Armenia’s post-war Polit­i­cal Crisis

Foto: Shutterstock, Kacper Kawecki
Foto: Shut­ter­stock, Kacper Kawecki

Armenia’s Prime Min­is­ter Nikol Pashinyan is facing protests and requests to resign after Armenia lost the war with Azer­bai­jan for Nagorno Karabakh. Richard Giragosian, Direc­tor of the inde­pen­dent Think­tanks Regional Studies Center (RSC) in Yerevan, Armenia, explains what had hap­pened and how the world should react. (Deutsche Version hier.)

A lin­ger­ing domes­tic polit­i­cal crisis in Armenia has only further deep­ened in recent weeks. Although Armen­ian Prime Min­is­ter Nikol Pashinyan was swept into power on the pop­u­lar­ity of his lead­er­ship and courage in forcing the ouster of the pre­vi­ously corrupt gov­ern­ment in 2018, that initial eupho­ria has seri­ously eroded. More­over, ever since that impres­sive victory of non-violent “people power” in the country’s “Velvet Rev­o­lu­tion,” the Armen­ian gov­ern­ment has seen a steady decline in support while it strug­gled to sustain the momen­tum of reform and democratization.

Although but­tressed by a rare degree of legit­i­macy from its over­whelm­ing victory in a free and fair par­lia­men­tary elec­tion in Decem­ber 2018, the gov­ern­ment has floun­dered more recently, however, with a series of serious polit­i­cal mis­steps and policy mis­takes that has con­tributed to a sim­mer­ing polit­i­cal crisis. Against that back­drop, it was the unex­pected defeat in the 44-day war with Azer­bai­jan for Nagorno Karabakh in Novem­ber 2020 that trig­gered a sharp esca­la­tion of the pre-exist­ing polit­i­cal crisis. Given the Armen­ian government’s lack of prepa­ra­tion of society for the scale and sever­ity of unex­pected losses from the war, Pashinyan faced an imme­di­ate and emo­tional series of protests, leading to calls for the prime min­is­ter to resign and demands for accountability.

Unprece­dented Post-War Vulnerability

The depth of this post-war crisis in Armenia stems from the unex­pected degree of vul­ner­a­bil­ity and inse­cu­rity. Most sig­nif­i­cantly, Prime Min­is­ter Pashinyan is both vul­ner­a­ble and exposed by his soli­tary posi­tion as the only Armen­ian leader to have suf­fered a mil­i­tary defeat over Nagorno Karabakh. This is espe­cially serious as it rep­re­sents an unprece­dented period of vul­ner­a­bil­ity, given the fact that the Karabakh con­flict has long served as the pri­or­ity element of Armen­ian secu­rity, defense and foreign policy. Having emerged in well within the waning years of the Soviet period, the Karabakh issue actu­ally pre­dates modern Armen­ian inde­pen­dence and state­hood. Within this context, the Armen­ian gov­ern­ment faces a daunt­ing chal­lenge to adapt to a sub­stan­tially new geopo­lit­i­cal reality.

The demands of weath­er­ing the unchar­tered waters of this post-war reality have also forced the Armenia leader to accept a Russian-imposed cease­fire agree­ment that effec­tively ended the six-week war for Karabakh, but which is also depen­dent on the pres­ence of Russian peace­keep­ers for secu­rity. Faced with little choice and no alter­na­tive, the Armen­ian accep­tance of the terms of the Russian agree­ment saved lives and sal­vaged the remain­ing ter­ri­tory of Nagorno Karabakh. But the agree­ment was based on a con­sol­i­da­tion of sig­nif­i­cant ter­ri­to­r­ial gains by Azer­bai­jan and only affirmed Armenia’s stun­ning defeat. At the same time, the limited scope of the cease­fire agree­ment does little to resolve the con­flict and raises an out­stand­ing ques­tion over the status of Karabakh, neces­si­tat­ing a return to diplo­matic nego­ti­a­tions to ensure lasting secu­rity and stability.

The crisis esca­lated sig­nif­i­cantly in Feb­ru­ary 2021, however, with an unprece­dented and unex­pected inter­ven­tion of the armed forces into the polit­i­cal arena. Sparked by an act of open defi­ance of the gov­ern­ment, a group of some forty senior Army offi­cers called on Prime Min­is­ter Nikol Pashinyan to resign. The act was sig­nif­i­cant as both a serious move to under­mine the tra­di­tion­ally stable civil-mil­i­tary rela­tions and as an unusual display of the poli­ti­za­tion of the nor­mally neutral armed forces. The moti­va­tion and meaning of such an unprece­dented devel­op­ment stems from three factors driving a broader context of polit­i­cal conflict.

A Pro­longed “State of War.” Armen­ian society has been unable to over­come the shock from the unex­pected mil­i­tary defeat in the war for Karabakh that ended in Novem­ber 2020. While this is par­tially driven by the Armen­ian government’s failure to prepare public opinion for the scale and sever­ity of the mil­i­tary defeat in the 44-day war, it is also due to the con­tin­ued “state of war” that has only been pro­longed by Azerbaijan’s con­tin­ued failure to return a sizable number of Armen­ian mil­i­tary pris­on­ers of war and civil­ian hostages.

Post-War Uncer­tainty & Inse­cu­rity. A second factor con­tribut­ing to the esca­la­tion of the post-war crisis has been the uncer­tainty and inse­cu­rity in the new post-war reality. With a delay in the resump­tion of diplo­matic nego­ti­a­tions, this uncer­tainty stems from the vague and incom­plete terms of the Russian-imposed agree­ment that ended the war on 9 Novem­ber. Although that agree­ment rep­re­sented an impor­tant ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties that allowed for the deploy­ment of a Russian peace­keep­ing force to Nagorno Karabakh, it was far short of either a peace deal or a res­o­lu­tion to the Karabakh con­flict. More­over, the agree­ment deferred the status of Nagorno Karabakh to a later stage of diplo­matic nego­ti­a­tions and left several addi­tion­ally impor­tant issues unan­swered, such as mil­i­tary with­drawal of demo­bi­liza­tion. At the same time, this uncer­tainty was com­pounded by inse­cu­rity, which also impacts Armenia proper as post-war border demar­ca­tion has only exac­er­bated local inse­cu­rity given the close prox­im­ity of Azer­bai­jani mil­i­tary units along the south­ern border areas of Armenia.

Lack of Account­abil­ity & State Paral­y­sis. The general per­cep­tion of a lack of account­abil­ity for the mil­i­tary losses and polit­i­cal deci­sions through the war is a third factor in the lin­ger­ing domes­tic polit­i­cal crisis. From a broader per­spec­tive, this lack of account­abil­ity is rooted in the fact that the Karabakh con­flict actu­ally pre­dates Armen­ian inde­pen­dence, which places the Pashinyan gov­ern­ment in polit­i­cally uncharted ter­ri­tory, as the only Armen­ian lead­er­ship to have “lost” Karabakh. But more specif­i­cally, the response of the gov­ern­ment to the unex­pected loss in the war has been both inad­e­quate and insuf­fi­cient. With no adjust­ment to the new post-war reality, marked by an absence of any mod­i­fied or new diplo­matic strat­egy and a failure to alter mil­i­tary posture or reform, the Armen­ian gov­ern­ment appears impo­tent in its “state of denial.” And with little luxury of time, the failure to accept the need for seeking “lessons learned” from the war has greatly under­mined con­fi­dence in the gov­ern­ment. And despite demo­c­ra­tic gains since coming to power, the meager polit­i­cal response and the mar­ginal role of par­lia­ment have only fos­tered a per­cep­tion of state paralysis.

Dan­ger­ous Precedents

Against that back­drop, Armen­ian democ­racy is further beset by two broader trends, each of which is directly related to the recent losses in the war for Karabakh and that con­tin­ues to exert destruc­tive pres­sure threat­en­ing the resilience of Armen­ian democ­racy. The first of these trends is the dan­ger­ous prece­dent from the per­cep­tion that the recent war for Karabakh vin­di­cates the use of force as an accept­able means to resolve essen­tially polit­i­cal con­flicts. This risk of reward­ing aggres­sion and mil­i­tary force as cred­i­ble options to settle diplo­matic dis­putes raises serious con­cerns over the impli­ca­tions for other con­flicts, ranging from Cyprus to Crimea. And by failing to chal­lenge this prece­dent of allow­ing mil­i­tary means to force a res­o­lu­tion of con­flicts, the danger is rooted in legit­imiz­ing the concept that “might makes right” in inter­na­tional relations.

A second dan­ger­ous trend is rooted in a related prece­dent involv­ing the appar­ent accep­tance of the mil­i­tary victory of two much larger, more pow­er­ful author­i­tar­ian coun­tries (Azer­bai­jan and Turkey) over a small democ­racy. And in the case of any con­sol­i­da­tion of the victory of these aggres­sive author­i­tar­ian states, such consent rep­re­sents a degree of com­plic­ity and cul­pa­bil­ity. From this per­spec­tive, the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity must be cau­tious in allow­ing such a prece­dent to stand, espe­cially as the wave of author­i­tar­ian repres­sion in Azer­bai­jan and Turkey will only be encour­aged or endorsed, to the detri­ment of strug­gling democ­ra­cies like Armenia.

What should the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity do now?

Given the com­bi­na­tion of these pre-exist­ing chal­lenges and the impact of a dra­mat­i­cally new post-war envi­ron­ment, democ­racy in Armenia is now under assault. The dra­matic gains of Armenia gar­nered from its peace­ful rev­o­lu­tion of 2018, which was driven by an activist pop­u­la­tion no longer defined by apathy but com­mit­ted to defend­ing democ­racy, were widely embraced as a welcome excep­tion. But sta­bil­ity and secu­rity in Armenia are now imper­iled. While much of the burden of adapt­ing and adopt­ing Armen­ian national inter­ests to meet this new post-war reality lies with the gov­ern­ment, the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity also has a respon­si­bil­ity to recom­mit to democ­ra­ti­za­tion and rein­vest in reform in Armenia. The risk of regress and retreat from reform and democ­racy not only stands out is as a danger for Armenia, but also stands apart as a threat to the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity. And for the future of Armenia, democ­racy pro­tec­tion is now as impor­tant as democ­racy promotion.


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