In the South Caucasus, internal political uncertainty creates opportunities for external players.
The continuing political crisis in Armenia is now entering a new stage after snap elections were announced for June 20. This follows an agreement reached at a March 18 meeting between Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Gagik Tsarukyan, the leader of the biggest opposition bloc in parliament. The third largest party, Bright Armenia, also agreed to the early elections.
There is an undeniable internal dimension to the crisis. Snap elections are necessary to address political deadlock after months of demonstrations demanding Pashinyan’s resignation following a major defeat in a war with Azerbaijan in 2020.
Pashinyan’s calculus is clear and sound. The opposition is largely discredited because of its links to the former, pre-2018 revolution government, which was accused of large-scale corruption and overall ineffectiveness. This means the opposition will find it hard to win a majority of votes, let alone garner enough to create a coalition.
Still, the elections will be competitive. Artur Vanetsyan, a former top security official under Pashinyan and now one of the opposition leaders, said he would participate in the election. Another contestant is likely to be the former president, Robert Kocharyan, who earlier announced he would take part. “Yes, we will run, we will fight, and we will win,” Kocharyan told journalists earlier this year.
One critical decision yet to be made is the electoral system to be used. It is not clear if the ruling party’s proposed but not yet adopted electoral reforms will be used, or whether the old system will survive.
The new elections may well result in diffusion of tension, but the structural troubles which beset Armenian politics will remain. Deeper deficiencies, such as a lack of accountability, absence of an independent judiciary, and weak parliament will weigh negatively on any new government.
The vote also has a significant external dimension. And here Russia’s position matters — not so much because it will assist one side or other — but because it will exploit each side’s vulnerabilities.
Russia is in the happy position of favoring both sides of the aisle, and that makes the Kremlin’s position unique. For once, Russia does not need to throw its full support behind an openly pro-Kremlin candidate because in reality, each plausible Armenian governing entity is becoming increasingly dependent. In one masterly stroke in November, Russia wedged itself into the only territorial conflict in the South Caucasus where it previously lacked direct influence. With its peacekeepers in Karabakh and the Armenian army and the general public demoralized and confused after the 2020 debacle, the only hope for Armenia is to prolong the influence it still has in Karabakh by treading the Russian line.
This unavoidable fact is gradually dawning into an understanding among Armenia’s political elite. The Russian position is more or less assured irrespective of which side prevails in the June elections and far beyond.
The election results will not, therefore, bring about significant foreign policy changes. Nevertheless, Armenia-Russia relations will be of importance. The opposition favors deeper ties with Russia, which could change the fabric of bilateral relations. Russia could push for Armenia’s deeper integration within its favored economic organization, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Better trading terms for Russian companies could be sought, and more Russian state-of-the-art weaponry might be shipped in return.
Indeed, in this event, a new development could occur. Deeper integration would be significant, especially at the time when Russia is carefully navigating working to use the crisis in Belarus to promote the idea of a union between states.
Deeper ties with Armenia would also mean that Russia could again pit Armenia and Azerbaijan against each other. Such an approach is no novelty, but this time the intensity of the game would much greater. In four years’ time, Russia has to officially prolong its peacekeeping mission in Azerbaijan. Yet the Russian military presence disturbs political minds in Baku. A desire to abrogate the Russian peacekeeping agreement will be running high and President Putin will need to play a clever game. Some concessions to Baku might be effective, but other political and military messages might work.
Imagine the prospect of Russian peacekeepers preparing to leave, while a much better prepared and equipped Armenian army, bristling with Russian high-tech weaponry, prepares an irredentist military campaign. Moscow wins either way.
It is hard to see a way out of this for Armenia. Ordinary Armenians can hope that internal reforms improve everyday life, but the country remains vulnerable and its reliance on Russia will only increase because there are no other options. As for the future, Armenia-Russian relations are likely to serve as a model for the closer integration Russia hopes to encourage within the EEU.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think tank, Geocase
Photo: YEREVAN, ARMENIA - MARCH 1, 2021: A girl holds an Armenian flag during a rally in support of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan outside the Armenian Government House in Republic Square. Credit: Hayk Baghdasaryan/Photolure/TASS
March 25, 2021