Armenia’s leader hangs on, so far

It hasn’t been a good year so far in the Caucasus. Last month there was the political crisis in Georgia, where police stormed the opposition’s headquarters and arrested its leader. (Subsequent talks have raised some hopes of de-escalation.) Now the government of neighboring Armenia is fighting for its survival.

Last year, Armenia lost a war with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Artsakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian troops were driven back from positions they had occupied since the 1990s, and Armenia was obliged to accept a Russian-sponsored treaty that recognised Azeri gains. While most of Artsakh remains in Armenian hands, its future is precarious.

Governments that lose wars rarely survive the experience. From Lord North in 1782 down to General Galtieri two centuries later, defeat on the battlefield has been a sure route to political oblivion. So it’s no surprise that Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has faced protests and calls for his resignation. It became more serious last week when the leaders of the armed forces expressed the same view, after Pashinyan’s attempt to remove a key commander.

But just as I said yesterday in relation to El Salvador, if this was an attempted coup, it was not followed through. Instead, Pashinyan called his own supporters on to the streets, and showed that despite the reverse in Artsakh, at least some of the popular enthusiasm that propelled him to power in 2018 is still around. On all accounts he was able to marshal a much larger crowd than the opposition.

He also undercut some of the opposition’s ground by agreeing with the idea of early elections: “Let’s go to the polls and see whose resignation the people are demanding,” as Al-Jazeera quotes him saying. But there’s a catch; Pashinyan wants to couple an election with the introduction of a new constitution, which would move the country from a parliamentary system back to a semi-presidential one.

This partly reflects his frustration with the figurehead president, Armen Sargsyan, who is a holdover from the previous regime and has been hostile to Pashinyan throughout the crisis. But the parliamentary system is itself very new, having been introduced in 2015 by the autocratic then-president Serzh Sargsyan as a device to try to perpetuate his hold on power. (He too has been prominent in recent weeks among Pashinyan’s opponents.)

For now it looks as if Pashinyan has the upper hand, at least as long as Armenia is left to sort out its own problems. For the countries in Russia’s sphere of influence that can never be guaranteed; Armenia’s generals have close links with their Russian counterparts, and although that didn’t seem to do them much good in Artsakh, it’s led to concerns that Vladimir Putin might be using them as a means to try to get rid of Pashinyan.

But Pashinyan doesn’t actually represent any threat to Putin’s interests, and it’s far from clear what Moscow would have to gain from intervening. Kirill Krivosheev, writing in the Moscow Times, puts it like this:

The Kremlin is coming to see Armenia the way it sees Kyrgyzstan and Abkhazia: the situation may be in flux, but there is no threat of politicians unacceptable to Moscow ascending to power. The Kremlin recognizes Pashinyan as the most popular politician in Armenia, and therefore wants to maintain the status quo.

The truth is that defeat in war is almost as bad for oppositions as for governments. Those that take over the task of dealing with the loss usually have an unhappy time of it: Britain went through three prime ministers in two years after North fell, and the generals who got rid of Galtieri didn’t last long either. On reflection, Armenia’s opposition might decide that they’re better off leaving the prime minister where he is.

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