Armenian Democracy on the Brink

Armenian democrats have long been left disappointed, and 2021 promises no better.

In the last months of 2020, Armenia mobilized its armed forces as territorial tensions with neighboring Azerbaijan escalated to bloodshed, killing thousands between September and November. The issue of Nagorno-Karabakh has long dominated politics in both countries, even during Soviet times; but it has become much more salient as both Armenia and Azerbaijan secured their independence from the USSR and immediately went to war over this region, internationally recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan but inhabited and controlled by ethnic Armenians agitating for independence. The ultimate fate of Nagorno-Karabakh is a key part of both countries’ political narratives, making it very difficult for either government to back down from a conflict without crippling its domestic legitimacy – hence the several wars and skirmishes since 1989.

Those passions overwhelmed coronavirus precautions, leading Armenia to mobilize its male population – prompting travel and close-quarters training that one might link to the massive ‘second wave’ the country faced in the following weeks. Despite these military efforts, Armenia was forced into a ceasefire described by its Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan as “incredibly painful both for me and both for our people”, with many territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh ceded back to Azeri control. Protests immediately erupted in Armenia, backed by many opposition politicians, calling for the resignation of the government over this ‘national humiliation’.

PASHINYAN CLASHES WITH THE ARMY

Looking to secure his own political survival even after this crippling blow, Pashinyan tried to sack the army’s chief of staff – though this decree was bucked by President Sarkisian, a usually ceremonial figure in Armenian politics – and claimed Russia had given Armenia’s armed forces defective Iskander missiles.

This attempt to shift the blame onto the Armenian military was met with a strongly-worded letter by the general staff of the armed forces, insisting that “the Armenian armed forces patiently endured discrediting attacks by the current government, but everything has its limits”: the civilian government was to step down. Since then, though protests continue – including storming government buildings – there has not yet been an overhaul of government leadership, though Pashinyan just days ago floated the idea of – with conditions – holding a snap election.

This may, despite the precedent sent, be the best of bad options.

DARK PATHS FORWARD

Either the military succeeds and Pashinyan is forced out of power, or he remains – presumably by pivoting to a more militaristic direction. A resurgence in military nationalism has correlated poorly for democracy in the Former Soviet Union, and particularly in Armenia – a country scarred by memories of the Armenian genocide, and constantly fearing a new ‘white genocide’ – this will likely leave the country vulnerable to anti-democratic influences from friendly Iran and military ally Russia, both of whom use the Nagorno-Karabakh issue to cement their grip on Armenia’s politics.

Pashinyan is currently supported by Turkey, with Ankara apparently deciding that bolstering its anti-coup position was more important than retaliating for Pashinyan’s wartime comments that Turkey was committing a new Armenian genocide by helping Azerbaijan in the conflict. The risk is that Pashinyan – or whoever replaces him, if he himself is forced to step down but his party is allowed to remain in power – takes a book out of Ankara’s book, and weaponizes the military’s withdrawn pseudo-coup ultimatum to justify a wide-ranging crackdown on the political opposition that backed the threat. In Turkey, after a July 2016 coup attempt, tens of thousands have been arrested or purged from the civil service – including some just a few months ago. For further inspiration, Pashinyan could also look to neighboring Georgia, which last week arrested a prominent opposition politician, accusing him of spearheading crowds of protesters that took over government buildings in 2019.

The region’s democracies are faltering, and Armenia has little to keep it from following suit.

Armenia had, if you squinted at it and on a good day, a fragile democracy. None of this bodes well for it.

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