Armenia’s post-war Political Crisis
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.
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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