Government House of Armenia

Government House of Armenia

Election The 2021 Extra Parliamentary Elections in Armenia

On June 20, 2021, Armenia will hold an early parliamentary election, two years earlier than the ordinary scheduled one for December 9, 2023. The election is in reality a vote of confidence for the incumbent Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and necessitated by the political crisis which emerged in the aftermath of the Nagorno Karabakh war in 2020.

Published on balticworlds.com on June 14, 2021

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On June 20, 2021, Armenia will hold an early parliamentary election, two years earlier than the ordinary scheduled one for December 9, 2023. The election is in reality a vote of confidence for the incumbent Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and necessitated by the political crisis which emerged in the aftermath of the Nagorno Karabakh war in 2020.

The Upcoming Election Field

As soon as the draft document for the truce between Armenia and Azerbaijan leaked out to the public,[1] calls for Pashinayan’s resignation were raised, both in Armenia and among the Diaspora. The critics demanding Pashinyan’s immediate resignation took to the streets in Yerevan and it soon turned into riots. Angry protesters stormed the parliament and the government building, severely injuring Ararat Mirzoyan, the speaker of the parliament.[2] However, Pashinyan resisted all calls for resignation.

The leader of the 2018 “Velvet Revolution,”[3] heralded internationally for leading the popular movement and a bloodless regime change, was now labelled as “traitor” for having “sold out” Nagorno Karabakh. In their turn, Pashinyan’s supporters called these critics for “traitors” and “counterrevolutionaries” who wanted to reverse the course of the 2018 revolution, bringing back the old guard. The name-calling and the growing polarity were highly apparent on social media, where both sides engaged in an injurious polemic, accusing each other of treachery and naiveness.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 war, it was not difficult to criticize Pashinyan and his policies: challenging the existing oligarchic system domestically and estranging Moscow at the same time, was deemed by many as a highly foolish mistake by a relatively inexperienced stateman and his team. Already back in May 2018, upon presenting his new interim cabinet consisting of many young ministers, many reflected upon the delicate task of the welcomed rejuvenation of state agencies while retaining experience.[4]

However, while the promised fight with the existing corruption soon yielded visible results, especially in confiscated sums returned to the state treasury,[5] other moves drew sharp criticism, nationally and internationally. The latter was foremost evident in Pashinyan’s administration’s attempt to implement the same method of “flushing out the old” on the judiciary system, which some viewed as “‘puppets’ of the former government.”[6] The critics accused Pashinyan of moving too fast and even becoming an autocrat. Another action causing criticism was the prosecution of the former president Robert Kocharyan for his role in the unfolding events during the last days of his presidency in 2008.[7] This development was, nevertheless, hardly surprising as some predicted that public demand for swift visible results would potentially force fast moving implementation which would deem “undemocratic” and potentially cause a recoil from the threatened old regime.[8]

The Powder Keg: The Nagorno Karabakh Conflict

Yet, the most delicate and crucial factor in the equation was not in the domestic sphere, but an external one, namely the unresolved Karabakh conflict and it being an ace up Russia’s sleeve. Already back in 2013, Serzh Sargsyan’s administration attempted to approach the EU and got burned badly and openly humiliated by Moscow, forcing Yerevan to abandon the signing of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with EU. Many argued that the threat towards Karabakh was the crucial factor for forcing Sargsyan to make the U-turn.[9] When the Pashinyan administration anew started hinting attempts for approaching EU,[10] everyone immediately turned their gaze towards Moscow and wondered what the reaction would be this time. Indeed, many  speculated about the conspicuous silence of Moscow during the 2018 revolution and how to interpret it.[11] At least for a short while, between April 2018 and the summer of 2020, it seemed that the balance act between EU and Russia was working. Then came the Azerbaijani assault, backed-up by Turkish military and thousands of Syrian mercenaries on September 27, 2020. The silent and the inaction of Russia during the war spoke volumes.

Some, conspiracy theorist and analysists alike, would connect the eerie Russian silence since 2018 to the unfolding of the events in the 2020 Karabakh war.[12] Reflecting back on how relatively easy Sargsyan resigned back in 2018, some argue that this was an elaborate plan to hand over the Gordian knot of Karabakh to Pashinyan. As Sargsyan realized that the conflict could not be resolved without a war due to Azerbaijan’s refusal to implement the existing Madrid Principles proposed by the OSCE Minsk Group,[13] they simply dumped the issue on Pashinyan’s lap, waiting for the events to have their course. Instead of confronting the strong popular movement in 2018, the existing hegemony would step aside and let the inexperienced Pashinyan discredit himself and be removed due to popular discontent.

The Azerbaijani assault on Karabakh came when Armenia was in the midst of sweeping reforms and refurbishing and already severely strained due to the ongoing Covid pandemic in 2020. Decades of political mismanagement of the country and the military in combination with ongoing schisms among the political elite turned out to be the very recipe of disaster which many had warned about for years.

Given the tense situation since the 2020 war, it is still impossible to accurately pinpoint the details and individual responsibility, but what is clear is the major system failure. This has been evident in the inconsistencies of the explanations and the blame-game which occurred in the aftermath of the war. The disparity was especially conspicuous in two institutions central to the Karabakh conflict, namely the foreign ministry and the army: the resignations of foreign ministers Zohrab Mnatskanyan (November 16, 2020)[14] and Ara Aivazyan (May 27, 2021)[15] and attempts by Pashinyan to fire the Chief of General Staff, Onik Gasparyan, who had days earlier demanded Pashinyan’s resignation.[16] That President Armen Sargsyan refused to ratify Pashinyan’s firing of Gasparyan (required by the constitution in order to come into effect) only emphasized the rifts within the political leadership. Later it was announced that all deputy foreign ministers have resigned as well, leaving the foreign ministry virtually leaderless.[17]

Demands for Pashinyan’s Resignation

Thus, when the pressure and the criticism became loud, Pashinyan opened for holding early elections. However, the invite was rejected by the oppositional forces who demanded his resignation, upon which an interim government would replace his.[18] Nonetheless, Pashinyan managed to resist the pressure for his resignation, until late April 2021 when he, according to the constitution, resigned in order to trigger an early election.

Pashinyan managed this mainly due to the reason that the public demand for his resignation never culminated in similar demonstrations Armenia witnessed back in 2018. The oppositional forces demanding Pashinyan’s resignation lacked a leader who was untainted by the same accusations which had ousted the old elite, bringing Pashinyan to power. Thus, Pashinyan’s survival at the helm of the government was more due to the public’s distrust of any potential replacement than a wholehearted approval of Pashinyan’s work.

As the process mulled over different options for Pashinyan’s challenger, the main oppositional front gathered around the former president Robert Kocharyan. After the registration deadline, 25 political forces – 21 parties and 4 alliances – were approved for participating in the elections.[19] An interesting note is that all former presidents are running in the coming elections, either as leader of or on the ballot of the candidate party.

Under existing election laws, the minimum number of votes for entering the parliament is five percent for single parties and seven percent for alliances (consisting of two or more parties). Any party or alliance receiving 47% of the votes can form a government. If no political force secures the 47% threshold, a maximum of three parties or alliances can unite to form a coalition government. If no government is in place within six days, a run-off election between the two top political forces will take place.

At the time of writing there are only three alliances which clear the threshold, namely Pashinyan’s “My Step” (23.8%) and Kocharyan’s “Armenia Alliance” (24.1%) and Sargsyan’s “I have Honor” (7.4%).[20] Regardless of the outcome, it is certain that even if Pashinyan wins the elections, he will lose the comfortable absolute majority his alliance has enjoyed since the 2019 snap elections, when he won a land-slide victory by 70.4% of the votes.[21]

Democracy and Security: Can We have them both?

Reflecting on the events taking place in Armenia since the 2020 war one can be at least cautiously optimistic about the prevailing of the sentiments which started in 2018, i.e. the public’s demand for rejecting any regression to the previous system or use of force. Indeed, Pashinyan could, instead of resigning now to trigger new elections, have tried to ride the protests out and continue as prime minister until December 2023. A reason he did not could be the ongoing rift within the government and the lack of support from the armed forces, which would undermine his authority in the long run. His resignation at this moment can also be viewed as a calculated risk in trying to get reelected, thus legitimately silencing the ongoing demands for his resignation. If elected, the opposition will have to move into the parliament, debating him on the political arena rather than holding rallies in the streets.

Still, there is much more at stake when going to the ballots on June 20 than just political rivalry. The criticism towards Pashinyan have merits even though one cannot blame him for everything that has gone wrong. Given the aforementioned rifts within the government or that with the armed forces, it could also be argued that some of the wrongdoings, especially during the war and after, can be acts of sabotage to undermine Pashinyan’s authority. That said, one has to avoid falling into the trap of viewing Pashinyan as a Messiah figure, which some evidently do. In reality, Pashinyan turned out to be the person who was capable to lead a revolution for steering Armenia away from oligarchy and onto the path of democracy and reforms. However, once at the helm of the government, Pashinyan has demonstrated less dexterity as a statesman in charge of an entire state apparatus, even less one hit by a pandemic and assaulted by two foreign powers in cahoots. As such, Pashinyan resembles Poland’s Lech Wałęsa, who successfully led the country away from the Communist dictatorship, but was less successful as president. Wałęsa’s confrontational style in an all-out overhaul attempt of the country resulted in frequent changes of government and his isolation within the political circles which eventually led to his defeat in the next elections. In case this is true about Pashinyan as well, a justified question could be whether it would be wise for an isolated person to stay in power and risking the political security of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh or willingly step aside to allow someone else more suitable for the moment lead the country onward.

This is where the current alternative at hand, former President Kocharyan, comes into the picture, campaigning on his old merits as the president of Armenia and his good relations with Moscow. But, trust is a hard currency which is easy to lose and much harder to regain. That seems to be the main challenge for Kocharyan, a Karabakh native, Armenia’s 6th Prime Minister under Levon Ter-Petrosyan and his successor as president of Armenia between 1998 and 2008. Other than the usual accusations of corruption and unlawful enrichment, his presidency was marred by two shocking events: the parliamentary shooting in 1999, killing eight people, among others Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan and Parliament Speaker Karen Demirchyan;[22] and the shooting into demonstrators following the 2008 presidential election, claiming 10 casualties.[23] A twist in the story is that Pashinyan, who was one of the protest leaders, was accused of “instigation of riots” and became a fugitive. Upon a promise for amnesty, Pashinyan turned himself over to the authorities in 2010, but was sentenced to prison. When released in 2011, he became an oppositional politician. Many who participated in the 2018 revolution are worried that electing Kocharyan would reverse what they achieved in the Velvet Revolution.

Thus, on June 20, 2021, in less than two years since the Velvet Revolution, Armenians are once again going to a decisive election which will have a crucial impact on, not only the future of the democracy, but the sheer security and the existence of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. The golden question that every Armenian wants to know the answer to is: can we have both democracy and security, or do we need to sacrifice the former for the sake of the latter?

References

[1] Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia sign Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal, BBC, 10 November 2020; bbc.com/news/world-europe-54882564

[2] Parliament Speaker Injured In Riots Over Karabakh Deal As Political Tensions Grow In Armenia, Azatutyun, 10 November 2021; azatutyun.am/a/30939728.html

[3] Amie Ferris-Rotman, “Did Armenia just dance its way to revolution?”, Washington Post, 3 May 2018; washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/05/03/did-armenia-just-dance-its-way-to-revolution/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7b1771125349

[4] Grigor Atanesian, “Young activists and regime veterans: Armenia’s new compromise government”, eurasianet, May 23, 2018; eurasianet.org/young-activists-and-regime-veterans-armenias-new-compromise-government

[5] AMD 18 billion returned to government thanks to corruption crackdown in Armenia, Arka News Agency, 25 June 2019; arka.am/en/news/society/amd_18_billion_returned_to_government_thanks_to_corruption_crackdown_in_armenia/

[6] Pashinyan instigates protests outside Armenian courts calling for transitional justice, OC Media, 20 May 2019; oc-media.org/pashinyan-instigates-protests-outside-armenian-courts-calling-for-transitional-justice/

[7] Armen Grigoryan, Armenian Investigators Charge Former President, Other Top Officials with Violation of Constitutional Order, Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 15, issue 119, 8 August 2018; ecoi.net/de/dokument/1440353.html

[8] See e.g. Vahagn Avedian, The Snap Parliamentary Elections of December 9, 2018 as Confirmation of the “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia, Baltic Worlds, 12 January 2019; balticworlds.com/the-snap-parliamentary-elections-of-december-9-2018-as-confirmation-of-the-velvet-revolution-in-armenia/

[9] Vahagn Avedian, The Unsustainable European Policy towards the South Caucasus, Foreign Policy Journal, 31 October 2013; foreignpolicyjournal.com/2013/10/31/the-unsustainable-european-policy-towards-the-south-caucasus/view-all/

[10] Armenia’s EU accession could be a ‘question for the people,’ Deputy PM says, Euractiv, 15 October 2019; euractiv.com/section/armenia/news/armenias-eu-accession-could-be-a-question-for-the-people-deputy-pm-says/

[11] Margarita Antidze, How Russia played silent kingmaker in Armenia’s revolution, Reuters, 8 May 2018; reuters.com/article/us-armenia-politics-russia-insight-idUSKBN1I92TE

[12] Սերժ Սարգսյանը գիտեր, որ Ադրբեջանը ռազմական ճանապարհով է հարցը լուծելու, և փախել է մարտի դաշտից․ Արմեն Գրիգորյան, Factor, 9 June 2021; factor.am/380504.html

[13] Statement by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair countries, OSCE, 10 July 2009; osce.org/mg/51152

[14] Nvard Hovhannisyan, Armenian foreign minister quits after unpopular Karabakh ceasefire, Reuters, 16 November 2020; reuters.com/article/us-armenia-politics-idUSKBN27W1SM

[15] Armenian Foreign Minister resigns, Armenpress, 27 May 2021; armenpress.am/eng/news/1053680.html

[16] Armenian Military Demands Government’s Resignation, Azatutyun, 25 February 2021; azatutyun.am/a/31121104.html and Pashinyan fires Chief of General Staff, Armenpress, 25 February 2021; armenpress.am/eng/news/1044475.html

[17] Armenia’s Foreign Ministry Left in Shambles as All Deputy Ministers Resign, Civilnet, 8 June 2021; civilnet.am/news/620016/armenias-foreign-ministry-left-in-shambles-as-all-deputy-ministers-resign

[18] Armenian gov’t backs away from early elections, JAMNews, 8 February 2021; jam-news.net/armenian-authorities-refuse-to-hold-early-elections-opposition-opinion/

[19] Armenia election campaign: Day 8, Armenpress, 14 June 2021; armenpress.am/eng/news/1055252.html

[20] Քաղաքական գործիչների ընթացիկ վարկանիշները. Էմ Փի ՋԻ ՍՊԸ տնօրեն Արամ Նավասարդյան, Youtube, 11 June 2021; youtube.com/watch?v=NU8A3k2rbNg

[21] Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance wins landslide victory in general election, Armenpress, 10 December 2018; armenpress.am/eng/news/957591.html

[22] See e.g. Gunmen Take Over Armenian Parliament; Premier Killed, Washington Post, 27 October 1999; washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/daily/oct99/armenia27.htm

[23] See e.g. Protesters and Police Clash as Armenia Unrest Grows, New York Times, 2 March 2008; nytimes.com/2008/03/02/world/europe/02armenia.html

  • by Vahagn Avedian

    Vahagn Avedian has a Ph.D. in history, specializing in research concerning the fields of genocide, human rights, peace and conflict and democracy.

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