Tim Ogden

A defeated Armenia descends into turmoil

(Photo by KAREN MINASYAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Ever since its disastrous military defeat at the hands of Azerbaijan last year, Armenia has suffered from a wave of political unrest, with rallies and protests continuing sporadically. The principal demand of the protestors has been the resignation of the incumbent Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, whose agreement to a ceasefire favourable to Azerbaijan following his country’s defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh was viewed as a national betrayal.

However, the most serious declaration of opposition to the Prime Minister came on Thursday, when the general staff of the armed forces, Onik Gasparyan, joined in the calls for Pashinyan to resign. Gasparyan was prompted by Pashinyan’s dismissal of his deputy, who had publicly ridiculed the Prime Minister’s claim that his country’s military had been failed by faulty Russian missiles. Moscow, too, weighed into the dispute with the deputy chairman of the Duma defence committee attacking Pashinyan for ‘trying to absolve himself of the blame for the failings in the Karabakh war’.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia has been entirely dependent on Russian support

General Gasparyan’s stated demands — which have been co-signed by other senior military officers — are considered a coup by the Prime Minister, who held a rally of his own to counter the protests by opposition factions. Pashinyan has demanded that the military return to its duties and not attempt to interfere in politics.

While the Prime Minister has warned the protestors that those breaking the law will be arrested, if a concerted effort is made to remove Pashinyan from power it is not abundantly clear how he would attempt to retain his position. In the immediate aftermath of the Russian-brokered ceasefire with Azerbaijan, the country’s parliament building was seized and the president of the national assembly hospitalised by furious civilians. Law enforcement was either powerless to stop them or disinterested in trying. It is reasonable to conclude that any military-supported takeover of government would encounter even less resistance. Pashinyan and his government are not popular.

Although the Armenian government still enjoys the support of its own party loyalists, the administration has taken more of the blame for the country’s defeat than the military. The armed forces have the support of the parliamentary opposition, who have declared that Pashinyan’s dismissal of Khachartyan and threats to force out Gasparyan are attempts ‘aimed at decapitating the army’. The Prime Minister does not have the backing of his president, Armen Sarksyan, who in November described Pashinyan’s resignation as ‘inevitable’, and refused to sign Pashinyan’s order dismissing Gasparyan from his post.

Inevitable is perhaps the right word, since Pashinyan’s government has never been completely stable. Having come to power in the so-called ‘velvet revolution’ of 2018, the Prime Minister incurred the ire of Moscow early on, having ousted a set of prominent Kremlin allies and hinting at closer ties to the West. It is a matter of geopolitical curiosity that a region as small as South Caucasus has historically had (and retains) such strategic importance; doubly interesting is the fact that the three countries of the region have chosen drastically different foreign policy paths, the only common element being the high level of dependence each has on its international partner of choice.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has bolstered ties with Turkey (a country with which it shares cultural and ethnic ties), while Georgia continues to stumble and stagger on the long road to EU and Nato membership. Armenia, however, has been entirely dependent on Russian support, and the Kremlin’s negotiation of the recent peace has only reinforced this. Armenia’s minister of defence even discussed the possibility of a relocation and expansion of the Russian military base in northern Armenia.

The notion that Pashinyan’s replacement by a more overtly pro-Russian leader would be pleasing to the Kremlin is perhaps best demonstrated by Moscow’s uncharacteristically muted response to the unrest in the capital Yerevan. Past disturbances in Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia have resulted in Russian calls for calm and ostensible professions of hope that democratic processes be respected — by contrast, Armenia’s current crisis has led only to the decidedly ambivalent Kremlin response that ‘this is purely an internal affair for Armenia’.

Whether Pashinyan survives the crisis, is removed forcibly or via elections, Armenia’s future as a Russian client state is effectively guaranteed and Moscow’s strategic foothold in the South Caucasus secured. Pashinyan’s 2018 idea to deepen ties with Europe and the wider West, therefore, is not likely to be one that resurfaces in Armenian politics any time soon.