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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