The 10 November trilateral agreement of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan ended the 2020 Artsakh (Karabakh) War, where Armenia accepted defeat and had to agree to Russian proposals. This triggered outrage against the prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power with wide-spread popular support in the Velvet Revolution of 2018. The protests against Pashinyan were organised by a group of ex-presidents and former prime ministers, who came together under the umbrella of the Homeland Salvation Movement (HSM), led by Vazgen Manukyan, the first prime minister of post-Soviet independent Armenia. Initially, the movement demanded Pashinyan to step back and proposed Vazgen Manukyan’s candidacy as an interim Prime Minister with a duration of one year. However, this was rejected by Pashinyan who insisted on continuing to govern whilst at the same time promising to organise snap elections in half a year. Being under tough pressure from the Russia-supported and HSM-led protests, and seeking to relieve post-war societal tensions, eventually on 18 March Pashinyan declared the decision to hold early parliamentary elections on 20 June.
The upcoming parliamentary election will be the third in the last four years. This election promises to be the most competitive in terms of the number of participants, as 21 parties and 4 blocs have registered, and also in terms of the politicians involved in the process. The Central Electoral Commission (CEC) will hold elections at the 2008 electoral precincts which are distributed throughout the country. The overall number of eligible voters is 2,583,823. The passing threshold is 5% for parties and 7% for blocs. Before making a decision on the snap election, Pashinyan’s Parliamentary faction, My Step, initiated new changes in the Electoral Code, according to which simple proportional representation based on party lists would determine the outcome of the vote. This appears to have made the election more of a competition of the leaders of the parties rather than a rivalry of platforms or ideas for Armenia’s future.
This is probably the most inclusive domestic political process of the modern Republic of Armenia since independence, as all former presidents are registered by the CEC to challenge Pashinyan’s power.
One of them, Armenia’s second president, Kocharyan, can be regarded as the main competitor of the interim prime minister as both sides possess financial, media and administrative resources which are being used to maximise their gains. A discourse analysis of the registered participants can show the topics which dominate the electoral campaign: security; the restoration of the army; the Artsakh (Karabakh) conflict; the return of prisoners of war (POWs); and relations with Russia. In terms of the latter, the lion’s share of parties promote closer ties with Russia, while a few other parties and blocs, such as the National-Democratic Pole, Free Homeland and Republic, support relations with the West and criticise Russia’s stance on the Karabakh conflict. Instead of supporting diversified, cautious and well-balanced approaches to foreign relations, these two groups choose to adopt a more radical stance on foreign-policy orientation, which is dangerous for countries like Armenia that have a sensitive, strategic but often fragile relationship with Russia.
According to the CEC, initially 22 parties and 4 blocs submitted required documents for the approval, but one of them, the ‘Armenian Eagles – United Armenia party’, left the arena a few days after registration. Below is the list of the 25 registered entities with their leaders and/or the main supporters.
- Led by Norayr Norikyan (a lawyer)
Armenian National Congress
- Led by Levon Ter-Petrosyan (the first president)
- Led by Nikol Pashinyan (incumbent prime minister)
Awakening National Christian Party
- Led by Ara Zohrabyan (the chairman of the Chamber of Advocates)
- Led by Hrant Bagratyan (former prime minister)
I have honor (bloc)
- Led by Arthur Vanetsyan (former head of the National Security Service under Pashinyan)
- In coalition with the Republican Party of Serzh Sargsyan (the third president)
United Homeland Party
- Led by Lusine Aavagyan
- Founded by Mher Terteryan (former advisor to Karen Karapetyan, former prime minister)
All-Armenian National Statehood Party
- Led by Arthur Vardanyan (sentenced a few years ago for the coup d’état attempt)
Bright Armenia Party
- Edmon Marukyan
- The third party in the Parliament
Armenia Is Our Home
- Led by Tigran Urikhanyan MP (until recently with Gagik Tsarukyan)
- Supported by Ara Abrahamyan (Armenian tycoon from Russia)
- Led by Aram Z. Sargsyan (former prime minister), brother of Vazgen Sargsyan (former defence/prime minister)
Homeland of Armenians Party
- Led by Artak Galsytyan (a lawyer)
Free Homeland (bloc)
- Led by Andrias Ghukasyan; Supported by Paruyr Hayrikyan (a former Soviet dissident)
- Led by Gagik Tsarukyan (the second largest faction in the Parliament)
Democratic Party of Armenia
- Led by its founder, Aram G. Sargsyan
- Until recently led by Tigran Arzakantsyan (Russia-based Armenian businessman), whose candidacy was dismissed by the CEC
5165 National Conservative Movement party
- Led by Karin Tonoyan (a TV host), who lost her son in the recent war
Citizen’s Decision Social-Democratic Party
- Suren Sahaykan (former civic activist)
Shirinyan-Babajanyan Alliance of Democrats
- Led by Arman Babajanyan MP (the owner of 1in.am news agency) and Levon Shirinyan (a university professor)
National Agenda Party
- Led by Ara Hakobyan
- Supported by Avetik Chalabyan (a senior partner in McKinsey & Company)
- Aleksan Minasyan (former military officer)
- Led by Samvel Babayan (former minister of defence of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic)
European Party of Armenia
- Led by Tigran Khzmalyan (pro-European activist; film director)
Armenia Alliance (bloc)
- Led by Robert Kocharyan (the second president of Armenia)
- Alliance between the ‘Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutyun’ and ‘Resurgent Armenia’ (from Syunik province)
- Led by Vahe Gasparyan,
- Founded by Jirayr Sefilyan, ‘Sasna Tsrer’, Ara Papyan and others
Sovereign Armenia party
- Founded and led by David Sanasaryan (one of the organisers of the Velvet Revolution, who then was charged with the abuse of power on groundless evidence)
The registered parties and blocs can be divided into four main clusters given their chances to enter the Parliament.
In the first group are those whose prospects to hit the passing threshold are very high. Those forces are ‘Civil Contract’ of Nikol Pashinyan, ‘Armenia Alliance’ of Robert Kocharyan, ‘I have honor’ of Arthur Vanetsyan and Serzh Sargsyan, ‘Armenian National Congress’ of Levon Ter-Petrosyan and ‘Prosperous Armenia’ of Gagik Tsarukyan.
The second group includes Aram Z. Sargsyan’s ‘Republic’, ‘Shirinyan-Babajanyan Alliance of Democrats’ and Edmon Marukyan’s ‘Bright Armenia’ party. This group can be regarded as pro-Western, and due to their liberal and constructivist stance, they are seen as moderates. They are near the passing 5% and everything will depend on the level of voter participation. If they manage to change the mood among those 40-45% of voters, who don’t want to take part in the election, then their chances will increase. Otherwise, they may face serious problems in passing the threshold.
In the third group, we can find those parties or blocs, which can approach the 5% threshold if absenteeism is low and their campaigns are effective and targeted. ‘National-Democratic Pole’ of Sefilyan, ‘Citizen’s Decision’, ‘European party of Armenia’, ‘Free Homeland Alliance’, and Samvel Babayan’s ‘Liberal party’ are in this cluster. Their constituency is fluctuating, therefore they need to build up a core base to rely on.
Finally, in the last group can be found those parties that don’t have real chances of entering parliament – their results will be less than 1% – but they will serve in favour of the interests of the main competitors, successfully pulverising their votes. The majority of the parties included in this category were founded one or two months prior to the election. Most of them have pro-Russian attitudes and are linked either to Armenian businessmen from Russia or to Kocharyan and Sargsyan.
Armenia’s second president, Robert Kocharyan, who was the most influential supporter of the Homeland Salvation Movement, made it clear in January that he would run for power in the upcoming elections. His decision can be explained not only by the Armenian defeat in the war, but also by the fact that Pashinyan’s Velvet Revolution cost him very highly in terms of reputation, as Kocharyan and some other high-ranking officials from his leadership – such as the Head of the Army, the head of his administration, and the minister of defence – were charged with participating in a constitutional coup d’état in the post-electoral process of 2008, when 10 people were killed. However, the Constitutional Court – the members of which had recently been changed by Pashinyan’s My Step – which was in charge of investigating the case, surprisingly dropped charges against Kocharyan thus paving the way for him to actively return to politics. In the official ceremony of the launch of Kocharyan’s ‘Armenia’ alliance held on 9 May, Kocharyan signed a coalition agreement with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (‘Dashnaktsutyun’) and the Resurgent Armenia parties. Kocharyan’s return hasn’t been welcomed by many Armenians, as the memories of his authoritarian governance are still vivid. Therefore, Pashinyan’s populist rhetoric, blaming the old regimes for all his failures, still works effectively to mobilise the masses – he can only survive in the political arena by fighting the ghosts of the past.
It seemed that the early election would be between Kocharyan and Pashinyan, and it would be almost impossible to prevent possible clashes during and after the elections. But, unexpectedly, the first President Levon Ter-Petrosyan revealed an important fragment from his meeting with S. Sargsyan and R. Kocharyan earlier in March, where he had proposed that the three of them participate in the election together against Pashinyan, with a few conditions: firstly, none of the ex-presidents would aim at taking a high-ranking position; and secondly, that the government should be composed of technocrats who aren’t involved in political processes. The statement and the fact that such a proposal had been discussed and rejected by Kocharyan and Sargysan damaged their positions, indicating their reluctance to ‘co-operate for the sake of the homeland’. Thus, Ter-Petrosyan challenges two hostile groups whilst offering an alternative to voters who would otherwise decide to take an absentee approach.
What does Kocharyan offer? He speaks about closer relations with Russia, promises to make order from the current chaos, and to solve the return of Shushi and Hadrut (two major towns of Nagorno-Karabakh, which came under control of Azerbaijan) through negotiations. Finally, Kocharyan underscores the importance of a ‘dignified peace’ – an important aspect which is new in his discourse and has triggered harsh criticism from the side of Ter-Petrosyan and his supporters.
When it comes to Russia, Kocharyan can be seen as the best candidate, given his personal relations with Vladimir Putin and other leaders of the CSTO. Overall, dissonance is apparent in Kocharyan’s electoral platform and the statements of his alliance members. On the one hand, his electoral program underlines very attractive aspects such as sharing geopolitical interests with Georgia; elevating relations with China to a new level, especially in terms of regional co-operation; and making Armenia a transit country both for the North-South Corridor and as a part of the Black Sea-Persian Gulf corridor, as well as joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It’s still an open question how Kocharyan and his team, who are regarded as pro-Russian, imagine the realisation of all these ideas, which are in explicit contradiction with the Russian interests in the region. Whilst Kocharyan’s electoral program outlines the main foreign-policy priorities, aimed at diversification, in his alliance’s list of candidates there is no lack of politicians who have radical stance on Armenia’s relations with Russia – for example, Arthur Ghazinyan, who even supports the idea of establishing a Union State with Russia.
Pashinyan’s everlasting populism
The interim prime minister, Pashinyan, and his party – Civil Contract – started their campaign with the old rhetoric of blaming the former regimes for all possible failures, denying their own responsibilities and, once again, introducing the destructive discourse of political vendettas.
Therefore, this electoral campaign is the worst in terms of content and quality of speech.
Reciprocal insults are in the air, and the Armenian Human Rights Defender’s office has already registered many cases of hate speech against even the family members of candidates. It seemed that Pashinyan would realise the current state of affairs and, amid the domestic political crisis and Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenian sovereign territory, accept a more inclusive and thawed approach towards the opposition. On the contrary, he fuels the situation by insulting all opponents, and blaming them for the failures, which happened during his governance. In addition to this, Pashinyan’s new list is composed of businessmen such as Khachatur Sukiasyan and Gurgen Arsenyan, who used to have relations with former regimes in various times. So, it shouldn’t be surprising to notice a sharp decline in his public support, which remains outside of Yerevan and concentrated in villages and towns, with the additional support of the public administration, which is loyal to anyone in power.
Pashinyan’s electoral program, which was expected to be more limited in terms of ambitions and based more on pragmatism and realism, in general is divided into two main parts: ‘what we have done’ and ‘what we will do’. In the first part, Pashinyan comes up with numbers and statistics, which are criticised by opponents and experts. For the upcoming years, Pashinyan insists that ‘there is a future’. This kind of abstract slogan causes doubt, not only on the future but also on the current situation. Nevertheless, Pashinyan emphasises strong co-operation with Russia and underlines the importance of the CSTO. It’s worth mentioning that compared with Kocharyan’s programme, where the Russia-led CSTO and EEAU are found in the same sentence as the UN, the EU, the EC, the CIS; Pashinyan, who continues to challenge the CSTO in one paragraph, highlights the importance of relations with the organisation in the other. One important aspect of Pashinyan’s programme is the modernisation and development of the army, again relying on Russia. When it comes to conflict resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh, Civil Contract promotes the principle of ‘remedial secession‘ once used in Kosovo. Pashinyan supports the OSCE Minsk Group for the final resolution of the conflict and, into the bargain, declares Armenia as the security provider of Nagorno-Karabakh, though they have a real problem explaining the practical realisation of this given the current state of affairs. Similar to Kocharyan, Pashinyan sees the return of territories of the former NKAO, only by peaceful negotiations, and in order to please Moscow, positions himself as the main sincere defender of the 10 November ceasefire agreement.
All roads lead to Moscow
Frankly speaking, it doesn’t matter who is in power in Armenia; Russia is the winner. The only important thing is to what extent the ruling elite serves the interests of Armenia and safeguards its fragile sovereignty. Armenia’s defeat and current vulnerabilities on the border with Azerbaijan have caused complicated feelings in Armenian society. On the one hand, scepticism increased towards the West because of its failure to react adequately to the aggression of Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey and its radical mercenaries, during the last war. The anti-Western mood is still in the air, with the exception of the perception of France, whose activities have sharply increased its positive image in Armenia, raising the prospect of replacing Moscow with Paris in terms of a security provider. However, the fact that the war was stopped by Russia and that Russian troops could end up saving the Armenian population of Artsakh (Karabakh), enhances traditional pro-Russian feelings in Armenia. Russia plays with the narrative of the saviour in order to deepen the suspicions in the Armenian society that the war happened because of Armenian democratic aspirations, and that if there had been no revolution nor a desire for these Western-sponsored activities, then the war wouldn’t have happened. The most remarkable side of the Russian anti-Western paranoiac propaganda is the fact that many famous commentators or experts of the Russian media have Armenian origins (Margarita Simonyan, Sergey Kurginyan, G. Mirzoyan, Andranik Migranyan), which also plays an important role in public opinion shaping.
The Armenian political landscape is dominated by pro-Russian sentiments and statements, which promote various depths of relations with Russia. So, even if the vast majority of the registered parties and alliances try to explicitly please Russia (for instance, by saying ‘Crimea is ours’ – the well-known slogan of Putin’s Crimea campaign– in the case of Arthur Vanetsyan, the leader of Sargsyan’s ‘I have honor’ alliance) and have rendered the elections a competition of flattery towards the Kremlin, on the ground, Pashinyan still keeps the status of ‘primus inter pares’ despite the attempts of the Russian media and expert communities to label him as an ‘alien’. Even though Russia doesn’t regard Pashinyan as a tough nut, and abuses his vulnerabilities to maximise its gains, for the Kremlin, Pashinyan remains a source of suspicion in terms of his relations with the West. Pashinyan’s move to apply to the Russia-led CSTO for assistance amid the border tensions with Azerbaijan, sheds light on the fragility of the organisation and tests Putin’s nerves, simultaneously causing a rethink of the Armenia-Russia military partnership within Armenian society. What Russia seeks in this election is to secure itself from possible anti-Russian sentiment in the Parliament and to have a backup option in the face of Kocharyan and others. Surprisingly, given all his failures and incompetencies, Pashinyan continues to be the most acceptable candidate for the West as well. Kocharyan’s possible return challenges the West as well, as his election would mean Armenia plunging into Russia’s orbit. Therefore, Pashinyan’s last visits to France and Belgium, and the arrival of the US acting assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in Yerevan, were aimed at emphasising the importance of the West in Armenia’s foreign policy discourse, which is ignored by Kocharyan.
Overall, this election may not end the ongoing political crisis in Armenia which started in the aftermath of the last Artsakh (Karabakh) war. The risks of post-electoral tensions and clashes are very high, and both Kocharyan and Pashinyan don’t hide their ambitions, and their readiness to achieve them knows no bounds.
The main winners of a weakened Armenia will be Russia and Azerbaijan, who will continue to impose their agenda. For the West, this is an election between bad and worse. So, the West will have to bet on Pashinyan, given his aspirations to pursue a diversified foreign policy. However, the only candidate who frankly speaks about relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan is Ter-Petrosyan. The rest, including Pashinyan himself, try to develop this discourse at the same time encountering various limitations in this dimension, such as the problem of the POWs, the Azerbaijani encroachment on Armenian sovereign territory, the closed border with Turkey and Azerbaijan’s continuing hatred against Armenians embodied by the Military Trophy Park. Both pacifist and revanchist statements and positions should be treated with reservations as they are determined by many important factors such as Russia’s influence on Armenia and its ability to change the outcome of the elections, and impact Armenia’s foreign policy behavior on the Karabakh problem.
Certainly, Russia’s influence has limits and the scope of this may change due to the election. Additionally, there is an apparent activation of interest from the Western side, as could be seen by the recent US engagement in the return of 15 POWs from Azerbaijan with the involvement of the Georgian prime minister.
This week’s meetings between Biden and Erdogan, and then between Biden and Putin, are likely to define the new dynamics for the region in the near future. Another important event is the presidential elections in Iran amid an ongoing US-Iran normalisation process. The Armenian election is a very important ring in this chain of developments, as it will determine the situation in the South Caucasus for the next few years.
by Alexander Petrosyan an independent analyst based in Brussels