Armenia: The Road to Democracy in Post-Soviet Caucasus

A Crisis in Armenia: The Fight for Democracy

Recently, the mountainous former Soviet nation of Armenia has been heavily featured on mainstream media, mainly due to the country’s wave of protests against its now former prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan, led by the opposition’s leader, Nikol Pashinyan. The protests, which Mr Pashinyan said a “non-violent velvet revolution”, reacted to Mr Sargsyan’s election as prime minister after being president for 10 years. He was elected by a Parliament, which had been granted more powers in a sketchy 2015 referendum that shifted the country from a presidential system into a parliamentarian one. The protests started in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital and soon spread to the neighbouring towns of Gyumri and Vanadzor.

“I want to be clear, it isn’t a fight for Nikol Pashinyan becoming prime minister, it’s a fight for human rights, for democracy, for rule of law and that is why our people aren’t tired and won’t be tired.” – Nikol Pasinyan

After the massive protests, Mr Sargsyan agreed to step down, and the ruling Republican Party confirmed its support Mr Pashinyan’s bid to become interim prime minister, which brought a halt to the demonstrations. The Republican Party further announced that they would not present a candidate of their own, thus making Mr Pashinyan the only nominee. The vote is scheduled to happen on the 8th of May. If the National Assembly (Armenia’s Parliament) fails to elect a prime minister, it will be dissolved and elections called. This seems to be the reason behind the Republican Party’s switch of candidates, as they intend to retain control of the National Assembly. After this information was released, Mr Pashinyan suspended the protests and strikes that had been happening for weeks, and that had blocked roads and stopped traffic, closed metro stations and interrupted train services between Yerevan and Gyumri. It forced tourists to abandon vehicles and carry their luggage, as traffic was completely cut off on the route to the main airport.

The political instability brings concern for the wider region, due to longstanding territorial conflicts with Azerbaijan. The country also has close ties with Russia, which has military bases in the Armenia, and Mr Pashinyan has assured the Russian news agency Tass that the two countries will remain as allies if he comes to power. He has also revealed that Moscow had assured him that there would not be a Russian intervention in Armenian internal affairs.

Conflicts and Crisis in the post-Soviet Caucasus

The events are completely unprecedented for any former Soviet nation, particularly Russia’s response. As Armenia is completely dependent on Russia for protection, Mr Pashinyan has pledged its support of the northern neighbouring country, despite Mr Sargsyan being a clear ally of Russian President Putin. Unlike in similar movements in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004), the origins of this crisis are domestic, as opposed to the international problems that fueled other protests in other former Soviet states. And even if the protests do succeed, as recent events might suggest (the Armenian president has confirmed the Mr Pashinyan is likely to be elected interim prime minister), and the country becomes less corrupt and more democratic, Armenia will still be heavily dependent on Russia.

The region is a heavily militarised one, due both to hostility between countries and to internal civil conflicts. The region contains many self-proclaimed nations, most notably Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, which have led to the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. This conflict opposed Georgia to Russia and the Russian-backed separatist republics, and came as tensions between Putin’s Russia and a more pro-West Georgia were increasing. South Ossetia and Abkhazia had already been involved in conflicts against Georgia in the 90’s, and the dispute broke out, now with Russian support for the separatists. A ceasefire agreement was brokered by the EU, and Russia recognised the republics as independent. That led to the severing of diplomatic ties with Russia from the Georgian government.

Russia itself faces instability in its North Caucasus region. The conflict, mainly associated with Chechen nationalists, has seen two war breaking out in the 90’s, and while the First Chechen War has left Chechnya relatively independent, the Second Chechen War led to an increased control of the territory by Russian forces. Currently, the conflict has mainly been carried out in association with radical Islamists, through terrorist attacks committed in Russia, such as the Moscow Metro bombings (2010) and the Domodedovo International Airport bombings (2011)

Another tension hotspot is the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory that, in spite of being internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, is de facto ruled by the Republic of Artsakh. The region is disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia, even though the population’s ethnically Armenian and the most common language is Armenian. Artsakh is so dependant of Armenia that it mostly functions as an Armenian territory, although without international recognition.

These conflicts are the mainly the result of the fragmentation of the Soviet Union and of a nationalist revival, and set the Caucasus as a dangerous region, where the events in Armenia can easily threaten regional stability, which involves bigger players, mainly Turkey, Russia and the EU.

Armenia: Context of a Crisis

Armenia, with a population of 3.1 million and an area of almost 30 000 square kilometres, has had a troublesome history, being historically divided between Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman and Russian rule. During World War I, the Armenian people were the victims of a genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire. It is suspected that over a million and a half Armenians were killed in the systematic mass killings carried out by the Ottomans. Turkey denies the allegations to this day, claiming it was a civil war with casualties on both sides. This persecution also motivated the Armenian Diaspora, the reason behind why there are more Armenians outside of Armenia than inside it.

With the collapse of the Ottoman and Russian empires, the first Republic of Armenia was established in 1918. However Armenia would soon be invaded by Turkish and Soviet forces, and, in 1922, the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, despite having lost land to the Turks, joined the Soviet Union.

In 1991, Armenia declared its independence after an overwhelmingly favourable referendum. However, the young republic wasn’t off to a great start. Most elections have been clouded in electoral fraud, starting right with the very first one. After wining the first Presidency of the newly formed Republic of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s reelection was marked by irregularities and both the opposition and international observers have alleged electoral fraud. His move to ban and jail an opposition party also contributed to his unpopularity, leading to his resignation in 1998.

His successor, Mr Kocharyan, governed for two terms, both of which he won in dubious circumstances, with international observers, among which the OSCE, reporting frauds and violations by both sides. It was during Mr Kocharyan’s first term that occurred the infamous Armenian Parliament Shooting, during which five gunmen entered the National Assembly on the 27th of October of 1999 and killed the Prime Minister, the Parliament Speaker and other opposition members of parliament. Mr Kocharyan negotiated with the terrorists the release of the hostage MPs, but several conspiracy theories still maintain that the shooting was done by the President.

In 2008, Mr Kocharyan’s Prime Minister ran for President against the former President Mr Ter-Petrosyan, who had resigned ten years ago. Mr Ter-Petrosyan accused Mr Kocharyan’s administration of massive corruption, claiming to have stolen at least three to four million dollars. However, Mr Sargsyan would eventually win the election in February 2008, leading Mr Ter-Petrosyan to call for continuous protests, claiming the government had rigged the election. On the 1st of May, the police dispersed the protests under the allegation of the use of firearms. Mr Ter-Petrosyan was effectively placed under house arrest, even though the authorities denied it later. A few hours later, more and more people were gathering in Miyasnikyan Square. The colossal influx of protesters led Mr Kocharyan to implement the state of emergency and the army was allowed to take control of Yerevan. This was followed by a mass arrests in what was practically a purge of the opposition. Further protests were also banned, and Mr Sargsyan was sworn in on the 9th of April.

His tenure ended on the 9th of April of 2018, yet he was elected Prime Minister on the 17th. This move, seen by many as a power grab, led to the massive protests all across Armenia led by Mr Pashinyan. After Serzh Sargsyan agreed to step down, Karen Karapetyan became Acting Prime Minister until the vote on the 8th of May. Mr Karapetyan was Prime Minister until April 2018, when he resigned to make way for Mr Sargsyan.

How will this crisis end?

The likely course is this: Mr Pashinyan is elected and Armenia embarks on a less corrupt chapter of its history. As the sources of this crisis are local, and aren’t related to the international problems of the region (the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan), it likely won’t result in further conflict for the Caucasus region. However, if Mr Pashinyan isn’t elected on the 8th of May, then the protests will surely carry on, perhaps even over-spilling to neighbouring countries. We will have to wait and see. But for now, the Armenian people hope of a brighter future, starting next Tuesday.

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