This Sunday, Armenians will vote in snap parliamentary elections, organized to resolve the political crisis that has consumed the nation in the aftermath of the 2020 Artsakh War. A historic 22 political parties and four political alliances including all of the country’s current and former leaders, detailed in this election guide, are vying for 105 seats in the National Assembly.
The ongoing campaign season, launched on June 7, has been overwhelmingly dominated by the dissemination of hateful and violent rhetoric by candidates, in lieu of substantive policy debates. Acting PM Nikol Pashinyan and former presidents Robert Kocharyan and Serge Sargsyan, alongside the members of their parties, have blasted each other in personalized attacks, broadcast in live streams of their campaign rallies.
On the first official day of campaigning, former president and leader of the Armenian National Congress Party Levon Ter-Petrosyan warned that the upcoming elections might be the “most dangerous in the Armenian history.” Pashinyan and Kocharyan are both vengeful and desperate for power, he opined, and the fact that they both command immense resources makes the situation “explosive.”
Throughout the campaign, Pashinyan has reiterated his expectation that his Civil Contract Party will receive “at least 60 percent of the vote,” guaranteeing its mandate to rule and uproot opposition political forces that “want to wage a civil war in Armenia.”
During a rally in the Talin village of Aragatsotn on June 8, Pashinyan vowed to use this “steel mandate” to execute staff purges and “throw the ‘Trojan horses’ out of Armenia’s state governance system.” “There will be staff purges, and the staff purges will target those officials who took advantage of the 2018 revolution to huddle in the corridors of the people’s power and play the role of Trojan horses during all this time,” he pledged.
He further threatened to wage “the most brutal, but political vendettas” against heads of local communities and private entities whom he claims have forced their subordinates to support his political opponents. “I’m not talking about physical violence. I’m talking about political and civil vendettas,” he assured.
Several candidates have been arrested since the start of the election cycle on counts of vote buying. The Special Investigative Service uncovered that former mayor of Armavir Ruben Khlghatian planned to distribute nine million drams ($17,300) to 147 residents of the village of Janfida in the Armavir province in exchange for votes for the I’m Honored Alliance. Aramayis Aproyan is also under investigation for handing out food parcels worth 7,000 drams ($13.50) to residents of the town of Gavar, Gegharkunik in exchange for votes for the Prosperous Armenia Party.
Pashinyan escalated his rhetoric regarding the “steel mandate” this week, brandishing a hammer during each of his campaign rallies. In the town of Goris in Syunik, he described local politicians who have called for his resignation since the end of the war as “rusty nails” that must be taken out. “With this mandate we will break their [bank] accounts, destroy their firms and shove each of these criminal upstarts into holes on your behalf,” he said while waving a hammer in the air.
Opposition candidates have responded to Pashinyan’s threats with their own hammer imagery. “On June 20 we will wrest the hammer from his hands and you know what we will do,” Ishkhan Saghatelyan, chair of the Supreme Council of Armenia of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), forewarned during an Armenia Alliance rally. “We must counter his ‘steel revolution’ with a shield made of a firmer substance and hold a truncheon in another hand so that we bang it on the head of anyone approaching us with a hammer,” Sargsyan rejoined during an I’m Honored Alliance rally.
Armenian Human Rights Defender Arman Tatoyan has condemned widespread threats of violence issued by candidates on the campaign trail, warning that such rhetoric “heightens existing tensions and carries the risk of being transferred into real life.” He specifically criticized the prime minister for disseminating hate speech that might then be misinterpreted by his supporters.
“Vendettas and civic revenge are evidently associated with violence, and staff purges with the mass violation of labor rights,” he wrote after the Civil Contract Party rally on June 8. “The use of phrases such as ‘make them lie on asphalt’ and ‘bang against the wall,’ which are addressed to a circle of unknown individuals and are extremely dangerous in terms of human rights, must be stopped,” he added on June 15.
Members of other political parties and alliances have also advanced violent and hateful rhetoric directed toward the prime minister. After Kocharyan and Sargsyan both rejected Pashinyan’s invitation to participate in a televised debate, Kocharyan quipped on June 5 that rather than a debate he was ready to partake in a duel “with any type of weapon.” Three days later, during a Civil Contract Party rally, Pashinyan raged, “I will destroy you (Kocharyan) with my words, my heart, my mind and the people’s support. Say the date and place, take whatever weapon you want, and I will come with the people, and we will slaughter you in a political sense.” Throughout the fiery speech, he repeated, “you are nothing,” “you are not a man” and “you are nobody.”
During an Armenia Alliance rally on June 8, priest Aharon Melkumyan recalled that during the Velvet Revolution he had offered to “put a sack on [Pashinyan’s] head and lose him before he destroys Armenia.” The next day candidate Vahe Hakobyan declared that the alliance would cure Pashinyan of “alcoholism” and his “mental problems” then “judge him and send him to solitary confinement, where he belongs.”
Pashinyan and Sargsyan particularly have engaged in a war of words throughout the campaign, hurling retaliatory insults at one another during campaign rallies. Pashinyan provoked widespread anger when he said during a rally in Armavir village on June 7 that Armenian POWs “will forgive us for being held captive for one or two more months, but they will not forgive us for conceding the independence and sovereignty of our country for their freedom.” The following day Sargsyan challenged Pashinyan to deliver his son to Azerbaijan in exchange for the freedom of “20 to 25 POWs.” Pashinyan accepted the challenge, announcing that he had instructed the “relevant state bodies to officially communicate to the Azerbaijani side” that his son is “prepared to go to Baku as a hostage provided that all of our prisoners are repatriated.” Pashinyan’s 21-year-old son Ashot Pashinyan also declared that he is prepared to participate in the swap. Azerbaijani officials have not publicly responded to the offer.
On June 12, 15 more Armenian POWs were repatriated in a deal negotiated by the governments of Georgia and the US, the European Union and the OSCE. Armenia apparently provided Azerbaijan with maps of 97,000 landmines in the Aghdam region as part of the exchange. The agreement represents the first exchange of POWs since the end of the war conducted without official Russian participation. According to Armenian officials, at least 200 POWs remain in Azerbaijani captivity, while Azerbaijan only admits to its detention of 62 POWs, one of whom, Viken Euljekian, was sentenced this week to 20 years in prison on terrorism charges.
On June 9, Sargsyan revealed that he holds compromising information about Pashinyan’s family that, if divulged, “society would spit on him.” Instead he shared an audio recording, taken at an undisclosed time and place, of Pashinyan reflecting on his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev following his election. During the meeting the three leaders urged Pashinyan to accept the so-called “Lavrov plan” drafted by Russia for the settlement of the Artsakh conflict, which included the phased withdrawal of Armenian soldiers from the seven territories outlying Artsakh. In the recording, Pashinyan says that he rejected the plan, because it did not include a resolution on the status of Artsakh. Instead Pashinyan determines that he must “play the fool or look a bit insane” in order to disrupt the format of negotiations and avoid such an agreement.
“Here is my conclusion: this guy is not crazy, this guy plays the fool, fools around,” Sargsyan told supporters at an I’m Honored Alliance rally. “This is unacceptable for a country’s leader.”
During a rally the next day, Pashinyan upheld that the recording proves that the peace proposals by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries favored Azerbaijan and pressed Armenia to retreat from the territories surrounding Artsakh in exchange for nothing. This past January, Minsk Group Russian ambassador Igor Popov rejected the claim that the question of status was excluded from the agreement, insisting that the “handover [of territory] was firmly linked with the determination of Nagorno-Karabakh’s (Artsakh’s) status.” According to Popov, negotiations on the proposal continued on a regular basis until 2018, when Yerevan changed the terms of the negotiations.
The rhetoric embraced by the candidates running in the snap parliamentary elections in Armenia has been condemned by local political leaders and international organizations. “How can the country’s incumbent and former leaders use such rhetoric?” Bright Armenia Party leader Edmon Marukyan asked reporters. “The situation this country is in right now is such that hating each other and making plans to destroy each other is a luxury.” Freedom House, for its part, tweeted its concern regarding the “violent rhetoric used by Armenian politicians in this election period.” “These actions drive destructive polarization and hate speech as the country prepares for historic parliamentary elections,” the organization wrote.
Armenia’s religious leadership, including Catholicos Karekin II and a collection of bishops, also censured the “hate speech, defamatory and offensive expressions, cursing, threats of violence and revenge” spread during the campaign, calling on “all political forces, especially the ruling party, to refrain from inappropriate speech and behavior” that might lead to violent unrest. The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin lambasted Pashinyan after he directed insults at corrupt clergymen during a campaign rally, sustaining that the PM voices “unfair accusations against the Armenian Church.” “The attitude of the incumbent authorities towards the Church and the national-spiritual value is known to our people,” the Etchmiadzin wrote in a statement.