The recent agreement to cease hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh has created a new status quo in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan has recovered territories it lost in the 1990s when the conflict over the enclave first erupted, in the shadow of the Soviet collapse. A new modus vivendi between Russia and Turkey is shaping regional geopolitics. Once shaky authoritarian rule in Azerbaijan is now more deeply entrenched. It can also count on the support of Turkey, another increasingly authoritarian player in the neighborhood. This stronger and deeper authoritarian presence in the region will place significant stress on nascent democracies in Georgia and Armenia for years to come.
The Postwar Outlook for Armenia’s Young Democracy
For Armenia, the consequences of the war and its losses in Nagorno-Karabakh are traumatic. Leaving aside the immediate upheaval of a major defeat on the battlefield (the second such loss in roughly two years), threats on the horizon are already destabilizing Armenia’s hard-won democratic institutions. Will these postwar political tensions totally derail the country’s democratic breakthrough, which arose from the peaceful 2018 Velvet Revolution?
While many of the foundations of Armenia’s democratic transition and the level of support from civil society remain fairly strong, the stressors of the war and its aftermath have revived pre-existing political divisions. These include a new opening for the prerevolution political elite to regain levers of influence that they had lost at the ballot box during the postrevolution parliamentary elections held in December 2018. If current trends hold, Armenia’s unfolding political crisis is nothing less than a make-or-break moment for the country’s sovereignty and its prospects as a democratic state in an increasingly multipolar world. It is a test of whether Armenian’s government and political elite can manage their competition and disputes within the constitutional parameters of parliamentary politics.
The war and its immediate aftermath have traumatized Armenian society. The multiple shocks of significant loss of human life, territory, security, and religious and cultural heritage—coupled with mass refugee flows—are generating political discontent that now threatens the once- popular government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Pashinyan, a charismatic former journalist who swept to power in 2018, is under fire. He is broadly criticized for his handling of the war, the shortcomings of his military and diplomatic strategy, and the lack of effective public communication.
Are there Georgian Lessons for Armenia?
Just over a decade ago, another new democracy in the South Caucasus faced similar adversity after an analogous military loss. Georgia’s then president Mikheil Saakashvili and his government endured months of public discontent after the end of the disastrous war against Russia. The dramatic economic decline precipitated by the 2007–2008 global financial crisis magnified Saakashvili’s problems. Still, Georgia’s fledgling democracy largely weathered that storm, as Western economic aid bolstered Saakashvili’s position. In short order, the West injected over $4 billion into Georgia’s economy to support postwar stabilization efforts. While Georgia’s fragile democratic institutions held at the time, Saakashvili and his party eventually paid a political price in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
Pashinyan’s predicament is complicated by the need to work within a parliamentary system, one that is politically more responsive yet more unstable. By contrast, Georgia’s then presidential system had a more centralized executive power structure, which Saakashvili further consolidated immediately after coming to power in 2003. Even before the 2020 war, Pashinyan was too bound up in parliamentary politics. He has often been criticized for not moving quickly enough on his reform agenda, including failing to reform a reactionary judiciary that was an authoritarian vestige of the past. Pashinyan’s difficulties are compounded by a struggling economy that has tumbled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike Georgia, Armenia has no significant Western rescue package in the works, and few Western powers have paid much attention to the war, let alone its aftermath. As during the Velvet Revolution, Armenians find themselves on their own, for better or worse.
Reasons for Hope and Anxiety
At the same time, Armenia has certain advantages. The nature of its 2018 democratic breakthrough has positioned it well for democratic consolidation. Research has shown that democratic transitions that arise from campaigns of nonviolent civic disobedience, as the Velvet Revolution did, often do better at locking in the democratic gains they produce. Such transitions rest on the organizational culture of nonviolence. These experiential transitions draw on deep civic roots in society. The Velvet Revolution’s bottomup civic movement drew upon broad and socioeconomically diverse communities in Armenia, giving each constituency a stake in what came next. In such cases, history shows, the risk of a new democratic government yielding to an authoritarian reversal has been low. Importantly, such movements are able to survive beyond their initial leaders’ tenure, with a broader and more diverse range of stakeholders politically mobilized to push the reform agenda forward.
Nevertheless, despite these robust foundations, the risks to Armenia’s young democracy remain significant. As with all new democracies, internal political conflict could be extremely destabilizing for the country’s nascent democratic institutions. While the Velvet Revolution prompted new parliamentary elections in 2018, the Armenian judiciary remains largely unreformed. Trust in political parties also remains low. Both Ukraine and Georgia have struggled to mount effective judicial reforms, which is particularly problematic for a country where political conflict and contestation are so high. That will make it all the more difficult for Armenia to manage its current political crisis peacefully and by way of well-functioning democratic institutions.
In addition, new democracies often historically contend with materially powerful opposition forces rooted in the ousted regime. Such groups have the capacity and incentives to create division and derail democratic openings. They signal to would-be adherents that there is a political opportunity to challenge the new democratic system, usually from outside of formal institutions. Similar to prewar Georgia, these conditions were present in Armenia even before the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Despite having failed to achieve any electoral representation in the postrevolution parliament, Armenia’s former governing forces have remained well-resourced and enjoy a strong institutional presence in the judiciary and the media. They have worked, with some success, to undermine the Pashinyan government and its reform initiatives since 2018.
The Risks of Technocratic Solutions to Political Problems
Depending on how the stress test facing postwar Armenia’s democratic institutions unfolds, it is easy to imagine that reactionary political forces will feel emboldened. By embracing widespread feelings of discontent and trauma in Armenian society following the war, these political groups have quickly challenged the government through small-scale yet visible protests calling for Pashinyan to resign. Armenian President Armen Sarkissian, whose role is largely ceremonial, has joined the fray, adding legitimacy to an anti-Pashinyan coalition that consists mostly of extra-parliamentary political parties. All of these parties, with one exception, have small memberships and lack an institutional presence in the parliament. Sarkisian has called for an unelected government of unity—an interim body to succeed Pashinyan that would be politically neutral and would coordinate early elections within a year.
At best, an early end to Pashinyan’s tenure presided over by temporary, unelected, and unaccountable transitional leaders would amount to a technocratic solution to a political problem. At worst, such ideas are merely camouflage for a bald attempt to capture power that would bypass the will of the Armenian people. On balance, preterm elections under an interim caretaker government would likely short-circuit Armenian democracy, depriving its democratic institutions of the opportunity to organically manage postwar political conflict and disputes through established, institutional channels. Democracy, as a political muscle, would atrophy as a result. If an unelected, ad hoc, and apolitical government takes power, regardless of the length of its tenure, public trust in the ballot box may end up being the largest casualty of the 2020 war.
A Make-Or-Break Moment
How Armenian society manages these postwar political developments will likely make or break its democracy. The ability to institutionalize and legitimate the democratic project is essential for consolidating a democratic breakthrough. Proposals for interim or ad hoc, unelected, apolitical governments to replace a popularly elected one arguably work against both of these measures. They challenge the supremacy of the ballot box as the way to solve political crises, invoking an unelected group of supposed saviors as a top-down solution to a broadly societal problem. The increased political voices of women, one of the most important gains of the 2018 Velvet Revolution, may be at particular risk under such an interim, transitional arrangement. Representation of women is usually the first thing tossed overboard when political life becomes dominated by backroom deals and elite bargaining instead of institutional measures at times of rapid political change.
Such proposals also hurt the legitimacy of Armenia’s broader democratic project by creating parallel channels of authority. As such, they seek to deprive new democratic institutions of the opportunity to manage conflict within the established constitutional order. Indeed, Armenian history is replete with cases of ad hoc committees of national unity and self-governance: such committees were crucial in organizing Armenian communities existing at peripheries of large and often genocidal empires in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Deploying them again now in a modern state, however, may represent a step backward, not forward.
Back to Basics
In the near and medium term, a return to the basic logic of the Velvet Revolution may be the way out for Armenia’s fragile democracy and society. The values of nonviolence and the grassroots spaces for political discourse that were at the forefront of the Velvet Revolution are fundamentally important at this moment of heightened domestic political discontent, particularly given the country’s weakened political parties.
Now Armenia must try to take advantage of civic spaces to defuse the conflict—through politics from below instead of top-down technocratic solutions. In a region plagued by perennial geopolitical games and the overbearing involvement of regional powers, the resilience of democratic institutions backed by power from the people and the ballot box are key elements for sustaining the Armenian state’s sovereignty. In the absence of resilient democratic institutions, Armenia’s increased postconflict dependence on Russia will be hard to manage. Indeed, democratic consolidation is a strategic necessity for small states seeking to survive—and thrive—in an increasingly multipolar twenty-first century. Relinquishing the role of the people to select their government would only empower external kingmakers to assume control over the determinants of state sovereignty and strong governance.
Saving democracy in the postwar scenario Armenia faces places other real and very pressing demands on Pashinyan’s government. The current government needs to explain much more clearly how the economic dividends of the peace will flow to the general public. Armenian leaders need to make a renewed commitment to, and articulation of, democratic institutions. They need to demonstrate their ability to compromise and deliberate. And they need to reinvigorate their commitment to consensus-based governance through existing political institutions and grassroots civic capacities.
Constitutional snap elections will likely be essential for Armenia to regenerate and replenish the legitimacy and viability of its democracy. With or without Pashinyan at the helm, this is a prerequisite for a more honest and inclusive public discourse on Armenia’s foreign policy challenges moving forward.
Hard questions abound for Armenia. Should its diplomacy involve more Russia or less Russia? More Europe or less Europe? What about Turkey? Should Armenia focus more on diplomacy or more on weapons, or both? Should it expand its alliances or deepen its diplomatic capacities in the region? What are the prospects for a peace treaty with Azerbaijan? What is the future of the country’s proposed anti-corruption reforms? All of these themes will be front and center for any political party with ambitions to contest such elections, including Pashinyan’s.