Armenia by the End of 2019: Domestic and Foreign Agenda

The “Velvet revolution” that took place in the spring of 2018 led to the breakdown of the entire domestic political status quo in Armenia. The regime of competitive authoritarianism, rooted in Armenia,[1] was wrecked and the political elite, who had been at the helm of the country for twenty years, was removed from power. This happened largely because the past government was “corrupted” by the constant use of administrative resource in domestic politics and, as a result, was unable to sustain vigorous and fierce competition in domestic political dynamics.[2]

As a result of a number of successive internal political confrontations last year, Nikol Pashinyan won in Armenia, which led to the concentration of political power in his hands. He formed a government without need of coalition, his political bloc won a constitutional majority in the parliament.[3] However, in the government there are not only political appointees, but also technocrats who made a career under the previous governments. Of the three branches of government, the judiciary still retains partial autonomy.

Domestic political status-quo in Armenia

In particular, one can observe high level of independency of the Constitutional Court, which is perceived by the new authorities as the last “fortress” of the past authorities.[4] Within the “revolutionary logic,” it will be the last, albeit behindhand stage of the revolution. In early September, the Constitutional Court decided that the arrest of former President Kocharyan violated the constitutional provision on his immunity.[5] This infuriated the parliamentary majority, who voted for the resignation of the head of the Constitutional Law, Hrayr Tovmasyan.[6]

This plot will attract the attention of both the authorities and the opposition. The approach of the ruling bloc is unequivocal: Hrayr Tovmasyan should leave and give way to Vahe Grigoryan, a judge, who is loyal to the new authorities. The authorities would prefer to replace the Constitutional Court judges appointed in the past: they were even offered good benefits in case of resignation, but it did not help. Another approach is to dissolve the Constitutional Court, which, according to several MPs is passive and does not serve the people. The position of the judges of the Constitutional Court is also quite firm; the law is on their side and they are not planning to concede. If this clash happened a year ago, one could speak of a confrontation between legality (CC) and legitimacy (Government), but today there are certain doubts that there is an actual public request for the dissolution of the Constitutional Court or resignation of most of its members.

Kocharyan’s arrest continues to aggravate the internal political debate in the country and creates him an image of being persecuted on the political ground. At the same time, due to the weak position of the prosecution and a strong team of lawyers, Kocharyan is quite confident in the court and stays behind bars only within the framework of the preliminary investigation. This case polarizes society and will continue to be one of the main problems of Armenian domestic political life for at least the mid-term future.

At the same time, the government is trying to implement a reform agenda quite similar to the one implemented in Georgia in 2004-07. At the top of the agenda is the fight against corruption, the radical reduction of the influence of “oligarchs,” the creation of equal conditions for all players and the attraction of foreign investment. Some results have already been recorded in the direction of limiting the shadow economy, although selective and sporadic arrests of representatives of past administration create the basis for political discussions around the anti-corruption campaign.

The mass protests that took place a year ago paved the way for the democratization of political life in Armenia.[7] The path to democracy, however, is not simple and short: after the revolution, the new government, as a rule, seeks to limit the possibility of such a revolution in the future.[8] There is similar experience in Georgia and a number of other countries. The new authorities enjoyed high level of legitimacy, but it made them less tolerant of criticism, while the approval rate of the work of Prime minister has decreased from 85% in October 2018[9] to 72% in May 2019.[10] Now the authorities seek to control the political activity of the opposition in order to feel relatively safe.

As a result of the “Velvet revolution,” Armenia improved its position in the RSF World Press Freedom Index,[11] but this improvement should be viewed as a consequence of a political change rather than a set of policies by the new government. On the contrary, aggravation should be expected in the coming months: the latest trends are disturbing. For instance, in the second half of 2018 (the available latest data), the Armenian government requested information on 81 Facebook accounts, which is more than for the entire period from 2013 to 2017.[12] The division into “blacks” and “whites,” the intense struggle of narratives and the constant appeal of the new government to the “will of the people,” create certain risks for freedom of the press in Armenia. In particular, according to the monitoring of the situation with media freedom, the Committee to Protect the Freedom of Expression concluded that although in the first 6 months of 2019, the number of physical violence against journalists decreased from 19 to 2 cases (a large number last year was mainly caused by clashes in during the protests), the number of facts of pressure on the media increased from 37 to 83, and the number of violations of the right to receive and disseminate information – from 26 to 66.[13] New media legislation is being drafted, however there is no consensus on its political neutrality. All of the above mentioned does not mean that the country is in the process of restricting freedom of speech, but the existing trends should be treated very carefully.

By the end of 2019, the government in Armenia will still be putting effort to increase the level of institutionalization and coherence of the work of the government bodies and the political team. During the process, almost all the leadership of the security agencies was replaced – the head of the National Security Service Artur Vanetsyan resigned,[14] the head of the police, the head of the State Protection Service were dismissed. The Minister of Defence has maintained his position so far, yet there are debates on how long he will remain in office. The confrontation of the new government with the Karabakh security leadership and the authorities of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, especially with the already dismissed head of the NKR Security Council Vitaly Balasanyan, has penetrated the public sphere. Balasanyan harshly criticized Pashinyan and became a figure of attraction for radical opponents of the government. In Yerevan this criticism is largely perceived as an implicit expression of NKR’s presidential office’s position, which, again, contributes to the discord in relations with the unrecognized state. Parliamentary and presidential elections will be held simultaneously in Nagorno-Karabakh in the spring of 2020. Armenia’s new authorities are highly concerned with the possibility of electing a disloyal president. Pashinyan is still casting candidates he would be ready to support. He already named the NKR president as a “governor” and stated that “Artsakh (NK) is Armenia and that’s it”.[15] Designed for domestic political use, these statements have already caused increase of misunderstanding with Azerbaijani[16] and Russian leadership.[17]

Lately, the intensity of environmental protests has decreased. Since the revolution, society has shown high concern of the ecologic issues, specifically an open golden mine project near the resort town of Jermuk. It is one of the largest investment projects of Armenia in recent times, at the same time it creates uncertain risks for the region’s ecology.[18] The government’s intention to launch this project already caused decrease in public support.[19] Ecological activists and inhabitants of nearby areas have been blocking activities of the mine for more than a year. The government will strive to unblock the activities of the mine to prevent the disruption of an investment project, but fears deepening image losses.

Foreign policy

The latter also has an external dimension. According to foreign partners, this case is a test for the new authorities of Armenia on their ability to implement serious economic projects despite unexpected circumstances. This issue has already been discussed in political contacts with the American and British ambassadors;[20] the UK Foreign Office has been accused of tacit pressure on Armenia in order to support the implementation of the project.[21] However, regardless of public perception, there seems to be a consensus that large Western investors will not be recommended to invest in Armenia until this issue is resolved. This aggravates the foreign policy line of Armenia, as the new government is still striving to create the image of a reliable international partner, while maintaining the image of a democratic government. The golden mine forces Pashinyan to choose between those.

Russian-Armenian relations are also overshadowed by a similar problem. The “South Caucasian Railways” (a subsidiary of Russian Railways) is under investigation by Armenian law enforcement agencies accusing the company of tax evasion and other economic crimes. There are reports in the media that Russia plans to stop managing the railways of Armenia,[22] which could weaken the transport system of Armenia, since Armenia itself is not able to subsidize the railways. On the other hand, the media also discusses the possibility of increasing the price of gas imported by Armenia. Today, Armenia receives Russian gas at a reduced tariff – $165 per 1000 cubic meters, but this tariff can be revised upwards. This will hit the pockets of consumers, the balance of payments of Armenia, the level of approval of the authorities and the Armenian-Russian relations. However, just as the low price of gas supplied by Russia is politically motivated, the high price of gas can also be politically motivated by the suspicious attitude of the Russian leadership to the new Armenian authorities.[23]

In early October, Armenia hosted the EEU summit.[24] It was one of the largest political events ever hosted by Armenia, but its results are mixed. On the surface, the summit was successful, free trade agreements were concluded with Singapore and Iran (temporary), several foreign leaders visited Yerevan those days. However, the issues discussed at the summit – the Concept of the Single Financial Market of the Eurasian Economic Union and a number of others – did not receive final permission. Pashinyan and Putin did not discuss major bilateral issues during their meeting. Overall Putin’s reception in Yerevan was rather cold, which was perceived in Russia as Pashinyan’s message.

Iranian president Rouhani’s presence at the summit and his criticism of the United States could hardly improve Washington’s approach toward Yerevan. The United States reacted negatively to sending the Armenian humanitarian mission to Syria in February 2019,[25] as it was carried out under the auspices of Russia and in territories controlled by the Assad government and noting that the specialists were trained by the Americans. Over the past year after the visit of Security Advisor John Bolton to Yerevan, the Armenian and American sides have not formed a bilateral agenda and have not reached a common understanding on the relations of Armenia with Iran.[26] The United States understand the complexity of the geopolitical situation of Armenia, but in any case, Iran is one of the priority problems as seen from Washington. The USA increased Armenia’s assistance for 2020, but it remains moderate.[27]

There is some positive dynamics in relations with the European Union. In June, the European Union announced an increase in financial assistance to Armenia aimed at carrying out reforms and supporting the government.[28] The new government in Armenia sees its ties with the EU primarily in the space of common values.[29] Armenian government expects the ratification of the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA)[30] by all EU members, which will open the way to negotiations on visa liberalization, but at the moment this prospect is not on the table yet. Even if the negotiations begin in 2020, considering the experience of other EaP countries, the result can only be seen by 2023.

By the end of the year, there is a risk of growing tensions the Karabakh conflict area. The aggravation of the rhetoric of the sides jeopardizes the success of the negotiations, which were noticeably activated in 2018-9.[31] Yet, resume of military hostilities should not be expected. The relations between the sides have not achieved the level when it can deteriorate the negotiations process. Probably, until the end of the year, the leaders and the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan will meet to discuss current situation at the Line of contact. However, during past year and a half, there was no obvious progress, while public opinion was increasingly consolidating around the conflict and willingness to confront each other has grown. This limits the parties’ ability to reach a viable agreement. Azerbaijan has neither the strength to resolve the conflict by force, nor the good proposal for negotiations. Armenian society treats the negotiations with Azerbaijan with extreme caution and is sharply opposed to territorial concessions.[32] This means that if the window of opportunity opened a year ago, by now the chance of resolving the conflict is lower.

[1] Steven Levitsky, Lucan A. Way. Competitive authoritarianism: Hybrid regimes after the Cold War. Cambridge university press, 2010.

See also: Matteo Fumagalli, Koba Turmanidze. Taking partly free voters seriously: autocratic response to voter preferences in Armenia and Georgia. Caucasus Survey, vol. 5 (3), 2017, pp. 199-215.

[2] Alexander Iskandaryan. The Velvet Revolution in Armenia: How to Lose Power in Two Weeks. Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, Vol 26 (4), 2018, pp. 465-482

[3] Bartłomiej Krzysztan. Armenia elections and their aftermath. New Eastern Europe, December 19, 2018. http://neweasterneurope.eu/2018/12/19/armenia-elections-aftermath/

[4] Pashinyan accuses Tovmasyan of Constitutional Court privatization. Arka.am, 18 July 2019. https://arka.am/en/news/politics/pashinyan_accuses_tovmasyan_of_constitutional_court_privatization/

[5] Armenia’s Constitutional Court Rules Ex-President Kocharian’s Arrest ‚Unconstitutional‘. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 4, 2019. https://www.rferl.org/a/armenia-constitutional-court-kocharian/30146664.html

[6] Armenian Parliament votes to strip powers from head of constitutional court. OC Media, 10 October 2019. https://oc-media.org/armenian-parliament-votes-to-strip-powers-from-head-of-constitutional-court/

[7] Armen Grigoryan. Armenia’s Path to Democratization by recursive mass protests. Caucasus Survey, Vol. 7(2), 2019, pp. 157-175.

[8] Alexander Iskandaryan. The phenomenon of the color revolutions as the core of political discourse in the countries of South Caucasus (Феномен цветных революций как ядро политического дискурса в странах Южного Кавказа). Caucasus Institute Yearbook – 2004. Yerevan, 2005, pp. 6-15 (in Russian).

[9] Public Opinion Survey: Residents of Armenia. Center for Insights in Survey Research / International Republican Institute. October 9-29, 2018. https://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/2018.11.23_armenia_poll.pdf

[10] Public Opinion Survey: Residents of Armenia. Center for Insights in Survey Research / International Republican Institute. May 6-31, 2019. https://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/armenia_poll_may_2019_final.pdf

[11] Marianna Mkrtchyan. Armenia has improved  Press Freedom Index by 19 positions according  to Reporters Without Borders. Arminfo, April 18, 2019. https://arminfo.info/full_news.php?id=41393&lang=3

[12] Facebook Transparency / Armenia. https://transparency.facebook.com/government-data-requests/country/AM/jul-dec-2018

[13] Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression. Report by the Committee on the situation with freedom of expression and violations of rights of journalists and media in Armenia, first half of 2019. https://khosq.am/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/CPFE-Report-1st-half-2019-ENG.docx

[14] Ani Mejlumyan. Top Armenian security official resigns. Eurasianet, September 16, 2019. https://eurasianet.org/top-armenian-security-official-resigns

[15] Joshua Kuchera. Pashinyan calls for unification between Armenia and Karabakh. Eurasianet.org, August 6, 2019. https://eurasianet.org/pashinyan-calls-for-unification-between-armenia-and-karabakh

[16] Mushvig Mehdiyev. Aliyev Says „Karabakh Is Azerbaijan And Exclamation Mark“, Responding To Armenian PM’s Claims. Caspian News, October 5, 2019. https://caspiannews.com/news-detail/aliyev-says-karabakh-is-azerbaijan-and-exclamation-mark-responding-to-armenian-pms-claims-2019-10-5-0/

[17] Ara Khachatourian. Yerevan, Moscow Spar Over ‘Artsakh is Armenia’ Comment. Asbarez, October 3, 2019. http://asbarez.com/186478/yerevan-moscow-spar-over-artsakh-is-armenia-comment/

[18] Independent 3rdParty Assessment of the Impacts on Water Resources and Geology, Biodiversity and Air Quality: Amulsar Gold Mine, The Republic of Armenia. ELARD, TRC. July 22, 2019. http://www.investigative.am/images/2019/lidian/porcaqnnutyun/amulsar11.pdf

[19] Cecilia Jamasmie. Armenia clears Lydian to go ahead with Amulsar gold project, Mining.com, August 14, 2019. https://www.mining.com/armenia-clears-lydian-to-go-ahead-with-amulsar-gold-project/

[20] Pashinyan and US and UK ambassadors discuss Amulsar gold project. Arka News Agency, September 12, 2019. https://arka.am/en/news/business/pashinyan_and_us_and_uk_ambassadors_discuss_amulsar_gold_project/

[21] Thomas Rowley. UK Foreign Office criticised for supporting controversial gold mine in Armenia. OpenDemocracy, September 2, 2019. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/uk-foreign-office-criticised-over-controversial-gold-mine-armenia-amulsar/

[22] Ministry of Transport did not exclude break of agreement on management of railways of Armenia. (Минтранс допустил разрыв договора об управлении железными дорогами Армении). Kommersant, September 21, 2019. https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4101603 (in Russian).

[23] Mateusz Kubiak. Armenia: Pashinyan’s first year. The Warsaw Institute Review, July 5, 2019. https://warsawinstitute.org/armenia-pashinyans-first-year/

[24] Pashinyan joined by Rouhani and Putin at Eurasian Economic Union summit in Yerevan. OC-Media, October 4, 2019. https://oc-media.org/pashinyan-joined-by-rouhani-and-putin-at-eurasian-economic-union-summit-in-yerevan/

[25] U.S. Frowns On Armenia’s Involvement In Russia-Backed Syria Mission. RFE/RL, February 13, 2019. https://www.rferl.org/a/us-frowns-on-armenia-s-involvement-in-russia-backed-syria-mission/29768111.html

[26] Pashinian Says He Made ‚Clear‘ To U.S. That Armenia Will Maintain Ties with Iran. RFE/RL, November 2, 2018. https://www.rferl.org/a/pashinian-says-made-clear-to-us-bolton-armenia-will-maintain-ties-with-iran/29578365.html

[27] U.S. Senate Panel Backs Increased U.S. Assistance to Armenia. The Armenian Weekly, September 27, 2019. https://armenianweekly.com/2019/09/27/u-s-senate-panel-backs-increased-u-s-assistance-to-armenia/

[28] EU increases financial aid for Armenia. JAM News, June 7, 2019. https://jam-news.net/eu-increases-financial-aid-for-armenia/

[29] Samuel Stolton. Armenia’s EU accession could be a ‘question for the people,’ Deputy PM says. Euractiv.com, October 15, 2019. https://www.euractiv.com/section/armenia/news/armenias-eu-accession-could-be-a-question-for-the-people-deputy-pm-says/

[30] The agreement has been signed in October 2017 and contains a “political part” of an Association Agreement. Full text: https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/eu-armenia_comprehensive_and_enhanced_partnership_agreement_cepa.pdf

[31] Vasif Huseynov. Negotiations failed? Nagorno-Karabakh conflict reaches dangerous stage. New Eastern Europe, October 8, 2019. http://neweasterneurope.eu/2019/10/08/negotiations-failed-nagorno-karabakh-conflict-reaches-dangerous-stage/

[32] Hrant Mikaelian. Societal Perceptions of the Conflict in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Caucasus Institute, 2017. http://c-i.am/wp-content/uploads/2017-Karabakh-Working-Paper.pdf