Armenia elections and their aftermath
Nikol Pashinyan took it all. After months of struggling to serve as prime minister without parliamentary support, he finally got the majority he needed. The landslide victory provides Pashinyan a strong mandate to continue the revolutionary changes. The society has hope as well as significant expectations. However, the consequences and evaluations are now legitimate as well. There are no more excuses, so the real challenge begins.
It all started back in October 2016. Autumn was slowly overtaking the shore of Lake Sevan. I remember that I was having a cup of perfectly roasted coffee sitting with friends in Martuni. Then President Serzh Sargsyan and the parliament controlled by the Republican Party of Armenia had just announced constitutional changes that would switch the country into a parliamentary system. In December 2015, 63 per cent of Armenian voters had said “yes” to the proposed change in a referendum. The debate then was centred on what Sargsyan would do after his mandate would end in April 2018. There was no doubt who was going to win the elections scheduled for April 2017. Sargsyan’s Republican Party seemed to be the only option; there was not much hope for an alternative.
In April 2017 I was an OSCE observer during the parliamentary elections. I recall cruising around Armenian villages in the Vayots Dzor province – the poorest region of the country. The outcome was the same as it always had been during the past 20 years. The Republicans were victorious. Prosperous Armenia, a party managed by Gagik Tsarukyan (one of the richest oligarchs in the country with no transparent ties to the ruling party) emerged as the opposition. The election process was relatively open and lacked blatant violations. In the evening back in Yerevan while discussing the future of Armenia over a beer, one of our companions made a comment: “There is no hope, the Armenians are stuck in resignation.” But there was a group of passionate youngsters there as well, who travelled around the country checking the election process as social observers and supporters of a new initiative founded by a bearded journalist and activist named Nikol Pashinyan. They had started to build a new hope and were willing to work towards it. Yet, in the end, Pashinyan’s Way Out Alliance (YELK) gathered only seven per cent of the votes.
The start of 2018 appeared that nothing was going to change. Sargsyan completed his presidential mandate. Karen Karapetyan had stepped down as prime minister (after the changes now the most powerful person in the country) to make room for Sargsyan to become prime minister. The inevitable had materialised. In response, Pashinyan called on his supporters to take to the streets. The rest is well-known. My friends wrote me and called, screaming from their computer screens: “We won! Can you imagine?! We won.”
I visited Armenia several times during long hot summer this year. The mood – not just in Yerevan but also in the towns and villages – has significantly changed. The level of hope has risen beyond imagination as Pashinyan appears to be cleaning house, removing old corrupt bureaucrats. “With him, we will take down all of those gangsters. Armenia will flourish again!” says one Armenian to me. I have been travelling to Armenia for years and I have never seen anything like this. The hopeless, conformist and despairing Armenians have disappeared. A Revolutionary spirit is leading to a national revival.
On December 9th 2018, Pashinyan and his alliance won snap elections with a landslide victory. It would seem that Armenia has entered a new phase of euphoria. International observers confirmed that the election process was exemplary. The revolution continues…
But how had it happened? How did YELK go from seven per cent support a year and a half ago and turn it into a bloodless revolution with 70 per cent of support in the December elections? How was it possible that citizens whose only will was to emigrate as soon as it possible rushed to the streets to force change? The answer is probably simple: If you and your ancestors have suffered a lot through history, naturally your skin gets tough. The rulers provide enough not to starve, but living on the minimum for so long chips away at human dignity. Then, when you have nothing left to lose, you cross the line; and so did the Armenians.
The so-called Violet Revolution has reached its final stage. Pashinyan now has it all – a constitutional majority, legitimisation of the people and support from the international community. But a revolution is easy. The real challenge is implementing the changes you promise.
The OSCE has emphasised that the elections “were held with respect for fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust that needs to be preserved through further electoral reforms” and that “the general absence of electoral malfeasance, including of vote buying and pressure on voters, allowed for genuine competition”. The Central Election Commission confirmed that Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance took 70.4 per cent of the votes (88 seats out of 132). The runner-up was Tsarukyan’s Prosperous Armenia which took 8.3 per cent (26 seats) followed by Bright Armenia (in previous elections part of Way Out Alliance) received 6.4 per cent (18 seats). The previous ruling party, the Republican Party, gained 4.7 per cent and did even not pass the threshold. Turnout was much lower than the 2017 elections, but Pashinyan does not see it as problematic. According to him in 2017 elections people were bussed to polling stations, so a lower turnout means the election process was actually freer.
After being appointed prime minister (before the December elections), Pashinyan repeatedly complained that the then still ruling Republicans were blocking any attempts at reforms while some proposals were being supported by members of Tsarukyan’s Prosperous Armenia. Pashinyan was very limited in what he could do. Yet, being a veteran chess player, he made a strategic move. In late October he stepped down as prime minister which led to the parliament unable to appoint a new head of government leading to snap elections and his overwhelming victory.
Pashinyan has claimed that he wants to build social trust in his government, something that has always been difficult in post-Soviet countries. Avoiding the temptation to create a party of power which no longer represent anyone else other than its own members will be very difficult. Even in the most prominent democratic forerunner in the region, Georgia, that scenario happened with both Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement and Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream.
During his campaign, Pashinyan visibly showed that he is trying to avoid this trap. He has shown a unique openness to people, both on the streets and in social media. He has engaged the younger generation – the power behind his revolution. Candidates from his alliance very often did not have experience in politics. Building efficient democratic institutions and the rule of law stand as one of the biggest challenges for Pashinyan and his team. The work has already begun with steps to bring former corrupt leaders to justice, like former President Robert Kocharyan or Manvel Grigoryan, a war-hero from Karabakh. However, after 20 years of Republican monopoly on power, there is a lot left to do.
Following the political moves will come much needed yet painful economic reforms. Having a parliamentary majority Pashinyan has the ability to force his programme through. One key step will be tackling corruption on all levels in Armenia. Arresting high-level officials is always spectacular, but Pashinyan and his team have to battle something much more challenging: bribery on every level of public administration, something that is a part of the Armenian mentality. The new government has to persuade society that the massive fraud of the elite is rooted in similar behaviour from everyday small scale acts of corruption.
Even more problematic might be the deep structural reforms. Armenia’s national debt has reached 6.5 billion US dollars, an enormous amount for a country of less than three million people. Inflation grows daily and poverty has led to thousands of citizens escaping abroad. Even the structural reform of taxes and tackling money laundering will not be sufficient. Pashinyan has to possess enough courage to convince Armenians that painful cuts are necessary, even if the price will be a decrease of his support.
If one would ask how to describe the foreign policy of the previous regime of Serzh Sargsyan and the Republican party, the proper word would probably be “reactive”. Armenia’s tough neighbourhood, permanent critical situation around Nagorno-Karabakh and its landlocked location has always stood as sufficient justification for avoiding active participation in regional encounters. From the very beginning Pashinyan has emphasised a new approach in foreign policy – a switch towards pragmatism and active alignment.
However, the new government will face the continuous problem of keeping the balance between an unavoidable security alliance with Moscow and a pro-western democratic course. Pashinyan’s visits to Moscow and Stepanakert (the capital of the unrecognised Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh) are indicative of where Armenian interests lie. While ties with the Kremlin are rather not those which would be really anticipated if he had a choice, the approach to Karabakh, a central point of Armenia’s regional policy, is heading in a new direction. Many times during the campaign Pashinyan called for a tougher approach on the Karabakh issue including the restoration of the “Miacum” ideology.
An Armenian-centric perspective in foreign policy required Pashinyan to encourage a struggle for national interests. When compared to Sargsyan and Kocharyan, Pashinyan will look forward on the issue having not only in mind maintaining the status quo but also expecting particular steps from his Azerbaijani counterparts. To do so, his goal is to fix the reputation of Armenia on the international stage. By gaining some credentials in the West as a developing democracy, he could gain some bargaining chips to change the discourse about Karabakh. Thus, he may rather be a revolutionary than a reformist on this issue.
Every revolution has its own honeymoon. The December snap elections gave Pashinyan and his alliance a little bit more than usual “100 days” of calmness. The promises are radical and ambitious, but expectations are high, even in challenging circumstances. Armenia has begun a new chapter in its post-Soviet history, but the future, unlike political campaign slogans, remains blurred and uncertain.
Bartłomiej Krzysztan is a research assistant in Institute of Political Studies of Polish Academy of Sciences. His research interests include cultural memory and identity in the post-Soviet space and politics in the South Caucasus.