ZOiS Spotlight 42/2018 by Silvia Stöber (5 December 2018)
The election of a new parliament in Armenia on 9 December is likely to be the final step in the peaceful transfer of power that began with the Velvet Revolution in spring this year, when politician Nikol Pashinyan and his allies launched a wave of protests across the country.
The sheer numbers of protesters – hundreds of thousands – forced Serzh Sargsyan of the Republican Party out of office in April. He had gambled on being able to remain in government by initiating a constitutional reform and recasting himself as Prime Minister rather than President. However, he and his Republican colleagues underestimated the massive popular resentment of their abuse of power for personal gain at the public’s expense.
With such powerful pressure coming from the street, the Republican members of parliament did not prevent Pashinyan’s election as Prime Minister. Nevertheless, they used their parliamentary majority against him, pushing through amendments to the Law on Parliament’s Rules of Procedure at the start of October in a bid to hamper early elections.
People power versus parliamentary power
But once again, Pashinyan made adroit use of Facebook to mobilise thousands of supporters, who rallied in front of the National Assembly building and waited for hours until Pashinyan spoke to them and ended the protest with a night-time stroll through Yerevan.
This renewed demonstration of people power eased the way for Pashinyan’s decision to step down as Prime Minister, initiating the high-risk procedure leading to early elections. This took two votes in Parliament, neither of which was to produce a successor to Pashinyan, clearing the way for the snap election.
Eleven parties have registered to take part in the elections on 9 December. The “My Step” bloc led by Pashinyan seems set to match its impressive performance at September’s municipal elections in Yerevan, when it gained 81 per cent of the vote.
It is not just that the Republicans have further discredited themselves with their behaviour. Pashinyan’s movement has managed to convince the public that it is capable of effecting the fundamental transformation that the country needs. At least in October, there was still a lot of talk of a “new Armenia”, and in schools, universities and other institutions, it is not only the young who are rising up against corruption and blind obedience to authority.
In spring this year, some of the country’s most notorious oligarchs found themselves under investigation. Soon afterwards, ex-President Robert Kocharian was temporarily arrested for his role in the brutal crackdown on protests in 2008, which left ten people dead. Yuri Khachaturov, former Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Armenia, was briefly detained as well, prompting an angry reaction from the Russian government: at the time, Khachaturov was the Secretary-General of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Armenian foreign policy largely unchanged
In other areas, however, Pashinyan – who is seen as a liberal – has sought to maintain good relations with Russia in recent months. In a shift away from his previous position, he does not question Armenia’s membership of the Eurasian Economic Union, also Russian-led. Towards Azerbaijan, though, he is less conciliatory, a stance which chimes with the popular mood since the Four-Day War in early 2016, when Azerbaijan made territorial advances in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Pashinyan’s focus on reforms at home, not questioning the broad outlines of Armenian foreign policy, particularly Russia’s protective role as a military power, but also trying to build good relations with the European Union were key factors ensuring that any adverse economic and financial impacts of the peaceful revolution have remained limited. The Armenian currency remained stable, and growth is solid. Even so, diaspora investors around the world have held back, deterred by the possibility that the Republicans might yet cling to power.
Among Pashinyan’s allies, the young Diaspora Minister Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, who has no family ties to the diaspora community, has attracted particular criticism for his underwhelming performance, especially in public. Other politicians and officials have also come under fire for their incompetence and poor communication skills.
Too much power for Pashinyan?
So what might a future government under Pashinyan look like? This continues to be a cause for concern – as is the prospect of his bloc coming to dominate the National Assembly. Although parties that secure a lesser share of the vote are allocated proportionately more seats in Parliament, they all have to clear the five per cent hurdle first.
Another problem is that Pashinyan’s bloc is still very much a collective movement without a clear political profile. Some supporters and observers are therefore contemplating whether to set up separate factions with distinct liberal, green or social democratic agendas as a means of facilitating open debate about political objectives and policies.
Many civil society activists and campaigners in Pashinyan’s orbit have a constructive but critical attitude towards him, which may help him to stay attuned to the realities of people’s lives. The greatest challenges facing Armenia are poverty and a weak welfare system. Action is also needed to attract foreign investors and support small business development, especially in agriculture. The booming IT sector and the tourism industry show that this can work. Both are sectors where, so far, the oligarchs have failed to build a monopoly.
Silvia Stöber is a freelance journalist with more than 10 years of specialist experience reporting on the post-Soviet space. She works for ARD, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Tagesspiegel and other publications.