Armenia has plunged into an unprecedented political crisis. On 1 May, parliament voted against the nomination for prime minister of Nikol Pashinyan, the leader of protests that compelled long-time leader Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation on 23 April. The ruling Republican Party proposed no alternative candidate but insisted its deputies vote against Pashinyan. On 2 May, large numbers of protesters poured into the streets again, this time in support of Pashinyan’s bid to win the repeat vote, scheduled for 8 May. In the evening of 2 May, after the ruling Republican Party unexpectedly indicated it might endorse Pashinyan’s bid for prime minister, he has tentatively put the protests on hold.
But as political actors scramble to position themselves, the political crisis is far from over. The ruling party has pledged to support a candidate for prime minister nominated by one third of the parliament. But if the 8 May vote is inconclusive, the country will be without the leadership it needs to deal with internal divisions and security challenges as it moves toward snap parliamentary elections, for which no date has yet been set.
Armenia’s political fragility also could risk contributing to an escalation of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory fought over by Armenian and Azerbaijani forces after its Armenian majority sought to secede from Azerbaijan at the time of the Soviet Union’s break-up, or heighten tensions between Russia and the West.
The pressures on Armenia’s political system are enormous. Failure to make a prime ministerial appointment on 8 May would open the door for the president, Armen Sarkissian, who has held the post since 9 April, to dissolve parliament and call snap elections in 30-45 days. These elections would be held under the code in place prior to Sargsyan’s ouster; Pashinyan, who has long demanded this code be amended, has threatened to boycott the vote unless he is made interim prime minister.
Pashinyan’s general strike and civil disobedience campaign has been peaceful. He promises to continue his campaign to bring down the ruling system, though he has now put protests on hold. On 2 May, the day after the parliamentary vote that initially appeared to block his path to the premiership, tens of thousands poured into the streets of Yerevan and other major cities, with Pashinyan urging protesters to obstruct access to “everything that can be closed”. Protesters blocked several vital roads, including the routes to Yerevan’s airport and to crossings into Georgia. By noon that day, all of downtown Yerevan’s streets, as well as the subway and railroads, were shut down. In some Armenian towns, there were reports that state officials abandoned their posts to join the street protests. Pashinyan has stressed that protests must remain non-violent, saying that “the finest hour of the Armenian people cannot be marred by any incident”. Later that day, confronted by the scale of the protests, the Republican Party announced it would not nominate its own candidate, but support a candidate – “whoever that might be” – nominated by at least one third of the parliament. Pashinyan then called off the protests until the day of the repeat vote, urging protesters to keep an eye on his Facebook page in case there was an urgent reason to reconvene.
The atmosphere on 2 May was calm, and that evening Pashinyan appeared upbeat. But many continue to be concerned about political volatility. “A week is a very long time, given the current tensions”, said a Western diplomat, “it is difficult to predict how the standoff will develop”. Some Armenians, too, worry that the country may see more twists and turns before a new prime minister is elected.
Pashinyan’s political strategy may seem straightforward: he is calling for non-violent civil disobedience to upend the ruling system dominated by powerful oligarchs who have leveraged political office to monopolise swathes of the economy. After the 2 May mass protests, it also is becoming clearer how he intends to build political alliances. One political party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutyun, quit the Republican Party-led ruling coalition last week and some of its members now support Pashinyan. Another party, Prosperous Armenia, led by oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan, which was previously in an alliance of convenience with the leadership, has made clear it would join Pashinyan’s movement. Some deputies from both parties voted against Pashinyan on 1 May but he was optimistic by the evening of 2 May that the Dashnaks and Prosperous Armenia would support his nomination for the 8 May vote. For the moment, however, Pashinyan’s main strength lies on the streets. He still lacks a solid organisational base in formal politics.
The Republican Party’s strategy is muddier. On 2 May, acting Prime Minister Karapetyan called on all political forces to “demonstrate political will, resolve and flexibility and to sit at the negotiating table”. The ruling party’s readiness to seek a political agreement ahead of the 8 May vote appears a positive sign, but some diplomats and analysts see dangers ahead. The fact that it refused to nominate a candidate on 1 May but did not endorse Pashinyan means party leaders “are not ready to give in as easily as that”, according to one Armenian analyst. “Trying to set Pashinyan up to fail will likely be the name of the game after 2 May”, suggested one Western official. “As ominous as this sounds, chaos may well play in their favour. The Republican Party could then step in as the only actor that can guarantee stability”, another cautioned.
To minimise risks of confrontation, Pashinyan and the Republican Party, as well as other parliamentary blocs, must focus on inclusive political dialogue ahead of 8 May and start discussing arrangements for the snap elections and political transition that will stabilise the country.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Factor
As discussed in a recent Crisis Group commentary, Armenia’s instability also could fuel an escalation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. This conflict, unresolved for over 25 years, has been especially volatile since 2012. Intractable negotiating positions and a regional arms race contributed to deadly clashes in 2016. The risks are significant – neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is ready to compromise, and both feel a false sense of security about their prospects for military victory.
There are three specific dangers. Worried about a possible Azerbaijani incursion, Nagorno-Karabakh commanders may feel compelled to mount a pre-emptive strike, something they have considered since 2016. Such an offensive could also occur if commanders felt it was their last chance to push for the return of the two slivers of land that Armenia lost to Azerbaijan in the 2016 fighting. A pre-emptive strike might also be part of a political strategy on the part of Yerevan elites who fear losing out from a transition to consolidate the divided nation.
Second, Azerbaijan itself may seek to take advantage of Armenia’s turmoil to attack in the conflict zone. On 1 May, Azerbaijani lawmaker Gudrat Hasanguliev, warning of risks of escalation, urged: “We must make a decision to make use of opportunities to liberate our territories in a timely manner”. That said, senior government officials have, in connection to the turmoil in Armenia, refrained from using belligerent rhetoric which is otherwise not unusual in the region. For now, this is a good sign. Diplomats working in the Caucasus suggest that some Azerbaijani leaders may perceive the country’s interests best served by letting a political crisis engulf its rival Armenia. The Azerbaijani leadership also seems to have been shaken by Armenia’s protest movement and the seeming ease with which Sargsyan gave up power, according to an Azerbaijani analyst.
Third, the risk remains of an incident spiralling out of control or a misreading of intentions. This danger is particularly acute at a time of heightened sensitivity and preparedness.
All sides should avoid any escalatory moves and keep open political and diplomatic channels. The OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs – Russia, the United States and France – and the European Union (EU) should remind actors on all sides how lethal renewed fighting could be. Given the political crisis in Armenia, Minsk Group co-chairs should – in addition to their existing formal channels – also pursue a conversation about the risks of an escalation over Nagorno-Karabakh with Pashinyan.
Reaction to Misrule or Geopolitical Standoff?
A number of Russian politicians have visited Armenia since Sargsyan stepped down, amid Russian media speculation that Western influence spurred the protests that unseated him.
Yet politicians in the Caucasus are privately noting the EU’s relative non-engagement. For the EU, the priority is that the process remain calm and constitutional. In principle, it might welcome a more transparent political system in Armenia. But European leaders also are wary, an EU source has privately commented, of getting too involved, lest they lend credence to Russian fears. Another Western official in the Caucasus told Crisis Group the West was united in its caution: first, “there is the Ukraine syndrome”, she said, referring to the fallout of the 2014 Maidan uprising, during which Moscow accused Western powers of stoking street protests against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych; second, Pashinyan has not yet identified a clear plan of action. Certainly, all foreign powers must avoid picking sides. But external actors should not step too far away either – Armenian politicians may need counsel on the transition process or even some quiet mediation ahead of the 8 May vote, and ahead of the snap elections.
All foreign powers should avoid actions that would risk Armenia’s transition getting trapped in fusillades of accusations of external interference for geopolitical gain. That no political force in Armenia expresses any wish to change the country’s foreign policy orientation has helped avoid that trap thus far.
That said, a change of government provoked by street protests in Armenia could be perceived as a challenge to a number of post-Soviet regimes. Leaders in Azerbaijan, Russia, Belarus or Kazakhstan should not mistake it for a Western-inspired conspiracy. Western governments, for their part, are right to be cautious. They should remain focused on due process and strike the right balance in supporting Armenia’s transition over the coming months. That said, while emphasising their strict neutrality, they might consider offering technical assistance and advice for transcending the current political impasse, and for preparing the snap elections. For any external actor to even hint it is pushing for a specific outcome would, however, be asking for trouble.
Magdalena Grono. Program Director, Europe & Central Asia. Crisis Group.