One Year After Armenia’s ‘Velvet Revolution’: The Plans and Challenges Ahead
One year ago, in April 2018, a quasi-authoritarian regime collapsed as a result of a nationwide protest movement in Armenia labeled the “Velvet Revolution” (see EDM, April 23, 2018). And the following December, the first non-fraudulent election in 20 years secured a comfortable parliamentary majority of 88 out of 132 seats for the My Step bloc, led by the protest leader, former journalist Nikol Pashinyan (see EDM, December 10, 2018). The anniversary provides for a useful moment to reflect on the successes and failures of the new Armenian regime, as well as analyze the challenges ahead.
Prime Minister Pashinyan’s cabinet set an expectation for 5 percent annual economic growth, and the current government program calls for de-bureaucratizing and reducing state regulation of the economy, while simultaneously improving tax collection (Gov.am, February 8). The government’s anti-corruption efforts have been praised by representatives of the European Union, who expressed readiness to support the creation of a special anti-corruption body with know-how and financing, as well as to increase financial aid to Armenia in general (Aravot.am, April 17). The Armenian parliament is soon expected to discuss a draft law against illegal enrichment, in line with the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. The leader of the parliamentary majority, Lilit Makunts, also stated an intention to adopt new amendments to the constitution (1in.am, April 18). Yet, she did not elaborate as to what degree the proposed amendments would deal with the issue of the disproportionate power of the executive, which is embedded in the constitution adopted in 2015. Then-president Serzh Sargsyan, who was ousted by the Velvet Revolution, had tried to use this new constitution to further cement his regime (see EDM, April 23, 2018).
The course of Prime Minister Pashinyan’s foreign policy has proven that earlier expectations about the possibility of finally (and relatively quickly) resolving the Karabakh conflict (see EDM February 13, March 4) were premature. However, the joint statement by the foreign ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, as well as the co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, issued after the latest ministerial-level working meeting in Moscow, expressed cautious optimism. The participating officials agreed to maintain the pace on de-escalation and to start working on establishing contacts between people, including mutual visits of media representatives (Osce.org, April 15). Practical steps toward mutual trust building may help to gradually prepare for more substantial conflict resolution actions. According to some predictions, the next working meeting may soon take place in Washington.
The government’s program calls for maintaining Yerevan’s membership in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), as well as for investing in efforts to “enhance the efficiency” of those institutions as “key priorities.” Apart from the alliance with Russia, no other strategic-level cooperation is envisaged (see EDM, March 21). Meanwhile, media controlled by the former regime’s proxies and their allies in Russia have unleashed a pro-Moscow propaganda campaign that may result in further Russian demands Pashinyan may eventually be unable to resist. Although Pashinyan’s approval rating has remained stable so far, in a short-term perspective the collective weight of this propaganda could become the most difficult issue for the government to deal with, especially since breakthroughs in Armenia’s socio-economic situation are unlikely in the short term.
As the trial of former president Robert Kocharyan (in office: 1998–2008) approaches, the propaganda against the government has been intensifying. Involved local media focus on such familiar accusations as “selling out Karabakh” (meaning the alleged intention to make unilateral concessions) and the “betrayal of traditional values” (see EDM, December 10, 2018). The informational onslaught has also targeted some key figures in Pashinyan’s cabinet. The Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda called Kocharyan “the first political prisoner in the post-Soviet space” (Komsomolskaya Pravda, February 14). While Russian state-run RT ran a report alleging that a member of the Armenian parliament and several civil society organizations, which allegedly received money from the West, planned to “export the revolution” to Russia, Kazakhstan and other countries; that story was also picked up by Sputnik and other Russian media (RT, Armeniasputnik.am, February 13). On March 28, three major state-controlled Russian TV channels—Rossiya 24, NTV and TVC—also showed support for Kocharyan while speculating that Pashinyan had organized “riots” comparable to the 2013/2014 EuroMaidan in Ukraine (Azatutyun.am, March 29).
More recently, Serzh Sargsyan’s son-in-law, Mikael Minasyan, who controls a number of Armenian media outlets by proxy, published an article in Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta claiming that the current level of Russo-Armenian relations is unsatisfactory and advocating for deeper political and military cooperation based on the model of partnership between the United States and Israel (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 20). Moscow will almost certainly not undertake such a course of action: it would prove costly as well as endanger Russia’s partnership with Azerbaijan. Thus, Minasyan’s article should probably be interpreted as an appeal for help in overthrowing Pashinyan’s government. And while that may not be the Kremlin’s immediate priority, Russia may increase its pressure, leading to more serious infringements on Armenia’s sovereignty.
Against that background, Pashinyan’s team is attempting to avoid actions that might annoy Moscow. Characteristically, when a member of the parliamentary majority suggested taking Russian TV channels that had smeared Pashinyan off the air, the head of the regulatory body in charge of television and radio frequencies, Tigran Hakobyan, replied that this would not be possible. He specifically mentioned the examples of Georgia and Ukraine, which “paid dearly for taking Russian channels off the air” (Lragir.am, April 10). Later, Pashinyan simply called upon the TV companies in question to behave “decently” but conceded that their broadcasts would not be limited (Aravot.am, April 15).
Recent analysis by senior researchers at the National Endowment for Democracy concluded that overwhelming domestic popular support for last year’s Velvet Revolution had prevented Russia from undertaking overt action against Armenia during and immediately afterward. However, after waiting for some time, until the popularity of the Pashinyan government begins to wane, it may be easier for Russia to undermine the new regime. Therefore, the Armenian government only has a short window of opportunity to carry out profound governance and economic reforms (Journal of Democracy, April 2019). Pashinyan’s team also has to consider whether further deepening of ties with Russia will continue to influence strategic planning and if this, in turn, could become an additional strong obstacle to meaningful governance reforms. While Yerevan’s current careful approach vis-à-vis Moscow is quite understandable, foreign policy diversification seems indispensable for the ultimate success of the Velvet Revolution.