A year since the Armenian ‘Velvet Revolution’: Plans and Challenges
A peaceful civil disobedience campaign resulting in regime collapse in April 2018, followed by first elections in about 20 years without vote buying, ballot-box stuffing and other fraud, raised hopes about the possibility of democratic transition. During the protests and after coming to power, the new democratic leader, Nikol Pashinyan and members of his team have been insisting that the revolution’s agenda was purely domestic, not related to a possible change of the foreign policy course, and have vowed to keep the previous commitments to the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Eurasian Economic Union. In general, the government’s programme seeking to advance no strategy-level relations with any country except Russia lacks ambition. At the same time, the government plans to develop relations with the EU along the pattern outlined by the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement. However, the inclination not to disappoint Russia notwithstanding, economic and social issues may need to be solved by a more innovative and pro-active approach.
Before the civil disobedience campaign resulting in a regime change in the spring of 2018, Armenia had already had a long history of mass protests, particularly after disputed presidential elections in 2003, 2008 and 2013. Yet, at the moment when transition from a presidential to a parliamentary system stipulated by the constitutional amendments adopted in 2015 was about to be finalised, the quite unexpected protest campaign turned out to be the most successful. Although former President Serzh Sargsyan after finishing his second presidential term (2013-2018) became prime minister, ongoing mass protests forced him to resign six days later in April 2018. Protest leader Nikol Pashinyan was appointed as the new prime minister and few months later managed to proceed, dissolving the National Assembly and holding snap elections. Pashinyan’s bloc won the elections on 9 December 2018 with 70.42 percent of the votes and secured 88 of 132 seats in the parliament. According to the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission, the elections ‘were held with respect for fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust’.
Already before the elections, Pashinyan’s cabinet faced a massive propaganda campaign by the former regime’s proxies aiming to destroy the government’s reputation in order to avoid prosecution of some former top-level officials. Propaganda topics included allegations that the new government would make unilateral concessions on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue; that the revolution had been staged by the Open Society Foundation–Armenia (OSF), labelled ‘Soros Foundation’, which allegedly continued influencing the new government; that the government sponsored religious sects and the LGBT community, thereby ‘betraying national and family values’; and so forth. Similar allegations have been going on after the elections as well. Some Russian media have also joined the campaign against Pashinyan’s government, despite his statements in favour of an even deeper cooperation with Russia. In February, Komsomolskaya Pravda called Armenian ex-president Robert Kocharyan (in office in 1998-2008) ‘the first political prisoner in the post-Soviet space’. Russian state-run RT speculated that a prominent member of the Armenian parliament and several civil society organisations received money from the West for ‘exporting revolution’, and that story was also picked up by Sputnik Armenia and other media. On 28 March three major state-controlled Russian TV channels – Rossiya 24, NTV and TVC – also vindicated for Kocharyan, speculating that Pashinyan had organised ‘riots’ comparable with Euromaidan in Ukraine. Recently, Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab published an analysis of some propaganda activities by ostensibly independent ‘fact-checking groups’ (part 1, part 2). Media owned by proxy by Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan’s son-in-law Mikael Minasyan intensified their campaign against the government as Kocharyan’s trial on charges related to the tragic events of 1 March 2008 (when the police and army units had attacked the protesters after a contested presidential election and 10 persons were killed) began on 13 May. As the issue of pre-trial detention was being considered, Kocharyan’s proxies launched a campaign aiming at intimidation of the state prosecutor, victims’ relatives and their legal counsellors. Later, as former and acting leaders of the non-recognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic also backed Kocharyan (himself a Karabakh native), the judge ultimately released him from detention on 18 May. Moreover, on 20 May the judge decided to drop the case without giving it full consideration, de facto accepting Kocharyan’s argument that he enjoys immunity as he had acted within the scope of presidential power.
The judge’s ruling has probably sped up a long-awaited reform of the judiciary. Prime Minister Pashinyan announced that all judges would be subjected to vetting, i.e. the public would have complete information about their political connections, property as well as previous professional activities; that all judges whose verdicts were reviewed by the European Court of Human Rights, resulting in compensations awarded to claimants whose rights had been violated, would be removed from their posts; and that the constitution would be amended, if needed, in order to proceed with the reform. A profound reform of the judiciary is absolutely essential for securing the democratic achievements, and it needs to be implemented quickly, especially considering that Pashinyan’s cabinet, having a two-third majority in the parliament, does not face the dilemma noted by Dániel Hegedűs in the Hungarian case: a new government not able to change the constitution could be unable to overcome the state capture without violating the rule of law.
Considering the other critical issue – the need for economic development – it is also hardly possible not to see a major impediment. The government’s capacity to perform governance and economic reforms is limited by Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and strong dependence on Russia in general. Russia is the main supplier of weapons essential for keeping a relative balance of power with Azerbaijan, and the largest Russian military base abroad is stationed in Armenia; remittances from Armenians working in Russia are the largest source of hard currency; Russia’s Gazprom owns the Armenian gas distribution network and an agreement signed by the previous government, unless repealed, makes energy supply diversification impossible; Russian companies control a large part of the telecommunication services, banking and other sectors; and so forth. In turn, EEU membership makes free trade with non-member countries impossible. Besides, the EEU mostly adopted Russia’s tariff levels, and other members were obliged to raise their tariffs, making consumer goods, machinery and equipment imported from non-EEU countries even more expensive.
An open and sincere discussion about economic perspectives and its foreign policy implications, which has been limited by the inclination not to disappoint Russia, and Russia’s efforts to influence Armenian political discourse via disinformation, seems inevitable after all. Among the additional factors to consider are the growing payments of foreign debt interest and the possible decline in the amount of remittances because of the likely economic recession in Russia in case the oil price declines. A further deepening of ties with Russia is also likely to become a strong obstacle for overcoming past dependence.
Armen Grigoryan is a Prague Civil Society Centre fellow. He has been a policy adviser for several Armenian non-governmental organisations and a regular contributor to US-based online journals, the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst and the Eurasia Daily Monitor. He has published several book chapters and journal articles, and over 250 articles and interviews in Armenian media.
The author's related publications include:
‘Current Security Situation in the South Caucasus: Wider Regional Context’, Europolity, Vol. 12 No. 1, 2018
‘A Need for More Balanced and Accountable Defence Institution Building in the Current International Security Setting’, in Harnessing Regional Stability in the South Caucasus: The Role and Prospects of Defence Institution Building in the Current Strategic Context, Frederic Labarre and George Niculescu (eds.) Vienna: Federal Ministry of Defence and Sports, 2017
‘The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Regional Security: The Implicit Interests of Regional Players’, in Panorama of Global Security Environment 2015-2016, Peter Bátor and Róbert Ondrejcsák (eds.) Bratislava: Strategic Policy Institute, 2016
‘The Attitudes towards European Integration in Eastern Partnership States: The Significance of Elites’ Commitment for Further Engagement’, in EURINT 2016: The Eastern Partnership under Strain – Time for a Rethink?, Gabriela Carmen Pascariu, Teodor Lucian Moga and Loredana Maria Simionov (eds.) Iaşi: Alexandru Ioan Cuza University, 2016