Crisis in Armenia: Bitterness toward power vs. weak opposition

Author : Richard Giragosian

Source : IPG Journal

After the impressive victory of the peaceful "Velvet Revolution" in Armenia in 2018, the euphoria and enthusiasm in support of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan have significantly diminished
09:57, 26 January 2021


After the impressive victory of the peaceful "Velvet Revolution" in Armenia in 2018, the euphoria and enthusiasm in support of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan have significantly diminished. Announcing the democratization gains culminating in long-overdue free and fair elections in December 2018, the Armenian government has launched a massive campaign to combat corruption. But Prime Minister Pashinyan overplayed, attempting not only to reform but also to restore the judicial system. Against the backdrop of this "judicial crisis," Armenia was rocked by the Covid-19 pandemic, provoking an economic disaster, and the unexpected loss in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh is an unprecedented political crisis. Democracy has come under attack, reforms have been threatened, and Pashinyan's political fate and future are now in question.

Related: Pashinyan states Russian peacekeepers surrounded in Nagorno-Karabakh; Russia refutes it

The Karabakh conflict determined the political discourse and influenced the development of modern politics in Armenia. As a conflict that first erupted in the waning of the Soviet Union, the Karabakh issue served as a fundamental pillar of the policy of every government of independent Armenia. Its relevance not only influenced the development of Armenian statehood but also contributed to the emergence of problems in the democratic process and tolerance for corruption, which are often given dubious justifications based on wartime national security imperatives.

Given the role of the Karabakh conflict as the basis of state policy, the war over Nagorno-Karabakh forced Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to enter new and unexplored political territory. After an unprecedented defeat and unexpected loss of territory in November 2020, which included large parts of Karabakh, the government has plunged into a protracted political crisis that continues to affect the entire Armenian society.

Related: Armenia's priority is return of territories in Nagorno-Karabakh

The government's domestic political challenge is both less and more than it seems. On the one hand, the political vulnerability of the Pashinyan government is not as serious and significant as recent events show, for two reasons. First, despite the initial shock of the prime minister accepting Russian mediation that ended the war with Armenia's surrender, demonstrations against the government were ineffective.

Despite the post-war disillusionment and shock, the political opposition remains highly unpopular and widely discredited. Desperate for resolve, opposition attempts to exploit dissent and grievances in street protests have failed in terms of both much fewer demonstrators and lack of any alternative political position. The way the opposition stubbornly relied on outdated tactics and maximalist demands for the resignation of a democratically elected government and the appointment of a transitional government elected by the opposition is impractical and unlikely. And even new elections are not enough to satisfy the opposition or save its reputation. Many continue to believe that the scattered opposition is more self-serving than defending national interests in a campaign to restore power.

Related: Trilateral talks on situation in Nagorno-Karabakh to be held in Moscow

The second reason that the political challenge is less significant is the absence of any credible rival or alternative to the current prime minister. Pashinyan actually had no choice but to accept the Russian agreement. While this was a Russian plan, it was the only real way to save lives and what was left of Nagorno-Karabakh. In this context, the fall of Shushi, the second-largest city in Karabakh, became a turning point, after which the situation with any further hostilities became unstable and risks of complete loss of Karabakh arose.

While the threat from the political opposition may not be enough to force the prime minister to step down, the political future of Pashinyan's government certainly remains in question. The government's weakness stems from two main broader factors. First, Pashinyan is wandering deeper into uncharted political waters, as no political leader or party has ever faced the challenge of governing without an essential element of internal discourse and state policy. Secondly, and somewhat ironically, the political fate and future of the prime minister depend more on himself than on the actions of the opposition. In particular, Pashinyan's rather reckless and impulsive leadership style undermined his credibility more than anything the opposition had time to do or say.

Related: Russia’s ‘peacekeeping’ operation in Karabakh: Foundation of a Russian protectorate (Part Two)

Although Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is determined to resist the demands for resignation, he is trying to mitigate the crisis. His initial response, consisting of the dismissal of six cabinet ministers, followed by the submission of a six-month "action plan" for policy measures, was largely dismissed as insufficient to demonstrate responsibility. However, as the crisis continued, Pashinyan's government gradually began to agree on the need for early elections. In the context of a protracted political crisis that only aggravates political polarization, the need for new elections stands out as the most constructive way to resolve differences. And the new mandate for the new parliamentary elections will be based on the recognition that the political landscape has changed dramatically.

If Armenia decides to hold early elections, it is expected that after them the government will receive a reduced, but still the valid majority in the new parliament. For the opposition, early elections can be a problem given its unpopularity and inability to offer any alternative strategies. But in this context, the strength of the government's position is determined not so much by a strong appeal or support as by the absence of any credible rival or political alternative. Thus, Armenia is now on the verge of a new political period - the beginning of the end of Armenian politics, which is defined by the past narrative, and the beginning of the end of the early euphoria of support for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his widely criticized government.

Read the original text at IPG Journal

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