Mariam Mikiashvili, Rondeli Foundation

After the Second Karabakh War, few could predict that Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan would not only avoid a public revolt but would gather almost 54% of votes in democratic elections, albeit through a well-planned campaign. So, what factors have contributed to this outcome and how could it impact the future?

After the 2018 Armenian revolution, Serzh Sargsyan lost power and so did the so-called “Karabakh Clan” that had ruled Armenia for 20 years. The ancien régime was a typical post-Soviet authoritarian, corrupt elite with leaders originating from Karabakh. Robert Kocharyan had been the first president of the de facto republic before assuming the office of the second President of Armenia, and Serzh Sargsyan had played an important role in the security and defense structures of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nikol Pashinyan managed to lead the public, coming to power with promises of economic progress, judicial reform, and eradicating corruption. Despite multiple successes, Pashinyan avoided rapid decisions, fearing the risk of mistakes and the disregard of the law. Part of the electorate, thirsty for reforms, even found themselves disappointed in his governance. Pashinyan, himself a former journalist and a political prisoner, paid special attention to his and his cabinet’s accessibility to the media. Under him, media became more diverse. Although this was partly because a large share of media resources still remained in the hands of the “old elites”. Consequently, Pashinyan even experienced a lack of loyal media. However, emboldened by the popularity, he cared little about this and personally communicated with the people via social media.

Image Courtesy: Daniel Palyan

The media constantly accused Pashinyan of a plot to “sell out” Karabakh to Azerbaijan. However, no matter Pashinyan’s stance towards Karabakh, it would have been his political suicide to decide on serious concessions, as the Armenians were in a victorious and confident position. Few could imagine a future unsuccessful war with Azerbaijan. Amid disinformation against him and the constant fear of popularity loss, the Prime Minister’s policies towards Karabakh were quite paradoxical: he considered that any scenario of conflict resolution had to also be acceptable to the Azerbaijanis. In Pashinyan’s opinion, Armenia was to be responsible chiefly for Armenia proper’s interests and was not supposed to be the voice of Nagorno-Karabakh on behalf of the de facto authorities. These attempts to distinguish Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh resulted in Pashinyan’s desire for the de facto republic to have its own representation at the negotiations table, which proved unacceptable for Azerbaijan. In addition, during his visit to the Shusha, Karabakh, Pashinyan declared that Artsakh (the Armenian name for Karabakh) was Armenia, eventually chanting “Miatsum” – a term for the unification of Karabakh with Armenia – together with the public. It is also worth mentioning that Pashinyan refused to consider OSCE’s Madrid Principles, a foundational document in any negotiation over Karabakh since 2007.

After the military defeat, the ancien régime was provided with the opportunity to convince the people of Pashinyan’s treason. This, according to them, was largely due to the government being “Sorosists”. Former President Kocharyan, the runner-up with 21% of the votes, assured the people that he would return the lost territories even through diplomacy. He also says he believes that a war in Karabakh would never have happened under his rule. In this regard, Kocharyan is probably right. Russia would avoid damaging a corrupt, authoritarian regime in Armenia. Thus, the war either would not have begun at all, or Russia would have tried better to aid its strategic ally. Pashinyan abandoned his previous pro-European rhetoric in favour of a rational understanding of Armenia’s status-quo as a Russian sphere of influence immediately after assuming office, but any attempt for the country’s democratization implied an immense danger of its Westernization for Russia. Hence, Moscow would not have been too disappointed with a post-war change of democratic government in Yerevan. This echoes Russia’s intentions during the 2008 war with Georgia.

Consequently, “hate politics” emerged in Armenia. Many voted for the candidate they simply hate less. Thus, Pashinyan’s personal position could prove quite fragile in the future if well-equipped alternative reformers emerge and the universally hated “old regime” is not his sole potent opponent. It is crucial that Armenia does not follow the Georgian scenario, where fear and hatred towards reformers and their constant demonization has resulted in an era of stagnation. Pashinyan’s cautious and steady style may guarantee this, but it also implies a risk of universal disappointment in reforms. Fortunately, Pashinyan’s gaining of the constitutional majority refutes fears that he would have to be dependent on openly pro-Russian forces in the future. He can confidently proceed with statecraft with a reaffirmed legitimacy.

It should be noted that Pashinyan’s electorate did not “forgive” him for the loss in Karabakh. Rather, they deemed Kocharyan and the ancien régime the guilty ones, having crippled the country, as well as the army, for 20 years. Pashinyan’s signing of the peace treaty with Azerbaijan was almost immediately backed by the country’s General Staff, as for years the army had been in worse conditions than people assumed. This too was the legacy of the “old regime”. Pashinyan’s victory means that Armenian society is less interested in revenge and is orientated more toward the implementation of the peace treaty he signed. Consequently, there is some hope that Azerbaijan and Armenia could slowly normalize their relations and even cooperate in a medium-to-long-term perspective. Such a scenario would make Russia’s traditional image of mediator in the Caucasus less relevant. Azerbaijan’s constructive behaviour is crucial in this regard. Armenia’s population should not have the grounds to believe that Azerbaijan is pursuing creeping occupation within Armenia’s internationally recognized borders. Unfortunately, the readiness and the desire for constructive relations by Azerbaijan’s victorious government is not guaranteed in the short-to-medium-term perspective.

Most importantly, Pashinyan’s victory means that the priority of the Armenian people is social progress, democratization, and rule of law, which no other political figure could offer them in the 2021 elections. These concepts are associated with the West first and foremost. However, it should be mentioned that, unlike in Georgian society, a dichotomic view of Russia and the West is politically irrelevant in Armenia. Nor is there an idealistic pursuit of becoming a full member of the West. Incidentally, the Armenians were disappointed not just in Russia but in the West, too, as a result of the 2020 war. There had been widespread anticipation among the population that the West would react harshly to an attack by authoritarian Azerbaijan on democratic Armenia, and that Azerbaijan would have at least been sanctioned. This led some Armenian experts to suggest that the country must balance its dependence on Russia via deeper relations with China, not the West.

Yet, still, the more democratic and just the Armenian state becomes, the more natural it is for it to become estranged from Russia and to deepen its commitment to countries with shared values. This process would shake Russia’s influence in the region in favour of the West, not only in Armenia but in the entire region. This is why Russia will again try any means to prevent the democratization of Armenia. However, the accumulation of democratic experience and the generational change should still prompt Armenia to maintain the democratic path. Through this, Georgia gains an ideational partner in the South Caucasus in addition to its traditional strategic partner – Azerbaijan. This potentially strengthens Georgia’s authority as that of a mediator between its two neighbours. Indeed, this process is neither guaranteed nor easy, especially if we consider Armenia’s relations with NATO member Turkey. But there has already been an attempt to ameliorate the relations between the two states that ultimately failed, precisely because of the Karabakh conflict. Despite the obstacles, such a scenario is more likely to develop now than it was before Pashinyan’s victory in the 2021 elections.