By RFE RL
By Joshua Kucera
(RFE/RL) — Over the past three years Armenia has suffered a series of traumatic, near-existential defeats. And yet the leader who has presided over all these defeats, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, remains firmly in power, with no serious challenge to his rule.
“He has survived things that would normally be unsurvivable by any politician,” said Mikayel Zolian, a Yerevan-based analyst and former member of parliament in Pashinian’s ruling, centrist Civil Contract party.
Among those things: Armenia’s devastating loss to Azerbaijan in the 2020 Second Nagorno-Karabakh War; Pashinian’s subsequent concession accepting the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory; and, finally, last month’s Azerbaijani military recapture of Karabakh.
“Any one of these should have brought him down,” Zolian said.
But they haven’t: anti-government protests that drew several thousand to Yerevan’s central Republic Square during Azerbaijan’s offensive last month quickly fizzled out. Today, there is nothing more revolutionary in the square than strolling families and burbling fountains.
Despite Pashinian hanging on, his position is badly weakened from 2018, when he led massive street protests that managed to topple the long-entrenched former authoritarian regime in what became known as the Velvet Revolution. The prospect of a new, democratic Armenia made him wildly popular at home and internationally; in 2018, Armenia was The Economist’s country of the year.
As time has gone on, though, Pashinian’s star has faded. He has exhibited his own authoritarian tendencies, seeking to pack the courts with loyal judges and harassing critics. It was the disastrous wars of 2020 and after, however, that killed the dreams of 2018. The opposition has tried to launch several Karabakh-related protest movements since 2020, but none has gained traction.
So Pashinian remains — for now — Armenia’s Teflon prime minister.
The most recent protests died down for multiple reasons, analysts and political leaders say. One was practical: in the days after the Azerbaijani offensive, Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population fled en masse into Armenia. Many Armenians’ attention pivoted from politics to feeding, housing, and caring for the more than 100,000 refugees.
More broadly, though, many here say that Armenians are simply numbed by the events of the past three years to protest much.
After the loss of the 2020 war, “we were shocked,” said Menua Soghomonian, a professor of international relations at Yerevan State University. But since then, Armenians have been subject to a steady stream of minor defeats as they were unable to withstand constant Azerbaijani pressure, including attacks on Armenian territory and a monthslong blockade of Karabakh that culminated in the September offensive and surrender. “We were really shocked, but then we began to gradually get accustomed to all these defeats,” Soghomonian said.
In the end, the salience of the Karabakh issue for Armenians has proved not to be as strong as many expected, given its central role in the Armenian political imagination. “There is no Armenia without Karabakh,” Pashinian said in one 2020 address to the nation, a common formulation in Armenian discourse.
But beneath the surface, Armenians were calculating just how much control over the territory really meant to them. “Karabakh is important to people, but it’s probably more important for those people who have a certain kind of privilege, who live in Yerevan and have a good salary and probably won’t be the ones fighting if the war breaks out,” Zolian said.
But for many poorer, rural Armenians — who make up Pashinian’s support base — Karabakh “is just one of many issues, and they have more pressing problems,” Zolian said.
Poor conditions in the army — corruption and abuse are rife — also weakened many Armenians’ devotion to keeping control of Nagorno-Karabakh, says Yuri Manvelian, the editor of the news website Epress.am. More people are seeking to evade conscription and there has been an increase in bribes to get out of mandatory service, he adds. “If you put a microphone in front of people, they will say [Karabakh] is an existential issue,” he said. But when it comes to defending Karabakh militarily, “what should we do? Should we fight? Then who will fight? Someone else’s son should go fight, not mine.”
The Armenian and Azerbaijani governments were locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for decades. Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly ethnic-Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that left some 30,000 people dead. Diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict brought little progress and the two sides fought another war in 2020 that lasted six weeks before a Russian-brokered cease-fire, resulting in Armenia losing control over parts of the region and seven adjacent districts.
In 2022, Armenia and Azerbaijan started talks on a peace agreement, and as part of that process Pashinian did what no Armenian leader before had dared: agreed to accept Azerbaijani rule over Karabakh.
Pashinian’s opponents have complained that the prime minister has managed to convince a significant number of Armenians that Karabakh is not an integral part of the Armenian world but rather a burden weighing down the country, and that “when we are free of this issue we will enhance our independence, our sovereignty,” Soghomonian said. “This kind of propaganda has been successful,” he lamented.
Soghomonian is one of the leaders of a new civic movement, Armenians’ Vote. Its aim is to rally public opposition to the government by means of a petition to make it illegal for any Armenian official to recognize Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. The effort was launched in the summer after Pashinian began publicly broaching the subject.
The movement’s organizers recently reached their goal of obtaining 50,000 signatures, which, according to Armenia’s constitution, requires parliament to take up the issue. But there is little chance that the parliament, dominated by Pashinian’s Civil Contract party, will advance the measure for a vote.
In any case, events are quickly overtaking the effort. Karabakh is now nearly entirely depopulated. The de facto government that ruled the territory for three decades is set to disband by the end of the year, and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made a triumphant trip to the former government building and was filmed walking over its flag. Meanwhile, Pashinian is in talks with Aliyev to sign a peace agreement that would formalize Armenia’s recognition of Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory.
Armenians’ Vote’s organizers are not giving up: If parliament doesn’t take up their legislation, they have other steps planned, including trying to organize further protests. But Soghomonian says that even in the likely event that parliament rejects a new law, these are just the early stages in building a new opposition to Pashinian and his government.
Opposition parties say they also are planning future protests. The Republican Party of Armenia — the former ruling party and still the largest opposition force in the country — is going to try to force Pashinian out before the next elections, currently scheduled for 2025, says Hayk Mamijanian, a member of parliament in the party.
While he says there is no chance of getting Pashinian to step down voluntarily, even in the face of massive opposition, he says that a combination of street protests and pressure on Civil Contract lawmakers could succeed. If they could convince “18 or 19” ruling party members to go along, they could impeach Pashinian, he said. “So that’s the formula: Street protests, pressure on the parliamentary faction, and appointment of a new prime minister.”
It’s an uphill battle, though. The biggest issue, analysts say, is that the current political opposition is led by figures associated with the former ruling regime that Pashinian toppled in the Velvet Revolution. And while Pashinian is deeply unpopular, those figures are even more unpopular following their two decades in power, which were plagued by allegations of corruption and authoritarianism.
Asked in a poll conducted in the first quarter of 2023 by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute which political figure Armenians trusted most, Pashinian came out on top but with an anemic 13 percent. (In the months after his rise to power, the same poll showed he had an 82 percent approval rating; it has since stopped asking the question that way.)
The second-most “popular” figure in the newer poll, and highest-ranking from the opposition, was former President Robert Kocharian, who got 2 percent. Fully 64 percent of Armenians said they trusted “none.” Asked who they would vote for if elections were being held now, 21 percent said Civil Contract, and 4 percent said the Armenia Alliance, currently the largest opposition bloc in parliament (it includes the Republicans).
Critics charge that opposition leaders haven’t put forward any concrete vision for how Armenia can extract itself from its current dire state.
Asked how Armenia should be approaching the negotiations with Azerbaijan, Republican Party deputy Mamijanian demurred: “You need to have much more data to give the answer to that question,” he said. “But definitely accepting all the ultimatums of Azerbaijan is not the best idea.”
“They don’t offer [anything] — not a proper program [or] even a direction in which we should be going,” Zolian said. “OK, Pashinian messed up. We agree on that. So, what is the direction? Are we going to continue negotiations with Azerbaijan and Turkey from the point that Pashinian has left them? Are we going to go back to Russia and ask them to forgive us? They are not answering all these difficult questions that Pashinian has to answer because he’s in power.”
Mamijanian acknowledges that the opposition deserves a large amount of the blame for the failure of efforts to topple Pashinian. “Definitely it’s our fault. I do accept that,” he said. “We didn’t get into the hearts and minds of some of our compatriots. Maybe our ideas weren’t explained in a way that was understandable for society. So, there can be very many reasons for that [failure to remove Pashinian], but definitely the reason is the opposition itself.”
He says that the repeated military defeats were also to blame. “I mean the desperation, the mourning of society, the shock of society, the depression of society,” he said. While those things were not strictly the fault of the opposition, he added, “anyway you never act in an ideal world where you can [determine] everything and all the details. You work with what you have.”
Mamijanian rejects criticism about the dominance of the old opposition parties. “There are very many streets and squares in Yerevan. We are holding a protest on this one, please take another one [for another protest],” he said. “We are really happy to cooperate with any normal political and nonpolitical forces just to get rid of them.”
In spite of the lack of public traction that the Yerevan protests have gained, the government isn’t taking any chances: police cracked down heavily on the September demonstrations, using stun grenades and detaining scores of protesters. Dozens remain in custody, drawing criticism from human rights advocates.
Government-critical figures complain that Pashinian has been emboldened by the international community’s desire to achieve a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan. “Almost every significant geopolitical actor in our region wants a peace treaty to be signed with Azerbaijan, which gives Pashinian the incentive to keep going with this process. It also gives him the incentive to take very cruel measures against the opposition,” Soghomonian said. “He feels very confident.”
While opposition to Pashinian in Armenia may be floundering, it’s not for want of trying by pro-Kremlin Russian media.
After the September Azerbaijani offensive, the Kremlin sent out guidance to its loyal media on how to cover the events. It instructed them to blame Pashinian — and particularly his attempts to build ties with the West — for the defeat, the independent Russian outlet Meduza reported. Pro-Kremlin media figures including Margarita Simonyan and Vladimir Solovyov took to social media to call on Armenians to join the anti-government protests that broke out in those days.
Pashinian, in an October 17 speech to the European Parliament, complained about Russia’s role. “At the time when hundreds of thousands of Armenians fled from Nagorno-Karabakh to the Republic of Armenia, our allies in the security sector not only did not help us but also made public calls for a change of power in Armenia, to overthrow the democratic government.”
The next day, an anonymous “high-ranking source” hit back, telling the Russian state news agency TASS that Pashinian was “following in the steps of [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy.”
Despite the opposition threats, though, there has been little action to back up the words. What has been seen so far amounts to “angry words, threats, bellicose language, but that’s all. Not one action, not one decision,” said Richard Giragosian, head of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center think tank.
In his conversations with Armenian government officials, Giragosian says, they say that they are pleasantly surprised by the lack of Russian arm-twisting. “They say, ‘we expected Russia at least to demand renegotiations over the gas prices,'” a common tactic when Moscow wants to exert pressure on Yerevan. “And they haven’t.”
- Joshua Kucera is a journalist living in Tbilisi. He also contributes to Eurasianet, The Economist, and other publications.