Dust does not settle after the coup attempt in Armenia
Since independence, developments in Armenia have shown how influential Russia has been in this geography
With the end of the Cold War, in the South Caucasus three new states emerged after gaining their independence. Regional problems, which were deemed as frozen problems during the Soviet era, began thawing with the independence of these states. One of these problems, the Nagorno-Karabakh problem — after the Armenian occupation that lasted nearly 30 years — was concluded with the agreement signed after the war in 2020. Upon this agreement, which is seen as the official proof of Armenia’s defeat, disputes in the country did not cease and the protests against the Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan continued to increase. What has happened since November has once again demonstrated that the country will not be able to recover in a short time after the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
Since the independence, the developments that have occurred during the governments of Levon Ter Petrosyan, Serzh Sargsyan, Robert Kocharyan and finally Pashinyan, once again revealed how influential Russia is in this geography. It gives the impression that a similar scenario is still on the agenda today, especially when Petrosyan’s forced resignation due to the economic crises in the country and the pressure of the opposition in 1998 is remembered.
The continuation of the problems in the period of Kocharyan, who took office after Petrosyan, can be explained by the Russian influence rather than the fate of this geography. The fact that Kocharyan — who handed over his duty to Sargsyan in 2008 — did not walk away from politics and continued to actively take part in the opposition, can be explained by the influence of the Karabakh Clan in Yerevan. During the Sargsyan period, which covers the years of 2008-2018, no progress could be made in the situation of the country. All these developments caused a serious expectation in the Armenian community; so in such an environment Pashinyan came to power with a strong public support. The belief that the country would breathe a sigh of relief and the expectations of political turmoil, especially poverty and corruption would come to an end with Pashinyan’s appointment, played a major role in the support of the people to him. However, what happened in November and the aftermath regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which was the first of the promises of all politicians who took office in Yerevan, turned into a complete disaster for the Pashinyan rule. The great defeat of Armenia nearly destructed the hopes for the future in the Armenian community.
The military casualties Nagorno-Karabakh war, the economic effects of the war and especially the great defeat caused protests against the Pashinyan administration in Armenia for days. The people wanted the resignation of Pashinyan, whom they saw as responsible for what happened inside and outside of the country. Although the main reason of the protests is the defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, poverty, corruption, and economic problems, the bottleneck that the country is experiencing, internal and external political developments also played an important role in these protests. Pashinyan pointed out the regional and global powers responsible for the defeat and drew attention to the isolation of Armenia during this process. At this point Turkey and Azerbaijan’s step towards Armenia to maintain the peace with the proposal of the “Platform of Six” had a great importance. The treaty signed at the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war offered a serious opportunity for all parties, and for Armenia this treaty was a chance to get out of the bottleneck the country had been going through for years. However, all of the opposition parties in Armenia by coming together and by designating Pashinyan as the target, especially the Karabakh Clan, including the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Homeland Salvation Movement and the Prosperous Armenia Party, signaled a long time ago that things would not go as expected.
The isolation of Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, the US’s preoccupation with the election process within itself, Germany’s and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group’s attitude of just calling for a ceasefire, and as a result, failure of Armenia to get the support it expected from Western states except for France caused problems in the country’s domestic and foreign policy. When these problems came to the fore with some demands for reform in the military, there was a change in the tone of the protests.
The tensions in Armenia that reached a point where the army demanded Pashinyan’s resignation, turned into a chaos with two important developments: Pashinyan’s dismissal of the Armenian Deputy Chief of Staff Tigran Khachaturian and the statements of former President Serzh Sargsyan about the Iskander missiles. Sargsyan stated that these missiles should be used from the very beginning of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, while Pashinyan noted that these missiles were not suitable for use in war and that “only 10 percent of these missiles exploded”. Knowing this, Pashinyan pointed out that Sargsyan should instead be asking questions such as “Why don’t the Iskander missiles explode” or “why only 10 percent of the missiles explode?”. As it is known, Russia has an important place in Armenia’s military ammunition and equipment. The aforementioned Iskander missiles, also known as short-range ballistic missile systems, were purchased by Armenia from Russia in 2016. Pashinyan’s statement that the Russian-made Iskander missile systems were useless, caused reactions of opposition and the army at home, and caused a reaction of Russia abroad.
These reactions came to light when the army attributed its defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh to the wrong foreign policy followed by Pashinyan. Pashinyan by pointing Moscow responsible for this situation ignited the debate. Armenia this time in Nagorno-Karabakh could not see the support that it receives from Russia frequently since its establishment, and this situation caused a serious disappointment in the country.
A similar situation has occurred with the Western world; although Pashinyan tried to involve the Western states and Russia in the process during the war, he did not succeed in this policy. This situation was important in terms of showing how today Armenian politicians are used as a tool by Western states and Russia as they were throughout history, and how they were left alone in the lurch at critical times.
This process also showed once again that in the Southern Caucasus, an area that Russia sees as its own backyard in the post-Cold War period, a leader who is not approved by Russia will not be able to stay in office for a long time. The fact that Tigran Parvanyan, the commander of Armenian-Russian Joint Forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, is among the soldiers who signed the declaration, strengthens the signs of Russia’s role in this process. In addition, the fact that leaders such as Sargsyan and Kocharyan, known as the Karabakh Clan, acted together with the army and the opposition during this process can be regarded as a clear indication of the Russia’s involvement in the process. It is pointed out that Russia played a role in Kocharyan’s release on a $4.15 million bail after he was arrested twice because of the incidents in which 10 people lost their lives during the 2008 protests in Armenia. Some claims that Russia has initiated this process, raises questions about this relationship. Previous allegations towards Kocharyan for violation of the constitutional order and bribery have also been one of the important indicators of political turmoil and corruption regarding Armenian leaders.
Besides Kocharyan, the support of former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukyan to the declaration published by the army shows that these two names can be among the names that could be candidates to replace Pashinyan. Another point to note here was the attitude of President Armen Sargisyan towards these developments. The president’s refusal to dismiss Chief of the General Staff Onik Gasparyan is important in terms of showing that he does not agree with Pashinyan. It is also known that President Sargsyan had a meeting with the leaders of the Homeland Salvation Movement regarding the issue. In addition, some information started to appear in the Armenian press that mentions Armenian diplomats will demand Pashinyan’s resignation in upcoming days.
Based on the experiences, it is understood that Russia will not hold a prime minister who does not follow a pro-Russian policy, as it was in the Petrosyan period. But what is important here is how the West or Western states will take a stand against Russia’s initiative. Pashinyan’s call to the Armenian people to step up against the coup attempt in the streets, and him with his wife and children, walking in the Republic square with his supporters while holding a megaphone, seems as if it found some response in the public. On the other hand, the opposition groups made up of army and opposition representatives, rallied in the Freedom Square in a similar way, signaling that the tension will continue. Although the army and the opposition are less in number compared to Pashinyan supporters, it is still a matter of curiosity in which direction this trend of tension will evolve.
Since the day he took office, Pashinyan has become a leader who has made a name for himself in anti-corruption cases. For this reason, it is known that the steps taken by Pashinyan in the fight against corruption also caused some disturbance within the army. In this process, it seems unlikely that the army took a step individually regarding the declaration. For this reason, it can be said that just as the US was effective in Pashinyan’s appointment in Armenia, it would not be possible to dismiss Pashinyan without the approval of the US. While the US’s statement of “Army should mind its own business” in the face of the developments in Yerevan, can be interpreted as a support to Pashinyan, the EU only took action by calling the parties for calm; NATO, on the other hand, called for democracy with the words “Political differences must be resolved peacefully and through democracy in accordance with the Armenian constitution.” On the other hand, it is possible to say that Russia has discarded Pashinyan, whom it did not see very favorable from the first day he took office, with the expressions of “Armenia’s own internal matter”. However, it should not be forgotten that although the number has decreased some amount, there is still serious public support behind Pashinyan.
In the light of these developments, it is possible to say that the events in Armenia may evolve in three directions in the coming days: The possibility of going to early elections, the resignation of Pashinyan (which will put the country in an even more difficult situation), recruitment of a new leader settled upon by the army and the opposition with the approval of Russia. This last prospect will in any case be a development that benefits Russia. On the other hand, Turkey’s perspective of “No matter where in the world we are opposed to coups or coup attempts” is quite important. Turkey with this perspective shows once more that it wants peace and stability in the region. Indeed, at a point where even opening the borders between Turkey-Armenia is on the agenda after the treaty was signed as a result of the Karabakh war; Armenia drifting into chaos would be an unwanted result for Turkey as well as the other countries in the region. In addition, Turkey’s principled stance is significantly affected by the previously experienced coup attempts in the country. Therefore, as a country with a long history and cultural past in the region, it should be noted once more that Turkey prioritizes peace, tranquility and stability in the South Caucasus and the entire Caucasus. Despite all of the experiences Turkey’s step towards Armenia to maintain the peace should be considered in this context. Turkey also gives priority to the stability of the region for the welfare of its economic activities particularly in energy, including trade, all investments in Central Asia, the Caspian and the Caucasus region, and its considerations of establishing terrestrial ties with the Turkic republics through Nakhichevan.
While Turkey in terms of the implementation of the treaty signed in Nagorno-Karabakh, supports the stability in Armenia and thus the Pashinyan government that came to power through democratic methods; this is unfortunately responded in Armenia with the calls “Stop Turkish Pashinyan”. It is also known that a group of opponents in Armenia accused Pashinyan of being “pro-Turkish or Turkish-friendly” because of the treaty he signed in Nagorno-Karabakh.
It may be the right step to resolve the problems in Armenia with early elections before they turn into a bigger bloody internal conflict. This way will be the only step that will reduce some of the tensions in the country even if it is for a bit. If the events continue in this way and the process turns into a bloody action, this instability will have negative effects on the whole region, especially on the people of Armenia. As a matter of fact, it should not be forgotten that at the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, an opposition group has played an active role in this process, by indicating that they did not accept some of the articles of the treaty signed and that they could take some steps to change this. The statements made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Ara Ayvazyan regarding the need to clarify the status of Nagorno-Karabakh are also thought-provoking. In addition, in recent days between the Armenian diaspora (especially between the diaspora structures in the US) it is a predominant belief that the Biden period is an opportunity against the serious rapprochement of Turkey-Azerbaijan relations after the Nagorno-Karabakh war. It should also be taken into account that there is a perception in these circles that the US-Armenia relations should be further strengthened in this process and that the Armenian diplomats should follow an active policy in the diaspora.
Prof. Yildiz Deveci Bozkus is a faculty member at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University, Department of Caucasus Studies.
This article originally appeared in Anadolu Agency on 09 April 2021.