‘Life has become better; it is funnier than ever’. Official historiography attributes this quote to Joseph Stalin. Unlike the USSR of the 1930s, the phrase is not that popular in Armenia of today. And it is unlikely that after the victory of Nikol Pashinyan's ‘barbecue revolution’, the life of ordinary Armenians has become better. But it has definitely become less boring. According to experts, Armenia may well go through the tumultuous events of the last two or three years for the second time. The current situation in Armenia is similar to the one just before the fall of Serzh Sargsyan's regime.
The story of Pashinyan's so called revolution, his movement My Step, etc. is very well documented. It is also known that Sargsyan’s desire to remain in power at all costs was a trigger that led to the social unrest a couple of years ago. After two consecutive presidential terms, Sargsyan still wanted to remain in power as a prime minister, taking with him virtually all the powers to govern the country. Yet another factor of Sargsyan’s demise was the defeat of Armenia by Azerbaijan in April 2016, when Armenians suddenly realised that Azerbaijan has a modern, well-trained and strong army. They realised that the war for Karabakh is far from over, but the real balance of power is no longer reminiscent of the 1990s.
Soon after the April battle in July 2016, a group of militants from the radical Sasna Tsrer party seized a police precinct in Yerevan. They were persuaded to surrender, but it turned out that this is only part of a plan of the armed rebellion, which the Armenian authorities prevented at the last minute by arresting its mastermind, professional terrorist Zhirayr Sefilyan. The incident was followed by several more terrorist conspiracies in Armenia. Although it was possible overthrow the Sargsyan's regime without large-scale bloody incidents, does it mean that the coup scenario in Armenia will not repeat?
Pashinyan’s déjà vu
Theoretically, Nikol Pashinyan has no reason to worry about his political future. He holds the post of prime minister, his party My Step maintains a majority in the parliament. Thanks to ‘revolutionary pressure’, Pashinyan was able to subordinate, albeit rather illegally, the Constitutional Court of Armenia to his will, building, in fact, a regime of personal dictatorship.
Obviously, Pashinyan can disown responsibility for the results of the Gizilgaya-Günnüt operation near Nakhchivan and the logistical catastrophe of Armenia there. According to the press service of the Separate Combined Arms Army of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, Azerbaijani army took several positions on the Mount Khunut, Agbulag Hill, mountains Gizilgaya and Mehridagh. In total, the Azerbaijani army established control on over 11,000 hectares of territory, of which 8,000 hectares are suitable for agriculture. The capture of Gizilgaya (1,683 m ASL) allowed the Azerbaijani army to control the Yerevan-Yeghegnadzor-Goris-Lachin-Khankendi highway. It became known in June 2018, when Pashinyan just occupied the seat of the prime minister and could therefore evade the responsibility. But the battles near Gazakh and Tovuz regions of Azerbaijan are another dimension. Certainly, Armenian authorities can propagate legends about their success, but in reality the July 2020 provocation in Tovuz was a complete failure for Armenia. Azerbaijan, as stated by the head of the State Border Service of Azerbaijan Elchin Guliyev, has advanced its positions by another 1,500-1,700 m.
Today, two years after Pashinyan's street triumph, most of his pompous promises have simply become void. Relations with Russia, Armenia's key ally and partner, hang in the balance. As soon as Moscow cuts support and subsidies, even slightly, the Armenian economy will go west. There have already been examples in recent history. There is no promised breakthrough for Armenia in the western direction either.
As a prime minister, Pashinyan, whether he wants it or not, must acknowledge regional realities and, therefore, is unable to fully please his patrons in the West. Voice of Armenia writes that George Soros, through his general representative in Armenia Larisa Minasyan, expressed his dissatisfaction with the Armenian prime minister because of his congratulatory message addressed to Alexander Lukashenko on the occasion of the latter’s re-election as the President of Belarus. “Indeed, how could the leader of sovereign Armenia congratulate the ‘last dictator of Europe’ on the re-election on behalf of the “proud citizens of the country of victorious revolution”! Minasyan had to make excuses, referring to the protocol of interstate relations but Soros was relentless and asked to convey to Nikol in details that he had made a big mistake,” Voice of Armenia writes.
Brussels and Washington are also in no hurry to praise Armenia until Yerevan makes real steps to leave the CSTO and the EAEU. And for obvious reasons, Pashinyan does not dare do this.
“Pashinyan fulfilled his mission by overthrowing the previous regime. Now he has nothing else to do. He is not an expert in economics, public administration. It is not worth waiting for him to raise the economy either. It is a mistake to expect that he solves the problems of Armenia in international relations,” the chairman of the opposition party Bright Armenia, Edmon Marukyan, said.
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Another high-profile Armenian economic project, the gold mine in Amulsar near Jermuk, is in a state of failure. It was supposed to be developed by the group of companies Lydian Armenia, a subsidiary of the British offshore company Lydian International. For two years, environmentalists, defenders of women's rights (!) and other civic activists rallied against the Amulsar mine, while Lydian Armenia demanded the authorities to take necessary measures. Now the situation has reached its logical conclusion, rather the point of absurdity. As the representative of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) told Radio Azatutyun, Lydian International, which owns 100% of the shares, has been insolvent since 2019. The company is going through the process of bankruptcy in one of the courts in Jersey. EBRD is also leaving the project. Environmentalists and other NGOs can celebrate the victory. So can the Pashinyan's team: there were wide spread rumours in Armenia about the close relations of the incumbent president of Armenia, Armen Sargsyan, with Lydian Armenia. The history of these relations go back to the period when Mr. Sargsyan was Armenia's ambassador to Great Britain. Obviously, President Sargsyan has much less authority than the Prime Minister now. And from the very beginning the role of a decorative public figure was intended for Sargsyan. But he is the formal head of state and, moreover, a sort of the last of the Mohicans, a native of Karabakh in the Armenian elite. He is also the best candidate for the role of the de facto leader of the country if the revenge of the so-called Karabakh Clan is successful. After all, they do not even think of giving up such plans. All these considerations, most likely, forced Pashinyan to hit the economic interests of President Sargsyan. But he clearly underestimated the possible economic consequences for Armenia. And he certainly forgot the old saying: one can eat any mushrooms, but some of them - only once. In other words, any investor can be conned but only once.
According to political strategist Vigen Hakobyan, three opposition poles are being formed in Armenia. The first pole is the Fatherland party led by Artur Vanetsyan, Dashnaktsutyun and Prosperous Armenia. They can perform separately but together they have more resources and opportunities. The second pole is Robert Kocharian. The last one is the Republican Party of Armenia headed by Serzh Sargsyan.
But the most important thing is that Nikol Pashinyan found himself on the brink of war with the same Sasna Tsrer militants.
Terrorists against the prime minister
Initially, Nikol Pashinyan maintained relations with Sasna Tsrer "in the spirit of cooperation and mutual understanding." In the midst of the hostage crisis at the police precinct, it was Pashinyan, the then member of parliament from the opposition, who entered and exited the seized building freely. After Pashinyan came to the power, the arrested terrorists were freed and even created their own party. They were considered Pashinyan's allies. But now the partnership is cracking. The trial of the Sasna Tsrer militant charged with the seizure of police precinct approaches completion in Yerevan. Thirty militants were granted amnesty, but for nine the prosecutor asked for realistic terms in prison - from 8 to 9 years. The prosecution requested 21 years in prison for the murderer of a policeman, Armen Bilyan, and life imprisonment for Smbat Barseghyan. After that, one of the militants, Varuzhan Avetisyan, whom the prosecutor asked for 8 years and 9 months in prison, burst into an angry speech. He said that after Pashinyan's victory "the semi-colonial system underwent only cosmetic changes", "the people were deceived by Nikol Pashinyan," "there was no revolution," "today's semi-reformed regime continues the business of the former government but propagating the slogans of the velvet revolutionaries." He promised that Sasna Tsrer would continue to fight until the final liberation of Armenia.
Armenian experts and observers believe that the relations between Pashinyan and Sasna Tsrer have deteriorated. Apparently, after the announcement of indictment, terrorists felt deceived. We can think of dozens of versions of the incident: did Pashinyan promise something to the militants and then broke his word, or was he misunderstood. But Varuzhan Harutyunyan, in fact, declared war on Pashinyan. Since Sasna Tsrer Party is firmly anti-Russian, Russian facilities in Armenia may also become the targets of their militants.
Obviously, the more difficult situations and harder choices still lie ahead of Armenia.