Can the Armenian “Velvet Revolution” End the Country’s Dependence on Russia?

The victory of Nikola Pashinyan and his party in December 2018 marked the end of the so-called Armenian Velvet Revolution. Though most of the revolutionaries’ demands were focused on domestic transformation, the potential implications of this change on foreign policy should not be overlooked. What is the position of the new administration on Nagorno-Karabakh? Will its attempts at democratisation drive it away from Russia and closer to the EU? And in what ways will the country’s position change in the region?

In April and May of last year, a wave of mass protests swept through Armenia. The so-called Velvet Revolution ended the rule of the unpopular President Serzh Sargsyan and helped his political opponent, journalist and long-term critic of the Armenian establishment, Nikol Pashinyan, into power. Pashinyan was elected Prime Minister on May 8 and his party secured an overwhelming victory in the snap parliamentary elections. The former ruling Republican Party headed by President Sargsyan suffered a crushing defeat. Armenians have great expectations concerning the new administration – they hope for a democratisation of the country and the introduction of reforms that would stifle the power of the oligarchs, stimulate the economy and put an end to the rampant corruption.

Armenia’s foreign policy is largely shaped by regional security threats. Its eastern border with Azerbaijan is closed due to disputes over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, while in the west, Armenia is facing a Turkish blockade. Yerevan found an ally in Moscow, which has retained considerable influence in the region even after the fall of the Soviet Union.

 

"Pashinyan is left with practically no choice but to follow the nationalist line."

 

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan consider their control over Nagorno-Karabakh a central pillar of their national identities. Due to the decades-long legacy of conflict and intensely nationalist rhetoric on both sides, it is extremely hard to initiate a debate about the future of Karabakh. The new Prime Minister is left with practically no choice but to follow the nationalist line. Not doing so would irreversibly tarnish his reputation and lose him the support of the more conservative elements of the Armenian society, without which he would be unable to push his reforms.  

Shortly before being elected Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan espoused the need to unite Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. Pashinyan also emphasized the need for recognising the right of Karabakh Armenians to self-determination as a condition for successful peace talks. The position of the Azerbaijani ruling elite significantly radicalized after the new Armenian administration dispelled all illusions that its ascent to power might mark a turning point in the peace talks. Pashinyan made it clear that he will not cease the occupation of Azerbaijani regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. The widening rift between Azerbaijan and Armenia, coupled with growing tensions on the border, might lead to a reignition of the conflict, as was the case in April 2016. Such a development would have adverse effects on the security situation in the whole region.

Nikol Pashinyan. Copyright: Yerevantsi.

Prime Minister Pashinyan vouched to continue on the foreign policy course set out by preceding governments. Therefore, no major changes are to be expected regarding Armenia’s strategic partnership with Russia, as the new government still sees the extensive military cooperation between the two countries as one of the key elements of its national security strategy. Furthermore, we also cannot omit the role of Moscow in the negotiations about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia is also one of Armenia’s main trading partners and a major source of investments for the Armenian economy, mainly for its energy and energy infrastructure. On top of that, the Armenian nuclear power plant in Metsamor is dependent on Russian fuel. The supply and distribution of natural gas in Armenia has been monopolized by Gazprom Armenia, which has been owned by the Russian state-owned Gazprom company since 2014.

 

"In 2017, the EU and Armenia have signed a new partnership agreement, reflecting Armenia’s membership in the EAEU."

 

Though Armenia decided in 2014 not to sign the association agreement with the EU and instead choose membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), this has not meant a complete end for cooperation between Armenia and the EU. As a part of its Eastern Partnership program, the European Union focuses mainly on supporting democratisation and facilitating economic cooperation and mutual trade, which is in no way insignificant for the weak Armenian economy. After Armenia joined the EAEU, the EU adapted its policy to the regional context. In 2017, the EU and Armenia have signed a new partnership agreement, reflecting Armenia’s membership in the EAEU. The accord reshaped the relations between the EU and Armenia and allowed the former to continue its European neighbourhood policy, focused on propagating respect for human rights, democratic values, and the rule of law.

The Armenian options for policy changes are limited by the security situation in the region. The push to transform the corrupt and undemocratic regime is, however, a signal that the Armenian society is open to reforms which conform to the European liberal democratic values. The liberal stance of Pashinyan and his party is more aligned with the West than with Russia. For Europe, this presents an opening for a major success of its Neighbourhood Policy. To achieve this, however, Europe will have to assume a more proactive position and offer greater support to the current administration’s attempts at democratisation. The EU already significantly helped with the organization and monitoring of the recent snap parliamentary elections, which are regarded as one of the freest and fairest in the country’s history. On top of that, the EU also pledged to further aid with judiciary and law enforcement reforms. In the long-run, the EU has a significant chance at influencing the Armenian political landscape. However, there is still a long way to go and it is uncertain whether Europe is prepared to offer Armenia greater aid, especially given the country’s dependence on Russia. Moscow still has a say in Armenia and it is likely that it will retain its influence even after Pashinyan’s rise to power.

About author: Petr Fena

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