Despite high expectations following the Velvet Revolution of 2018 that overthrew the regime of ex-President Serzh Sargsyan, the democratic landscape of Armenia has remained bleak in recent years. The current government of the country is steadily backsliding towards non-democratic governance, and perhaps even authoritarianism.
Of special concern has been the persecution of political activists and journalists, as reflected in the annual reports of a number of NGOs specialized in evaluating the functioning of democratic institutions. Reports about Armenia’s democratic environment also include human rights violations, the persecution of political activists and members of LGBTQ+ community, as well as instances of domestic violence.
For instance, Freedom House, in its most recent annual report, downgraded its assessment of political rights and civil liberties in Armenia. The report revealed that large-scale measures were being taken against political dissidents, journalists, and human rights activists by the country’s authorities.
Moreover, in its report last May, Google’s Threat Analysis Group revealed the unlawful use by “government-backed actors” of spyware called Predator, created by the North Macedonian company Cytrox. The software had been used to target journalists, dissidents, and human rights activists in the country, with local media outlets reporting that the electronic devices of several Armenian opposition politicians have been hacked. Yet Predator is not the only spyware being used; an Armenian opposition leader Artur Vanetsyan once claimed that the Pegasus spyware had been installed on his phones in 2021. Despite the claim and the following scandal, the use of Pegasus against Armenian journalists and opposition figures has apparently not been discontinued. According to a study conducted by social media specialists in Armenia in November 2022, Pegasus may still monitor the key opposition and media personalities.
The worrying developments do not stop with such spying. It is apparent that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has also begun persecuting members of the previous government he overthrew. For instance, two former defense ministers have been arrested on what have been described as politically-motivated charges. Former Defence Minister Seyran Ohanyan, who served from 2008 to 2016, was arrested in 2020 on charges of embezzling over $2 million in state funds. The same charge was also brought against another former defense minister, David Tonoyan, who was detained in 2021.
The ex-minister Tonoyan, two other generals, and an arms dealer were arrested by the National Security Service (NSS) in September 2021 as part of a criminal investigation into the supplying of an allegedly outdated missile to Armenia’s armed forces. However, experts believe the arrest of Tonoyan had a political motivation—he was simply made a scapegoat for Armenia’s defeat in the six-week war with neighboring Azerbaijan in 2020. Having served as the defense minister between 2018 and 2020, Tonoyan resigned a week after his country’s capitulation in the war over Karabakh but obviously could not escape the persecution. It’s worth noting that Tonoyan, contrary to what one would assume, defended Pashinyan’s signing of the trilateral statement of November 2020 that ended the war. “Despite the fact that the Armenian Armed Forces, the entire system of the Ministry of Defense and the government did their best to be successful, calling the agreement reached to end the Karabakh war a ‘betrayal’ or ‘defeat’ is an insult,” he said in response to criticism voiced following Armenia’s signing of the deal.
The political persecution does not stop there; members of the country’s political opposition have been targeted, namely Dashnaktsutyun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) party members. Artavazd Margaryan, head of Dashnaktsutyun faction in the Council of Elders (the municipality council) of Artashat, was detained for seventy-two hours along with the party’s activist Gerasim Vardanyan in January this year. The arrest was mocked by Margaryan’s lawyer, who posted on social media: “The detention is obviously illegal; it is devoid of any logic. You won’t believe it, but Margaryan had such charges only because he has a phone.”
Some arrests may end up in a tragedy, as was in the case of Armen Grigorian. A notable opposition personality, Grigorian fainted in court and later passed away in the summer 2022. He was put in pre-trial custody for two months, despite committing no crimes and despite lawyer and family concerns about his health. As each day went by, his immune system got worse.
Rapid Political Change
What is perhaps most surprising is how fast Armenia’s trajectory from budding democracy towards increasing illiberalism occurred. After the ruling government won the snap elections in the summer of 2021, things began to shift quickly. The government resumed its interrupted task of finding “the enemies of the people”—a process evocative of Stalin-era purges—with increased speed after receiving what Prime Minister Pashinyan calls a “steel mandate” from his people following the 2020 war. The representatives of the Armenian diaspora communities living in various countries around the world were one of the initial targets in this fight. For instance, the authorities in Yerevan refused to let Mourad Papazian, the chairman of an Armenian diaspora organization in France, enter the country in July 2022. Papazian, who has never committed a crime, was solely prohibited from entering Armenia due to his alleged involvement in anti-Pashinyan protests in Paris in 2021.
Pashinyan’s blacklist does not stop with Papazian. At Zvartnots airport on August 1, Armenian security personnel approached two Dutch-Armenians, Massis Abrahamian and Suneh Abrahamian, and informed them that they had been designated persona non grata in Armenia. Similar to Papazian, these two diaspora activists were prohibited from entering the country because they spoke out against Armenia’s current government.
Also notable is how quickly religious freedoms have also been declining in the country. In 2020, the NSS launched an investigation into Sashik Sultanyan, the chairperson of the Yezidi Center for Human Rights, after the latter publicly stated that Armenia’s Yazidi community was facing discrimination. Despite the criticism by international human rights NGOs, Sultanyan’s trial was in progress as of late 2022. If convicted, the activist will face six years in prison on the charge of being a part of an “anti-state” conspiracy.
Likewise worth mentioning is the deteriorating condition of media freedom as well. According to the Resource Center on Media Freedom in Europe, media freedom remains restricted in Armenia, “among threats of violence, strong political inferences, and expensive defamation lawsuits.” An Armenian-based NGO, the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, has recorded fifteen cases of journalists experiencing physical violence between January and September 2022. Moreover, most print and broadcast outlets are affiliated with political or larger commercial interests.
Despite earlier promises during and after the 2018 Velvet Revolution that brought Nikol Pashinyan and his team to power, and even the 2021 snap elections during which the war-torn society gave another chance to the incumbent government after the devastating defeat in the conflict against Azerbaijan, the political climate in Armenia has been changing, unfortunately in the negative direction. As one Armenian expert expresses, the country`s leader “has turned hatred into a principle of governance and lies into a form of governing.”
Aleksandar Srbinovski is a journalist with over fifteen years of experience working in print and online media. He has worked for Nova Makedonija, Newsweek, Europa, Blic, Politika, ABC News, Vecher, TV Sitel, and Skok. He holds a BA in journalism from the Saints Cyril and Methodius University of Skopje and has pursued continued training with the University of Oklahoma.