Following the landslide victory of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s ‘My Step’ Alliance in the first election since the resignation of president-turned-prime-minister Serzh Sargsyan, the populist leader faces his biggest test – transitioning from revolution to governance.
Pashinyan has proven himself a skilled mobilizer. His populist reformist rhetoric has thus far been able to activate a diverse cross-section of the Armenian public united by little more than a common desire for change. But while this ideologically agnostic approach was successful in the context of the revolution, its efficacy will be tested now that the Civil Contract Party has the parliamentary mandate to govern in its own right.
As a transition government, it was understood that the immediate priority was anti-corruption. The campaign was highlighted by significant shake-ups to governmental and departmental appointments, and a series of ambitious high-profile arrests. Much of this, however, has been superficial. The arrests satiated the public’s desire for action on corruption but failed to address underlying socio-economic challenges that have fuelled the corruption of the past two decades.
One article in Foreign Policy magazine noted that up to 80 percent of the population could be implicated in petty-corruption; in which case, symbolic arrests can only achieve so much – particularly when the arrests were tainted with political motivations, most evident in the implicit immunity Pashinyan’s main parliamentary ally and oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan – and his political faction – have enjoyed thus far.
Pashinyan’s initial success hinged on his ability to maintain ideological neutrality throughout the Velvet Revolution – using the uncontroversial platforms of anti-corruption, democratization and economic development to mobilise an ordinarily ambivalent public.
To this end, the revolutionary government has been highly effective in setting the national agenda. With anti-corruption dominating public debate, other more burdensome matters of public importance were allowed to fall by the wayside. Much anticipated electoral reforms, central to the government’s reform agenda, suffered from a drawn-out consultation process that was ultimately fruitless. By the time a finalized reform bill was ready for parliament, Pashinyan had already signaled his intent to dissolve the national assembly and initiate early elections – galvanizing parliamentary opposition against him. Other issues, including inaction on Amulsar, persist without resolution in sight.
Developing a strong international profile through regular correspondence and promises of continued cooperation with Russia, progress on the European partnership front, and a number of high-profile international events – including the UN General Assembly, the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Armenia, and the hosting of Francophonie – were able to contribute to the image of Pashinyan as a man of action, not empty promises.
But while these symbolic victories may have proven a powerful tool of mobilisation in the period of revolutionary transition, they alone cannot sustain and stabilise the new government. Eventually, Pashinyan will have to move outside of this comfort zone of deferring to the streets and establish a party-platform that may involve some controversial decisions. Opposition forces have already caught on – last month using pointed statements in and outside of the National Assembly on the topic of LGBTI+ rights to corner Pashinyan into articulating a formal position on the issue. The result was a calculated non-answer, acknowledging the historic mistreatment of LGBTI+ communities in Armenia without suggesting a remedy, instead referring to the issue as a “headache” for government.
Pashinyan’s initial success hinged on his ability to maintain ideological neutrality throughout the Velvet Revolution – using the uncontroversial platforms of anti-corruption, democratization and economic development to mobilize an ordinarily ambivalent public. But by attempting to ‘expose’ the party’s progressive agenda, Pashinyan’s opponents have sought to drive a wedge between its leader and the largely conservative Armenian public. In Pew Research Center polling conducted in 2015-16, Armenians were found to be the most socially and morally conservative of surveyed countries across the world – particularly in regards to LGBTI+ and women’s rights. In many regards, this challenge was Pashinyan’s first major ideological test. His failure to adequately address the topic is just one example of the inconsistencies and policy stagnation that will occur if public expectations are held above ideological consistency.
An Armenia under Pashinyan faces similar challenges in the field of security. Pashinyan’s history of anti-Russia rhetoric, and previous calls to withdraw Armenia’s Eurasian Economic Union membership in a proposal to expedite European integration became one tool of delegitimization employed by the previous administration during nation-wide protests. Pashinyan was able to shake off the critique, assuring his support for the Eurasian Economic Union and existing security agreements with Russia while simultaneously espousing the virtues of the EU. But this overcompensation has not been without its consequences. When Russia violated Armenian sovereignty by conducting military drills in the country unannounced, Pashinyan’s toothless response was a direct result of his need to preserve credibility in the field of foreign relations. With Russian military reliance so deeply embedded in the Armenian defense narrative, reprimanding Russia would have proved his detractors right.
The Artsakh conflict was another point of weakness for Pashinyan, who had previously advocated for territorial concessions in exchange for recognition of status. After being challenged by the previous administration, he doubled down on the issue – calling for Artsakh to be involved in the Minsk Group negotiation format and suggesting an increase in military expenditure. Movement on Artsakh has, however, been the Achilles’ heel of many Armenian governments. Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s proposed territorial concessions caused deep divisions within Armenia and the diaspora, contributing to his ultimate resignation. Similar issues came up during the Zurich Protocols concerning the opening of the Armenia-Turkish border. Turkey’s attempt to use the negotiation format to interfere in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace settlement led to significant opposition in the diaspora which eventually forced then president Sargsyan to remove his signature. More recently, in 2016 protesters numbering in the thousands demanded Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation in response to leaks that he was considering territorial concessions to Azerbaijan in the wake of the April War.
The Artsakh issue has proven time and time again to be a cause of public unification and talk of territorial concessions have been met with immediate hostility. And as a result, more so than any Armenian leader before him, the hopes of a negotiated settlement to the Artsakh conflict seem distant under Pashinyan. This is not necessarily an indictment of his acumen in foreign affairs – his choice of experienced policymakers for the positions of Foreign and Defence Ministers provided much needed expertise to an otherwise inexperienced cabinet. Rather, it is more of a reflection of an incompatibility between Pashinyan’s ‘form’ of politics, and the need for decisive action. His excessive reliance on mass mobilization in the legitimization of his government magnifies the risk of public aggravation on the Artsakh issue. If the public were to appear to “turn against” Pashinyan, it would provide adequate fuel for opposition parties to launch a credible challenge to his authority on matters of security.
Political progress cannot be achieved in the absence of political compromise. Ultimately, revolutionary politics reaches a point of diminishing returns. An anti-corruption campaign targeting high-profile members of the old-guard may satisfy the public in the short term, but without structural economic reform the people will begin to realize over time that it’s all smoke and mirrors. In order to overcome public impatience for immediate change, Pashinyan’s next move will be to accelerate another seemingly uncontroversial policy item – economic development. But when it comes to the economy, it’s impossible to always please everyone.
The Amulsar mine project has become something of a symbol of this challenge. It’s a case of foreign investment in an established sector that promises employment and immediate economic yields. However, there are high environmental costs and risks associated with the collateral damage the mine will have on other local industries – including tourism and agriculture. It’s put Pashinyan between a rock and a hard place – on the one hand is the local populations protesting the mine and its long term-term consequences, and on the other are the foreign investors the government is desperate to attract and the economic development it wishes to prove itself capable of.
To side with the latter would be to risk public backlash, of which Pashinyan is highly sensitive to given the circumstances surrounding his elevation to high office. To side with the former would avert that, but potentially harm foreign investor confidence and risk considerable fines. The result has been inaction, pending an environmental review by international experts. A diversion tactic that only serves to delay the inevitable need for decisive action that will necessarily be divisive on one front or another. In the meantime, Pashinyan has called on protesters to cease their civil disobedience, accusing them of hindering investigations and instigating political deadlock – a questionable move from a leader who popularized the strategy.
The indecision surrounding Amulsar sets a number of counterproductive precedents in the realm of both economic development and governance. While the mining industry accounts for approximately 30 percent of Armenia’s exports, 2017 data shows it accounted for just 3 percent of the nation’s GDP. In contrast, tourism accounts for approximately 10 percent of the nation’s GDP and agriculture 20 to 25 percent (and employs over 30 percent of the workforce) – the two most at-risk industries should mining be resumed. Weak legislation and even weaker enforcement in regard to the mining industry have had serious consequences in the fields of environmental sustainability, public health, and economic output. Studies have estimated that over 50 percent of Yerevan’s population may be living in contaminated conditions as a result of mining pollution, and that farm produce in regions with significant mining operations are contaminated with heavy metals.
On the governance front, Amulsar is a classic case of foreign interests overriding national interests. Amulsar’s operator, Lydian, is a 100 percent foreign owned company (registered in the British corporate tax-haven of Jersey, no less), it has been lauded by the governments of both Britain and the United States via their representatives in Yerevan, and two of its major foreign investors are the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development – owned by 69 countries and two EU institutions – and the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group. Both of those organisations require investee-companies to comply with both international environmental regulations and the regulations of the countries in which they operate. If this complicity in violating Armenia’s sovereignty was not enough, Lydian has threatened to pursue international arbitration should the mine be closed.
Amulsar is not the greatest problem facing the Armenian nation by any stretch of the imagination. But it is emblematic of the game of compromise leaders will be required to play at this political crossroad. Is this the model of national economic development the new government wants to pursue? One which prioritises short-term gains over sustainable development, and places corporate interests above local needs? One that transfers impunity from domestic oligarchs to foreign-owned corporate entities? As with both social policy and national security, Pashinyan can only preserve the status-quo for so long – eventually, policy will have to be founded on something more stable than popular will.
That’s not to say popular will cannot serve as a basis for stable governance – direct-democracy has been practiced successfully in Switzerland for over a century. Swiss citizens go to the polls several times a year to vote on major policy items ranging from foreign affairs to taxation. But one particularly unique aspect of the Swiss system is the composition of the executive. A Federal Council of seven members is elected by the two houses of the Federal Assembly; each member chairs a federal department (or ministry) and serves a one-year term as president on a rotational basis in order of seniority. This may not be a model Armenia ever adopts, but it does demonstrate what effective direct-democracy looks like – a far cry from the mob-rule of Republic Square and stylized images of a leader’s face plastered on every t-shirt, hat, and shop-front across the country. As a nation that aspires to be the “Switzerland of the Caucasus”, there are certainly lessons to be learnt.
The common thread across social, economic and security policy in Armenia today is the lack of ideology – a unifying logic that applies a consistency to governance. Increasingly, the process of democratisation and economic liberalisation is going to necessitate social liberalisation with the protection of universal human rights, minority rights, women’s rights and representation in politics and the workplace, and, more generally, workers’ rights and the emergence of trade union movements coming into play. This will have a direct bearing on Armenia’s foreign relations; as the country moves towards Europe both economically and ideologically, Russia may begin to use more coercive tactics to reassert its influence – as it did through its unannounced military drills in mid-2018. Similarly, while Armenia begins to accede to the Western political order as Turkey drifts away from it, it would not be unrealistic to expect its puppet state Azerbaijan to pursue a more adventurist foreign policy in regard to Artsakh.
There are both costs and benefits associated with these developments, but the government has been unwilling to claim either. It wants to have its cake and eat it too. Pashinyan wants to lead by following. He wants to facilitate democratisation without engaging in social debates. He wants to expedite European partnership agreements without taking Russian adventurism seriously. And he wants to entertain the idea of dialogue with Azerbaijan without diverging at all from the militarist rhetoric of a previous regime that cynically maintained a status-quo to rally public support when necessary.
At some point, these problems will start to fester and managing the consequences of that inaction will prove more costly than they initially should have been. Every pillar of Pashinyan’s nebulous plan has an unavoidable and unpopular corollary that he will have to manage – which begs the question, will he do it? Will the leader who has declared the people to be the supreme governing body of Armenia be prepared to defy or oppose the public’s will? Indecision and an over-reliance on public opinion has led to the death of many a good government. When politicians are held hostage to the lowest common denominator, reform suffers. And as a movement built on the promise of reform, Pashinyan cannot afford to govern exclusively at the behest of the public – ultimately, the nation is more than a sum of its parts.
Democracy is more than an electoral process and system of government. Democracy is an ideology that at its core promotes political pluralism and checks and balances on executive power, one that cultivates good citizenship and political participation, fosters an open and competitive public debate, and strives for universal equality. While Armenia’s electoral process has now come to resemble that of a democracy, this ‘democratic spirit’ has been lacking. The failure to legislate electoral reform, forcing early elections through a process that was hardly ‘in the spirit’ of the constitution, and using mass mobilisation as a tool to label opposition movements as ‘enemies’ or ‘traitors’ to the revolution all contributed to an environment in which a viable opposition was unable to form, and political pluralism was severely undermined.
The result has been one of the least pluralistic electoral outcomes since independence. Of 11 parties participating in the election, just three were elected. The ruling party controls two-thirds of the National Assembly – the maximum allowed under the electoral code, which includes a provision to allocate additional seats to minor parties to ensure this balance is maintained. Turnout fell below 50 percent of registered voters, 12 percent less than the previous election. This is in part explained by a lack of widespread electoral fraud, but the overall low turnout reflects a more endemic civil and political rights issue – the prohibition of overseas voting, which leaves over half a million non-resident citizens (namely labour migrants in Russia) without the opportunity to vote, despite contributing to over 10 percent of the nation’s GDP in remittances.
Democracy in Armenia has a long way to go. The recent elections represent a step towards the institutionalisation of the democratic process. But what the new government needs to turn its eye towards is institutionalising a democratic culture – empowering opposition, acting with restraint and governing in a consultative manner, and fostering respect for legislative processes and rule of law so as to ensure that, come the next electoral cycle, Armenia becomes more than just a nominal democracy.