party, Artur Vanetsian being one of these). Perhaps it was all a trap, perhaps not.
Pashinyan not only aggravated Azerbaijan but in his sudden raising of the issue of the Treaty of Sevres, on its centenary, he antagonized Turkey by questioning the continuance of its sovereign territory. So, while Pashinyan’s Armenia failed in making any ground in reconciliation with Azerbaijan and Turkey relations with the main protagonist of Armenia’s hostility towards them – Russia – deteriorated steadily.
The “new war for new territories” resulted in a loss of territory. As a result of its military defeat, Armenia lost control over the occupied regions which its domestic propaganda presented to Armenians as the promised land of the “Republic of Artsakh”. Crowds, infuriated by being told they were driving the Azerbaijanis back to Baku, only to be confronted with a surprise defeat, rallied in Yerevan demanding the resignation of Pashinyan. Pro-Russia politicians from Armenia, as well as some influential Armenian voices from Russia accused the Prime Minister of treason. But it seems his domestic support remains, and Russia doesn’t have legitimate means to replace him openly. Therefore, it is feasible that Moscow may have opted for weakening his power over the secessionist regime in Nagorno-Karabakh and is encouraging the forming a strong unified extra-parliamentary opposition in Armenia to topple Pashinyan in the medium term. The narrative being advanced is that Pashinyan committed the cardinal error of displeasing Russia, and since Russia is Armenia’s only real guarantor of security, Armenia needs to urgently ingratiate itself with Moscow again, and find a new leader to do so.
There seems to be the development of a kind of dual-power in Armenia at the present moment. Some of the appointments are being made by Pashinyan, who, chastened, is attempting to try to accommodate Putin, while others are being influenced by the self-declared authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh, whose Armenian-inhabited parts are now under the control of Russia’s peacekeeping forces. However, the emerging structure of the future pro-Russia elite is clear: Artur Vanetsyan, Vazgen Manoukyan, and Vitali Balasanyan are going to play the key roles in Armenia and the remaining parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, where the Armenians reside.
All three of them are known as ardent exponents of the traditional policy of hostile relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. In 1988, Vazgen Manoukyan was a founder of the Karabakh committee, which led Armenia to the confrontation with Azerbaijan. He has been named as the opposition’s preferred candidate to replace Pashinyan as Prime Minister. At the opposition rally on 5th December he stated that he wanted to change the peace agreement “in favour of Armenia through negotiations. We need to rebuild our army, restore efficiency, turn it into a modern army. Our special relationship with Russia is also a security issue. Allied relations must be restored. We have to re-enter the negotiation process, it is very important for us.” (https://armenpress.am/eng/news/1036884.html)
Why does Armenia need to rebuild and modernize its army? It faces no military threat from either Azerbaijan or Turkey. That has been made clear both in statements by President Aliyev and in action during the War. The only reason for a new Armenian army is for another war to capture Karabakh. That should be of great concern to all.
Recently appointed Secretary of the Security Council of the rump of Nagorno-Karabakh, Vitali Balasanian, is wanted by Azerbaijan as one of the perpetrators of the massacre of 613 Azerbaijani civilians in the town of Khojaly in 1992. Such appointments are not helpful if Pashinyan wants to stay in power because these figures are likely to block any meaningful attempts at any accommodation Armenia might make with Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Paradoxically, the latter two nations are now the only alternative that can offer a security framework to Armenia and save the young democracy in a small post-soviet republic. The price of Armenian independence is peace and good relations with its former enemies. Is it willing to pay that price is the question.