A New ‘Step’ in Armenia: A Cause for Hope or Concern?

Photo: Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan leads “Take a Step, Reject Serzh” campaign. (Photo by Yerevantsi via Wikimedia)

By Aleksandra Zaytseva

A day before “Victory Day”, on May 8th, former newspaper editor, MP, and political prisoner, Nikol Pashinyan, was elected interim Prime Minister of Armenia, 59-to-42, in a historic exchange of power. This peaceful cessation of power by those who sought to keep it indefinitely, especially in a former Soviet republic, is undeniably an event to be celebrated. “Your victory is not that I was elected Prime Minister; your victory is that you decided who should be Prime Minister,” Pashinyan said. It is widely lauded as a new velvet revolution with many public figures sending public congratulations. Yet, many Eurasia watchers are uneasy.

While Nikol Pashinyan has some of the political experience, and certainly the charisma, of an effective leader, there are key elements missing from his victory: a political platform, a political party, and a constituency for either. Cabinet members who have supported him have testified to his “uncompromising” personality and flair for the dramatic. CNN lauded Pashinyan as riding in on a “outpouring of populist anger against the elite.” Simultaneously, the Guardian ran a headline claiming instead that he is “popular” rather than a “populist.” Pardon the skepticism from this student of democracy, but history seems to suggest that a candidate running on charisma and mass mobilization, without distinct policy platforms, a populist makes.

In late March, two-term President Serzh Sargsyan hinted at his intention to become Prime Minister, a Putin-style move that directly contradicted his promise in 2014 to relinquish power in accordance with term limits. On April 1st, Pashinyan began on a trek of protests across Armenia. Though Pashinyan undertook many such marches over the last two decades, widespread outrage over the Sargsyan’s move and heavy media coverage invigorated and decentralized this one man march into a popular movement. When Sargsyan had Pashinyan detained, tens of thousands took to the streets in the largest protest in recent Armenian history and called for the release of their new camouflage-clad folk hero and the downfall of the power-hungry leader. In a stunning move, Sargsyan acknowledged the popular pressure against him and stepped down on April 23, 2018, the eleventh straight day of protests.

It remains unclear as to what brought this “hybrid” semi-democratic regime, widely considered a subject of Kremlin puppeteering, to relent to popular protests while its neighbors “crack down” on protest with detainments and repression. Georgia, not Armenia, currently holds the status of the most-successful democracy in the region but no one would call Georgia an established or complete democracy. Armenia’s 2008 presidential election, marked by police-suppressed protest in which 10 people died and 100  detained and/or injured, was followed by distinct democratic backsliding.

This march was only the latest in a series of failed revolutionary protests. While Sargsyan’s attempt to hold on to power was the key to harnessing sustained popular support, there is no one answer for how this transition succeeded. One theory is that Sargsyan had learned from the aforementioned 2008 protests early in his tenure. A second popularly-held theory is that Pashinyan’s immediate proclamations of continued brotherhood with Russia protected the transition from Kremlin opposition.

Following his election, Pashinyan has vowed to run on a platform of anti-corruption, but the odds are stacked against him, and there is little prior record to give the skeptics much hope. In 2015, he refused to join the opposition’s efforts to prevent constitutional reforms moving many presidential powers to the Prime Minister. (These efforts were indeed passed, and rendered the presidency largely symbolic, in the style of a constitutional monarch.) Now Pashinyan himself will wield this greatly enhanced Prime Ministerial authority. As Andrew Roth noted in the Guardian: “In private, detractors say Pashinyan is a novice when it comes to working in government and unwilling to compromise.” In addition to private concerns of colleagues and his voting record, his public rhetoric gives cause for concern. While sporting his trademark camouflage t-shirt at a rally in Yerevan’s main square on April 26th, Pashinyan declared that either he is elected Prime Minister, or no one is. While he had a point – the Prime Minister should be elected by the people, not the long-standing majority party – the incendiary nature of his words is far from reassuring.

Another warning sign to Pashinyan’s rapid rise to power is the support from Moscow. One of Pashinyan’s first congratulatory calls was from the Kremlin, re-avowing political ties. Considering the still-active Russian military base left in Armenian territory, this is likely to be a key influential factor moving forward, no matter how pro-Western and counter-corruption Pashinyan declares himself to be. Indeed, the lack of intervention from Russia thus far implies a trust in Pashinyan to maintain pro-Kremlin policies, as contradictory as such policies would be to his stated objectives. Even if his intentions are pure, the entrenched Republican Party, which still holds a majority in the Armenian Parliament, has announced its intention to become the primary opposition to the new Prime Minister.

Yet, Pashinyan’s  supporters and some politics-watchers claim he has truly changed, and will pursue real reform in Armenia. His overture toward ending the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, for example, is a welcome and significant step. Truthfully, it is difficult to completely discredit Pashinyan’s passion and subsequent rise to power. His “common touch” and grassroots appeal are rare in the Post-Soviet world, where most in power are self-elected oligarchs, and his victory presents hope of peaceful transition in otherwise autocratic states. Like other populists, Pashinyan is simultaneously democracy in action, and democracy’s greatest threat. Perhaps the recent wave of populism across the West has made us cynical of all popular change.

In the end, this Russian-American is torn. The Russian half is deeply skeptical of bombastic newcomers, while the American is optimistic that this one could bring real reform. We’ll see who wins this one.

Aleksandra Zaytseva is a Grants Officer for Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy and an M.A. candidate in the Democracy and Governance Program at Georgetown University. She is particularly interested in the issues of anti-corruption and grassroots reform in the post-Soviet cultures.

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