One-hundred days into his term, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has a lot to be proud of. He successfully pulled off a peaceful transfer of power from an entrenched authoritarian regime, introduced a government staffed by young and fresh faces, and re-energized a nation that had hitherto been overcome with cynicism. Government agents have been busy investigating the financial dealings of many of the former regime’s once untouchable allies, while ministers have been streamlining government functions and preparing for a new parliamentary election. As for concrete results, the administration announced that since assuming its role, it has recovered over $250 million in funds owed to state coffers, as exports for the first six months of 2018, have exceeded those for the entirety of the previous year, not to mention the increase in citizenship applications by repatriating diaspora Armenians.
To mark the occasion, Pashinyan gathered tens of thousands of supporters where it all started three months ago: Republic Square. As the former firebrand opposition leader addressed his supporters, astute listeners could detect a hint of his trademark populist rhetoric. Among the more eyebrow-raising statements were calls for “transitional justice” and declarations that Armenia was now a ‘direct democracy’ like ancient Athens.
While the rally was designed to be a public reckoning and a show of strength, it also conveyed another important message: despite the crowds, despite the euphoria and achievements of the previous months, Pashinyan remains vulnerable.
Though Pashinyan’s rather celebratory gathering was planned ahead of time, it happened to be scheduled in the midst of the turmoil following the arrest, charging and subsequent release of Armenia’s controversial second president, Robert Kocharian.
Earlier in July, Kocharian surprised many when he accepted a request by Armenia’s state investigators for questioning regarding his declaration of a state of emergency during the events of March 1, 2008. Many Armenians hold him responsible for the deaths of 10 people in a bloody military crackdown of post-election protesters. Pashinyan, who helped organize those protests, went to prison for almost two years; he vowed to launch a transparent investigation to uncover the truth surrounding the violence.
Kocharian’s arrest on charges of subverting public order may have initially looked like a PR success for the new government, by demonstrating to supporters that nobody was beyond the reach of justice. That is when things quickly unraveled. The second president’s detention triggered unintended pushbacks both at home and abroad. The embattled Republican Party offered an uncharacteristically severe denunciation of the move. Most concerning, however, was the carefully-worded condemnation by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), framed as an expression of apprehension. The ARF’s official communiqué read: “The charge of overthrowing constitutional order on March 1 brought against Armenia’s second President Robert Kocharian and other authorities at the period is very concerning and can be interpreted as political persecution.”
Kocharian’s political comeback seems to have already galvanized counter-revolutionary elements in the country.
The ARF, as well as the Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP), currently support Pashinyan’s government. However, both have served as coalition partners to the previous Republican government, and both have strong ties to Robert Kocharian.
The ambiguous relationship between the Tashnagsutyun and Kocharian was exemplified during an an incredibly sycophantic interview given by the former strongman to the ARF-operated Yerkir Media television station. The host, apparently unfazed by the fact that he was sitting across from a man charged with treason, avoided every opportunity to question him on his very dubious record as president. Instead, he allowed him to use the platform to announce his return to active politics, as ‘the only man with the experience to run a country at war.’
He also used the opportunity to dismiss criticisms of widespread corruption, oligarchy and repression under his rule, insisting that he lead the country through an unprecedented period of double-digit economic growth. Borrowing language increasingly associated with Eastern-Europe’s illiberal autocrats, he accused the new government of being staffed by Soros-funded NGO grant-eaters who were more interested in dismantling Armenia’s national identity, jeopardizing its delicate geopolitical stance, and undermining the family unit rather than maintaining course in a country at war.
Kocharian’s political comeback seems to have already galvanized counter-revolutionary elements in the country. The Republican Party, which still controls the largest faction in the Parliament and its allies have voiced its readiness to cooperate with him, while the ARF has alarmingly refused to rule out the possibility of working with the former president. Though the Prosperous Armenia Party has yet to voice a stance, it has traditionally been known to be Kocharian’s party in everything but name.
A statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov condemning Kocharian’s arrest may also serve as a message to Yerevan that Moscow may be in a position to directly intervene in post-Velvet Armenia. Kocharian himself, a close ally of Putin, may be that tool.
These political maneuverings seem to be coordinated with some type of ‘astroturfing’ campaign both on the streets and social media. The strategy is to appeal to traditionalists by framing Pashinyan as a Soros-agent bent on weakening Armenia’s traditional institutions.
All this comes at an inopportune time for the new government, which now has to launch meaningful, yet politically uninspiring reforms while struggling to maintain momentum. As the PM’s position in the institutions of governance remains precarious, he relies instead on a delicate network of alliances of convenience, and popular support to plow forward. For this reason, Pashinyan, whose team has not yet fully established itself in its new role, continues to resort to ‘direct democracy’ methods to maintain legitimacy, such as Facebook live sessions and street gatherings.
Tasked with both enacting reforms and maintaining enthusiasm from a diverse, and often conflicting support base, Pashinyan needs to tread carefully on various pressing issues like the Amulsar gold mine, the release of the Sasna Tsrer militant group, and the ongoing anti-corruption investigations. An increasing number of voices have referred to these arrests as political revanchism, due to the lack of judicial reform preceding them.
The pushback against the new government’s actions by a coalition made up of disgraced political enemies, foreign interests and untrustworthy allies centered around Kocharyan might, if not dealt with carefully, derail the Revolution’s successful track record. Kocharian had already left the country and politics behind. Going after the ex-president so soon after taking office may have been a hasty move by Pashinyan, who should have been consolidating power and focusing on prioritizing judicial, economic, and political reforms.
With such impressive, enthusiastic crowd turnouts, it’s clear that Pashinyan still garners popular support. However, sustaining this method of governance in the long term will be far from easy.