Q&A: Where next for Armenia after the 'velvet revolution'?

  1. Last week, opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan became the country's new prime minister

WikiTribune asked two experts about the recent so-called “velvet revolution”: what drove Armenians to support it, what it means for the country’s future, and how it might affect future relations with Russia, to which Armenia has traditionally been closely aligned. The fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but which has been under Armenian control since the fall of the Soviet Union, was also discussed.

Last week, the Armenian National Assembly confirmed opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan as the country’s new prime minister. It followed a weeks-long movement protesting former president Serzh Sargsyan’s attempt to be named prime minister as a means of skirting the two-term limit in the Armenian constitution.

In April, Pashinyan’s campaign of civil disobedience, named #RejectSerzh (the slogan rhymes in Armenian), had forced Sargsyan’s resignation as prime minister.

We interviewed Richard Giragosian, the director of the Yerevan think tank the Regional Studies Center, and Yuval Weber, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Associate Professor at Daniel Morgan Graduate School.

WikiTribune spoke to both in the days following Pashinyan’s confirmation as prime minister. The following has been edited for clarity.

Protestors in Yerevan’s Republic Square / Wikimedia

WikiTribune: What has just happened in Armenia?

Richard Giragosian: The forced resignation of Serzh Sargsyan was as significant as it was abrupt, occurring over just seven days. But for Sargsyan, it was an exceptional case where an incumbent leader went without even a fight. To his credit, his resignation was as peaceful as the non-violent demonstrations that opposed him. And at no point did Moscow seek to back him, nor did he turn to Russia for any appeal for help.

Armenia also stands out as an exception, as a rare case of successful “people power,” marked by a victorious case of non-violent demonstrations overthrowing an entrenched leader. Sargsyan was never expected to leave the stage so quickly and so easily, commendably refraining from any resort to force of arms to stay in power.

How will Pashinyan’s election as PM affect Armenia-Russia relations?

Richard Giragosian: An impressive element of Armenia’s so-called “velvet revolution” was that at no point in the dramatic demonstrations did geopolitics play any part. This was especially impressive given the dual reality of Armenia’s strategic alliance with Russia and, even more startlingly, the unusually permissive Russian reaction.

Regardless of its leadership, Armenia remains deeply dependent on Russia, for guns, gas and goods. As the only host of a Russian military base and the only member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the region, the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict necessitates Armenian reliance on discounted weapons from Russia, especially as Armenia is compelled to keep pace with years of massive defense spending and an arms buildup by Azerbaijan.

Yuval Weber: Pashinyan set aside his personal skepticism about Russia and its political influence on Armenia to set aside the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and not to challenge Russia directly. Once he navigated that, then it was a matter of time for him to become prime minister within the boundaries of the constitution.

Had Pashinyan called into question Armenia’s existing foreign policy commitments, his Republican Party opponents would have immediately called into question his national security credentials and judgment by accusing him of giving up Nagorno-Karabakh for personal political power.

What conclusions will Russia draw from the outcome of the “velvet revolution”?

Richard Giragosian: Russian officials have actively engaged both opposition leaders in Yerevan and government officials in Moscow. Such an unusually passive and permissive Russian approach can be attributed to several factors. First, from a broader perspective, Moscow has been especially wary over the past year of how it deals with Armenia. That wariness stems from a belated recognition of the need to address what has become a deepening crisis in relations between Armenia and Russia, which peaked after the April 2016 fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, in the most serious fighting since the 1990s and that was a rare victory for Azerbaijan, largely due to the use of modern offensive weapons sold by Russia.

A second serious driver for a softer Russian policy is rooted in the Russian recognition of a dynamic and unpredictable situation on the ground in Armenia, where tens of thousands of youthful demonstrators posed a combustible situation that Moscow was ill-equipped to understand, let alone to counter.

Yuval Weber: The only Armenia-specific lesson drawn here is that popular change can occur through perfectly constitutional means when aided by massive, peaceful street protests. The Kremlin will make sure Moscow isn’t paralyzed by protests of hundreds of thousands of people and they’ll take a look at the Constitution to figure out if something needs changing there as well.

What issues will Pashinyan now have to address as Prime Minister?

Richard Giragosian: The primary focus of governance will remain centered on a domestic agenda, mirroring the protests and mapping to the rising expectations of the people.
Second, there will be both a necessity and a desire for calm and a return to normalcy. In foreign policy, this means reassuring Russia that there is to be no sudden U-turn in policy or shift in strategy.

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