Pashinyan’s Collapse and Armenia’s Lost Hopes for the Western Course

  • Weronika Słomińska
  • 17.5.2021 13:03

Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian Prime Minister, hasn’t had it easy in the past few months. Although since 2018 the politician has been Armenia’s hope for becoming another pro-western democracy in the region, due to the recent events in the country, these hopes seem to be dropping proportionally to his popularity.

Having come into power on the wave of the 2018 Armenian Velvet Revolution’s street protests, the politician has begun his term enjoying wide support of the public, which viewed him as a promise of Armenia’s better future and a fresh alternative to the corrupt elite’s 20 years long rule. His rather pro-western inclinations and history hinted at Yerevan’s approaching detachment from Russia and closer cooperation with the West, but the country’s November defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh war and the PM’s huge loss of popularity seemed to turn the tide.

Good beginnings

Pashinyan’s views were rather opposed to the traditional ones: he has been known for his pro-western inclinations and rather a cool attitude towards furthering cooperation with Moscow. In the past, as an opposition politician, he has been calling for European integration and exiting the Eurasian Economic Union and, although while serving his office Pashinyan has not made direct steps indicating his will to distance Armenia from Moscow, some circles in Russia still looked at him with suspicion, expecting him to turn to the West. 

The Armenian PM has never been fully trusted by Moscow – after all, he has taken over the power without its knowledge or consent, on the wave of street protests, ousting the pro-Russian Merzhir Serzhin. Some of the Russian sources even suspect Pashinyan of deliberately leading to Armenia’s defeat in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict in order to make it easier for the country to detach itself from Moscow and ultimately join NATO. 

The recent conversation between Pashinyan and the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, may prove the PM’s pro-Western inclinations even more. During the phone call, they discussed the importance of the US-Armenia bilateral partnership and American support for the Armenian reforms towards democracy. Moreover, on the 1st of March, an Armenia-EU Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement entered into force, representing a milestone in the EU-Armenia relations, committing both sides to work together on strengthening democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. These moves made the public believe Pashinyan could be the one to bring Armenia closer to the West and orient the country towards a progressive direction with less and less Russian supervision. 

The PM in trouble

The Russian-brokered Nagorno-Karabakh peace agreement and, in fact, Armenia’s defeat, has not put Prime Minister Pashinyan in a good light. The ceasefire has been viewed by many as a national humiliation for which the PM is to be blamed, made his opposition outraged and part of his supporters turn their backs on him.

The most recent evidence of his not-too-friendly attitude towards Moscow has been noted in February when Pashinyan openly expressed his doubts about the Russian weaponry’s effectiveness – according to him, the Iskander missiles that Russia has provided for the Armenian army during the Artsakh War last November were outdated and working only at 10%.  

This move did not serve him well. Viewed by many as inconsiderate and ignorant, the unfavorable comment has expectedly irritated Moscow, but what turned out to have significantly more severe consequences, indirectly caused a heated conflict between the PM and the country’s military leaders demanding his resignation – so heated, that it ended up with what Pashinyan called ‘an attempted military coup’. 

The recent clashes with the military stem from the broader problem Pashinyan is now struggling with – the post-conflict loss of authority. The events have indisputably bolstered the crisis in the PM’s career, making him as vulnerable as ever and finally leading to his announcement of new parliamentary elections in June.

Switching sides

The politician’s initial plans to distance himself from Moscow are steadily fading. Regardless of this summer elections’ results, even if putting Pashinyan back in his position as the Prime Minister, he is unlikely to regain the level of trust and popularity he enjoyed when he came into power in 2018. In all probability, the difficult geopolitical situation in the country and the PM’s weakening control will put the pro-western ambitions on hold, if not kill them altogether, especially with the Russian authority in Armenia rather strengthening than declining. 

With the indifference and lack of Western support that Armenia has been expecting in the Nagorno-Karabakh war and Russia becoming the primary guarantor of Upper Karabakh’s security, the post-soviet country cannot afford to break its ties with Moscow and Pashinyan seems to accept this bitter truth. On the 7th of April meeting with Vladimir Putin, Pashinyan praised Russia’s efforts in Karabakh, appreciated the Russian peacekeeping forces present there, and discussed further bilateral economic relations between the countries. 

The Armenia-NATO relations, on the other hand, always so important for Pashinyan, seem to be cooling down: the recent news of Armenia participating in NATO March’s Defender Europe 21 military exercise together with 26 mostly NATO member states have been denied by the Armenian Defense Ministry. While the country’s participation in the exercise could have solely been a communication error, it is not the first time Armenia is dropping out of similar training at the last minute, with the last case taken place in 2017, when the pre-Pashinyan administration in Armenia was essentially pro-Russian. These events may suggest a pattern of drawing back from the cooperation with the West whenever the sentiments within the country are leaning towards Russia.

Not much is left of the pro-western hopes surrounding the Pashinyan’s coming to power. Although the politician’s personal views haven’t been voiced directly, the situation in the country speaks for itself. The recent Armenian-Azerbaijani war and its aftermath proved the inability or unwillingness of the West to act as the Armenian protector, leaving Russia as the primary patron of the post-soviet country, now as vulnerable as ever – something practically insurmountable even for the openly West-oriented leader with the strong support of most of society, let alone the PM for whom support is constantly dropping. 

The elections planned for June may change Yerevan’s political scene’s composition, but even then, the country’s political course is impossible to turn against Moscow, meaning that the moment for Armenia’s closer friendship with the West has not yet come.

About author: Weronika Słomińska

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