Author: Rasim MUSABAYOV, Member of Parliament, political scientist
The events of recent weeks in Armenia have developed rapidly, unpredictably, and dramatically. Armenia’s former president Serzh Sargsyan was elected prime minister at the special session of Armenian parliament after 77 lawmakers voted for his candidacy nominated by the ruling Republican Party and the coalition partner, the Dashnaktsutyun Party. Thus, Serzh Sargsyan was supported not only by 58 Republican deputies and Dashnaks but also by several deputies from the Tsarukian Bloc. Only 17 deputies voted against Sargsyan’s candidacy.
Serzh Sargsyan has previously served as prime minister under President Robert Kocharian. Then, through falsified elections and the suppression of protests that left ten people dead, hundreds wounded and thousands arrested, Serzh Sargsyan took the office of the president. To maintain the supreme authority in his own hands, he held a constitutional reform in 2015 leaving the president with nominal powers, and transferring all the power to the head of the government formed by the ruling majority in parliament. At the same time, Sargsyan publicly promised to claim neither the presidency nor the post of prime minister, saying that no one in Armenia should steer the country for more than two terms. But he did not keep his word.
His cynical political manoeuvres to extend his own power has provoked a widespread disapproval in Armenia. According to the polls, the share of those who supported his actions was three times less than that of those who disapproved them. The leader of the opposition parliamentary faction Elk, a well-known demagogue and organiser of mass demonstrations, Nikol Pashinian, took the Armenian population to streets to express protest under the slogan "Make a step, reject Serzh."
Initially, the number of protesters was not too many reaching only a few thousand people. Therefore, the authorities did not attach much importance to this. The ruling RPA, politicians and experts even flaunted the fact that there was democracy in Armenia, that freedom for peaceful expression of protest through rallies was not limited. Armenian authorities had already faced a wave of protest caused by the increase in electricity tariffs. Even more dangerous were the events involving Sasna Tsrer, a group of armed men who seized the barracks of the Yerevan police on July 17, 2016 and held it for two weeks. The attackers killed three police officers while many people was wounded. They had to surrender after a series of difficult negotiations, were arrested and convicted.
In both cases, the authorities have managed to bring down the wave of protests and retain control over the situation without the use of mass violence by making certain concessions, also using persuasions, bribery, and if necessary threats and arrests. Serzh Sargsyan was sure that even today the demonstrators will make some noise but ultimately will reconcile with the situation. Having lost the sense of reality, he underestimated the strength of popular discontent with the results of the twenty-year rule of the criminal-oligarchic Karabakh clan. Contrary to the expectations of the authorities, the protest movement gained momentum. Tens of thousands of people, mostly young people, joined the protests both in Yerevan and in other regions of Armenia.
The moment when the police could suppress the protesters was missed. The arrest of the leaders of the movement, Nikol Pashinian, Sasun Mikaelian, and Ararat Mirzoyan in Yerevan, the short-term detention of several hundred protesters could not stop the rising wave of protest. When all the universities went on strike, the veterans of the Karabakh war and the soldiers joined the ranks of demonstrators, the ruling elite understood that the bloodshed would inevitably lead to a civil war. Speculations that Baku will launch an offensive against Karabakh taking advantage of the unstable situation in Armenia did not have an effect. The situation on the contact line remained stable. The co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group released the following statement: "We call on the parties to take urgent measures to reduce tensions, to restore negotiations for the peaceful settlement of the conflict." But there was no need for this.
The ruling elite had no other option than to sacrifice Sargsyan and try to bring down the wave of protest. As a result, Serzh Sargsyan, who left the talks and threatened the demonstrators with a repeat of the massacre on March 1, 2008, announced his resignation. He wrote: "Nikol Pashinian was right. I made a mistake. There are several solutions to this situation but I will not use any of them. That’s not mine. I am leaving the post of the head of our country, the office of the Prime Minister of Armenia. The movement on the streets is against my rule. I am complying with their demands. I wish peace, harmony, and sanity to our country. Thank you."
Serzh Sargsyan has apparently made this statement to save his face but in fact he has acknowledged the collapse of his political plans. Thus, on the following day, he resigned from the chairmanship of the Republican Party. However, the protesters were not satisfied with the resignation of Sargsyan and demanded the transfer of the interim power to Nikol Pashinian followed by the subsequent dissolution of the parliament and the announcement of new elections. They also declared that the retention of power by RPA led by the First Deputy Prime Minister Karen Karapetian was incompatible with the objectives of the "peaceful revolution".
According to the Armenian Constitution, a new prime minister is elected by individual voting of at least 53 deputies within a seven-day period after the resignation of the government. The nominated candidate requires the support of at least 35 deputies. If the deputies fail to elect the prime minister, the National Assembly (parliament) dissolves and new elections are announced.
Nikol Pashinian was nominated by the Elk bloc, which is represented in the parliament by nine deputies only. This number is not enough to register even as an applicant. On April 28, the Dashnaks and the Tsarukian Bloc announced that they would support the "candidate from the people", that is Pashinian. This means 47 votes in total. At least 6 votes of the RPA faction are necessary to elect Pashinian as a prime minister. Incidentally, RPA announced that they would not nominate their candidate. If the RPA deputies twice abstain from voting, neither Pashinian nor any other individual will head the government, and the new cabinet will not be formed. The parliament will be dissolved and new elections will be held. Karen Karapetian and the current ministers will continue to work as acting officials.
However, we cannot exclude the fact that some of the RPA deputies will vote for Pashinian, and he will be approved as a new prime minister. The ruling elite can take such a step expecting that Pashinian's inadequacy will become known soon and the population will be disappointed by his amateurish political moves. Voting in the National Assembly of Armenia is scheduled for May 1, and its results will become known as soon as this issue is published.
The claims of Nikol Pashinian for the post of prime minister encourages politicians and analysts, both inside Armenia and abroad, to review his views and circle attentively. It turns out that Pashinian does not have his own political team except a group of activists and organisers, spontaneously formed during rallies and processions. After all, at the initial stage, only three of the nine members of the Elk faction supported his movement. As for Pashinian's political views, they are vague and primitivism. Briefly, they can be formulated as follows: "Pashinian for all the good and against everything bad. The people is always right and knows what to do." To solve complex political and financial-economic problems, he relies mainly on modern information technologies. As to the settlement of the Karabakh conflict, Pashinian has previously followed an extreme policy focused on the seizure of new Azerbaijani territories and a military defeat of Azerbaijan, which would make Baku to accept the peace terms that suit Armenian interests. Pashinian has also called for the renunciation of the talks if the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was not directly involved in them.
In the past, Pashinian has criticised Armenia's one-sided dependence on Russia, insisted on the withdrawal from the Eurasian Economic Union supporting the accelerated integration with the European Union instead. Now, claiming the post of prime minister, he became more cautious in his statements. After the meeting with the ambassadors of the EU, the U.S., and Russia, Pashinian said: "We will not develop and deepen our relations with the European Union to the detriment of Russia." He called Armenia's relations with Russia fraternal but added that there were some problems; he would not close the Russian military base in Gyumri recognising that it guarantees Armenia's security.
Pashinian is known for his ad hoc statements worth of little importance. He is just a leader of the mass protest movement. I think if he becomes prime minister, his views and political behaviour will change significantly. For us, it is important that the power vacuum in Armenia prolongs the pause in the Karabakh negotiation process. We can wait until a stable government capable of negotiating and taking responsibility for difficult compromise solutions is formed in Armenia. Otherwise, Azerbaijan will have to resort to a military solution of the conflict to restore its territorial integrity. No one will not negotiate a settlement with the puppet separatist regime of Bako Sahakian.
The experience of Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries has demonstrated that hybrid regimes such as semi-democracy and soft authoritarianism are extremely vulnerable and easily collapse paving way to power for populists or religious radicals, let along plunging the country into endless chaos. Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, as well as Ukraine, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan are perfect cases in point. This time it was Serzh Sargsyan who failed in Armenia with his criminal-oligarchic entourage disguised as democrats.
I suppose that Pashinian's movement under a slogan "the people in power" will not last long, as the practical implementation of its populist policy will encounter fierce resistance of the oligarchs controlling the entire Armenian economy, which is still suffering from capital outflows. Cautious businessmen will freeze most investment projects, and no external financial support will save the situation. After all, Pashinian’s promises to Armenian population cannot help Armenia leave the existing state of vegetation without the settlement of the Karabakh conflict and the normalisation of relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. If Pashinian has political wisdom, which is hard to believe, then Baku is ready for constructive negotiations. If he continues the current populist line of behaviour, then chaos in the country is inevitable. If true, Armenians will have to accept the consequences, for nationalism combined with populism has never brought any good to any state.
Who is Nikol Pashinian, a leader of the protest movement and unofficial ruler of the Armenian street? He is 42 years old. He has studied at the Faculty of Journalism of the Yerevan State University until he was expelled in 1995 for political views. He was an editor-in-chief of the newspaper Haykakan Zhamanak ("Armenian time"). He has accused Serzh Sargsyan and many influential politicians of corruption. In 1999, he was sentenced to one year in prison on probation for libel. In the 2008 presidential elections, he supported Levon Ter-Petrosian. He was accused of instigating and organising the riots but disappeared before the arrest. After a voluntary surrender to the authorities in 2009, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. In 2011, he was granted amnesty. In 2012, Pashinian became a member of parliament from the political bloc Armenian National Congress. In 2013, he founded the party Civil Contract, which joined forces with parties Bright Armenia and Republic under the Elk bloc in 2016. During the 2017 parliamentary elections, Elk had 7.8% of the votes and formed an opposition faction in the National Assembly of Armenia represented by 9 deputies from the same bloc.