By Khazar Shirmammadov
In April, the world witnessed people power—in the form of tens of thousands of protesters taking to the streets in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan—push from office a party that has ruled the country for nearly two decades. The demonstrations were led by a former journalist and political activist, Nikol Pashinyan, who assumed the role of prime minister on May 8, following the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan two weeks prior. Both Russia and the West watched closely as these unexpected events unfolded, and Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump were among the first world leaders to congratulate Pashinyan on his new position.
On May 14, only a week after becoming prime minister, Pashinyan attended a summit for the Eurasian Customs Union—a trade bloc with member states Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia—in Sochi, Russia. Though he has been a harsh critic of the bloc for some time, even proposing legislation to leave the union, three days into the summit Pashinyan applauded the signing of a new trade agreement between the customs union and Iran, describing it as a boon for Armenia. In the meantime, the prime minister reported on his official Facebook page that a prominent Turkish-American economist, MIT professor Daron Acemoglu, had accepted his invitation to advise Armenia in drafting a new economic policy. Given Acemoglu’s background in Western models of economic development and past criticisms of Russia, this choice could indicate a Western leaning. Taken together, these developments beg the questions: Will Armenia allow its geopolitical situation to get in the way of democratization, in keeping with a long tradition of “double-standard policy”—seeking advantages through contact with the West, without antagonizing Russia—among post-Soviet republics? And does the new administration think that Armenia can benefit from the Moscow-led bloc economically while still paving the way for democracy?
Speaking about the country’s foreign policy orientation, Pashinyan has told reporters that he is neither pro-Russian nor pro-Western, but pro-Armenian. Since its independence from the Soviet Union, declared following a 1991 referendum, Armenia has remained dependent on its “mother country,” relying on Russia for both trade and security. Even as Pashinyan declares his intention to take a middle path, in practice being simply “pro-Armenian” is easier said than done. Economic ties, after all, can be reoriented if necessary, but losing Russia as its protector in the South Caucasus is a more daunting prospect for Armenia. Playing to both sides might not succeed, keeping the status quo intact and leaving Armenia’s 3 million people still waiting for democracy to knock on their door.
It is critical to understand that Armenia’s democratic transition is the toughest among the post-Soviet republics, given Russia’s large stake in the country. By subsidizing those in power, Moscow has managed to suffocate all attempts at democratization since Armenia’s independence, from supporting former party leaders who attempted to manipulate the constitution to stay in power, to providing cover for the economic elite who have exploited the country’s resources for their own gain—a state of affairs that has resulted in persistent poverty for many Armenians. It is not a coincidence that Russia is the leading destination of Armenia’s exports and source of Armenia’s imports, at 27 percent and 29 percent respectively. Recruiting Yerevan to the Eurasian Custom Union in 2015 was, in effect, a reassertion of Russian authority in Armenia in the post-Soviet era.
Added to that, deadlocked conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (an internationally recognized autonomous region of Azerbaijan, occupied by Armenian forces since 1992) is another hindrance to a democratic transition. The conflict emerged after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and today Russia manipulates it to maintain its influence in the region. As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance signed by six post-Soviet states (including Russia), Armenia has welcomed Russian troops and a military base north of Yerevan. While Moscow has an interest in keeping the conflict deadlocked, as long as the dispute continues, Armenia will seek Russia as a “guard” against its foes, Azerbaijan and Turkey. The resulting animosity invariably prevents Yerevan from completing an economic, political, and military transition toward Europe. Ultimately, the fate of democracy in Armenia depends upon improved economic and geopolitical conditions, which will only be possible if Russia’s presence in the region subsides.
Another element that may thwart Armenia’s democratic transition is the more than 2 million Armenians who live in Russia. Unlike the U.S.-based diaspora, Russian Armenians tend to oppose political change due to their stake in Russian business. Remittances from Armenians who migrate to Russia for work comprise a large portion of Armenia’s economy and ensure the middle class’ well being. If Moscow sees signs of Westernization in Armenia, it could very well kick these migrants out of the country—a process that has already begun with migrants from other post-Soviet countries. Such a move could generate instability, a rise in poverty, or even a crisis that leads to another upheaval in the streets of Yerevan.
It is still unclear whether Pashinyan will move Armenia toward democracy or follow the old playbook, remaining under Russia’s thumb and balancing the relationship with the West under the table. As the new prime minister is most likely aware, limiting Putin’s influence will not be easy, but without this shift away from Russia, Armenia will have a longer and rockier road to democracy.
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Khazar Shirmammadov is the founder of the Caucasus House Roundtable and an MA candidate at Columbia University.
[Photo courtesy of President of Russia]