On Sunday, 17 June, 2018, tensions were running high in a cozy guesthouse in the Armenian mountain town of Dilidjan. When Gajane stares at the TV screen, one can read the emotions on her face. “After all, he was a hero, a veteran from Karabakh, how could he do such a thing”, she says. A day earlier, Manvel Grigoryan, a hero of the first Nagorno-Karabakh war and then a parliamentarian for the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), was arrested in Armavir province, southwest of Yerevan. Gajane’s emotions probably wouldn’t have been so strong if it was just about the arrest.
The Velvet Revolution had removed the Karabakh clan from power two months earlier, and newly elected Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had instantly introduced a firm policy of holding the formerly corrupt elite to account. However, what was found – and shown on national television – in one of Grigoryan’s houses made Armenian society realise that there were no limits to indecency in pre-revolutionary Armenia. What was found? A private zoo with tigers and bears that were fed rations donated to soldiers serving on the Karabakh front by schools and kindergartens. Some rations included patriotic letters written by the children to the soldiers.
For Gajane, and probably for many other Armenians who stayed in the poverty-stricken country against all odds, this was too much. Everyone knew that there was corruption, that the members of the Karabakh clan, as well as the politicians and the businessmen clustered around the Republican Party of Armenia, stop at nothing to take advantage of what should be public property. The nation was used to hearing that it was necessary to tighten its belt, to live modestly, because at any moment the enemy could attack and capture Karabakh, a land hallowed by the blood of heroes. So the nation lived in apathy for two decades, believing that one day the state of limbo would end, and subconsciously sensing that it would end badly for Armenia.
The My Step Alliance, Pashinyan’s march from Gyumri to Yerevan in protest against the appointment of former President Serzh Sargsyan as prime minister, and Sargsyan’s consequent resignation caused an initial political revival. But it was only the photos from Grigoryan’s house, the subsequent arrests and similar images revealing the extent of corruption (and bad taste) of the republicans that sparked new hopes, turned resignation into excitement, and anticipation into a will of the change. On a wave of enthusiasm, in the December 2018 elections, Pashinyan gained full power as well as something hitherto unknown in Armenia: legitimacy and popular support, and with them – consent to make revolutionary changes.
It was consent to internally cleanse the state. Redefining Armenia’s place in the geopolitical puzzle, and above all reformulating the policy towards Karabakh – both a curse and a blessing – was much more difficult. There was no doubt at the time that if anything could turn Armenia back from the post-revolutionary path of reforms, it was the Karabakh trap. The autumn and winter of 2020 showed that this was not an exaggerated concern.
The Velvet Revolution and Karabakh
Paradoxically, today we can admit that the Karabakh clan’s conviction that it alone fully understood the specifics of the unrecognised republic, and thus ought to control the dynamics of diplomatic talks on resolving the conflict and respond appropriately in the event of any escalation, proved to be almost true, if not prophetic. It is common knowledge, however, that “almost” usually carries more meaning than this seemingly self-fulfilling prophecy would suggest. In this case, what’s behind the “almost” becomes evident when one traces the change of Pashinyan’s perception of the Karabakh conflict and the trap of years of neglect.
Immediately after becoming prime minister on 9 May 2018, Pashinyan went to Stepanakert, emphasising that Yerevan will now have an even firmer stance in talks with Azerbaijan. Armenia was still to be the guarantor of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s security and further talks with Azerbaijan were to be held only if Ilham Aliyev’s regime recognised Karabakh Armenians as party to the negotiations and accepted their right to self-determination. A significant shift was reflected by Pashinyan’s declaration that dialogue with Baku would only be possible if Azerbaijan abandoned militaristic narratives, asserting that the favourable solution would equal to the occupation of not only Karabakh, but also almost half of Armenia’s territory, considered by nationalists to be “eternally Azerbaijani” lands.
As time passed, the prime minister’s rhetoric became increasingly harsh. He indicated that he saw no possibility of ceding the seven territories surrounding the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, occupied before the second Karabakh War, to Azerbaijan, and even added that Azerbaijan occupies several Armenian towns. He also increasingly emphasised the stance expressed by the slogan “Armenia first”. The idea of miatsum, popular at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, ie the reunification of the Republic of Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh, also came back into favour.
Today, knowing how the war ended, one can say that the prime minister’s radical stance was accompanied by an increasingly clear perception of being trapped in Karabakh. As he exercised real power, Pashinyan became increasingly aware that stubbornness had no basis in the country’s real potential. The army was disorganised after the internal cleansing, the weaponry at its disposal was outdated and incompatible with the equipment of a modern Azerbaijani army, and at the same time the enthusiasm of the revolution proved to be a double-edged sword. Armenian society came to believe that the state was so strong that there was no need to think about any concessions.
At the same time, the ousted elites of the former regime spread the message that Pashinyan’s real goal was to sell Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Deprived of other possibilities, the prime minister radicalised his narrative, hoping that if an unforeseen escalation occurred on a level not seen since the mid-1990s, then he could count on his great and only ally – Russia. However, hope replacing calculation is never a good tool for conducting politics.
The last drop of blood
“We are ready to fight to the last drop of blood, we would rather all die than give up Karabakh”, the protesters shouted. Watching, this time from a distance, the emotions on the faces of the people who broke into the Armenian parliament building after the November truce was signed, one could see rage with a touch of disbelief. Years of lies, understatements, and cultivating a belief of an unrivalled Armenian army and the invincible spirit of Armenians brought consequences. When Pashinyan signed the tripartite agreement with Baku and Moscow on 9 November 2020, there were probably few Armenians willing to admit he was right. For them, the prophecy of the republicans was fulfilled: Pashinyan had sold Karabakh.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to hold a grudge against the prime minister on a rational level. Realising that total defeat was inevitable, he saved as much as he could at the time. Although we will never know whether he was guided by this rationale, he ensured that many young Armenian lives were preserved. If he followed the will of the people, and decided to fight to the end, they would have perished. During the protests, the political emotions, as one might expect in such a situation, took precedence over reason. The violence of the protests, the fury of the crowd, and the determination to punish the scapegoat were outright, just as apathy was outright before the revolution, and the enthusiasm during and immediately after it.
At once tribunes of people showed up to recall the prophecies of the old establishment and turn the emotions of the crowd into political capital. Unsurprisingly, the old foe of Pashinyan, Robert Kocharyan, as well as the rest of the Karabakh clan, came out against the prime minister. So did other political opponents like Gagik Tsarukyan, a corrupted oligarch worried about his assets. What is even worse, the hitherto neutral President Armen Sargsyan has also openly supported the idea of the prime minister’s resignation. Probably much more painful and difficult to overcome was the withdrawal of allies, such as the leader of Bright Armenia, Edmon Marukyan, or even close associates, such as former foreign minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan. The campaign against the prime minister is postmodern in form, though as realistic as it gets in its content. Pashinyan and his colleagues are attacked with fake news about their alleged spying on behalf of their neighbours and this is accompanied by campaigns against the families of individual politicians.
Pashinyan does not want to step down but, even if his political will and belief in his legitimate right to govern weren’t there, it is not clear who could replace him. The ruling party doesn’t have another strong leader. The unification of the opposition is an illusion because it is based on one goal only – the removal of the traitor prime minister. If there were early elections, there is no guarantee that the “mainstream” republicans would return to power without any problems. This may threaten an even more serious crisis, resulting in the destabilisation of the country.
Pashinyan staying in power may in fact result not from the desire to maintain his power, but from actual concern over preserving the remnants of the Velvet Revolution. Public rage at the outcome of the war seems to have obscured all rationality. If they don’t want to bury the achievements of the revolution in the history books, Armenians must recall all the Grigoryans with their bad taste, private zoos and lack of decency. Pashinyan, on the other hand, must wait under the fire of criticism. Only then will someone perhaps utter the now inconceivable sentence that defeat in the war with Azerbaijan and the practical loss of Karabakh might give Armenia a better future.
Alliances and deterministic geopolitics
Ever since the paths of the Russian Empire and the Armenians crossed, the latter believed that their survival depended on an alliance with Russia, regardless of its changing form. When the declining Ottoman sultanate, in a gesture of despair, turned the Armenians into a scapegoat, they sought help from the tsar. It was no different when Armenia, weakened by the 1988 earthquake, gained independence in a war with Azerbaijan while facing hostility from Turkey. The deep-rooted conviction that a small country could only trust Russia as a guarantor of its existence was indeed conditioned by circumstances at the time. In the meantime, there were timid attempts to diversify alliances and balance foreign policy, manifesting in close relations with Iran, as well as attempts at integration with the West. This was a substitute, however, and as time passed, dependence on the strategic alliance with Russia became increasingly apparent.
Coming to power, Pashinyan knew that his room for manoeuvre was limited, so he paid an almost servile visit to Moscow. For the Kremlin, he was a pariah, a politician financed by the West, who took power away from their close and loyal friends. With its hands tied, the new ruling government nevertheless made an effort to pursue a more diverse and active foreign policy. In the event of an escalation, however, real support could only come from Russia. It is difficult to say whether Moscow actually had a diabolical plan, according to which Armenia’s defeat in the war with Azerbaijan was calculated with the aim to humiliate and – in the best case – get rid of the unpredictable Pashinyan. What is certain is that the Karabakh war showed that in international relations relying on a single alliance is a dead end.
If the current post-revolutionary government manages to stay in power, it is in the position to create a real revolution. Realists, although there are not many of them in Armenia, should realise that the only way to stabilisation, modernisation, and a way out of poverty and isolation is a new beginning with Turkey, the creation of platforms for civilised dialogue with Azerbaijan, and an attempt to encourage Iran to become more involved in the South Caucasus. At the same time, rapprochement with the West, although Armenia, unlike resource-rich Azerbaijan, does not have much to offer, should be the basis of its foreign policy. It is not only up to Armenia – what also matters is the policy of the new American presidency towards the Caucasus and the Middle East, the European Union’s willingness to become more involved and the attitude of authoritarian dictators Aliyev and Erdoğan, which is more difficult to predict.
If pride allows, Yerevan can make the first gesture. That would be a real revolution. The other way is stagnation, which could completely undo the Armenian democracy that has been slowly building since 2018, relegating the country once again to being one of many quasi-democratic, semi-authoritarian states with no hope of change. A pseudo-democracy run by oligarchs and corrupt parties, dependent on an ally that is usually absent when allies are most needed.
Trauma as a catalyst
In the aftermath of the war, debates among Armenians (both those at home and in the diaspora) about Pashinyan’s achievements are carried out on the social media. Apart from the obvious voices pointing out that no achievement can justify the loss of territory and human lives, specific positive aspects of his rule emerge in these discussions. Some of them are measurable and tangible, such as the organisation of completely free elections, regulation of taxes and increasing their collection, transparency of customs and elimination of corruption at the borders, fighting with the oligarchs and organised crime, the attempt to reform the judicial system, increasing the percentage of legal employment and fighting the illegal economy, and the initiation of educational and health reforms. The shift of the country’s identity and historical narrative are probably even more important in the long run, as they show the possibility of running governments that are not based on an oligarchic-clientelistic system, giving the ruling party a leading role and restoring faith in the state as an institution, and enabling greater involvement from citizens and NGOs. This is what modern transformation and reform of the state is all about. But to what extent is this rational assessment able to prevail over the emotion of the current situation? This is still a question to be answered.
A revolution is always described as such after it has taken place. Its often unexpected success is difficult to translate into actual social change, not to mention the overall change of the country’s identity, both in geopolitical and internal dimensions. The idealism and excitement following the participation in a historical event must be replaced by patient grassroots work, a painful path of reforms and decisive steps. Until the outbreak of the war, despite the forced radicalisation of the Karabakh narrative, it seemed that Armenia was on the right path. The shock and trauma of defeat could have disastrous consequences, but it could also be the catalyst for even more intense action. If this does not happen, everything that has been accomplished since the spring of 2018 will become just a peculiar episode and the future will turn into a hopeless struggle for survival.