On 9 December 2018, Nikol Pashinyan’s ‘My Step’ Alliance won a landslide victory in Armenia’s early parliamentary elections, securing 70.43% of the vote. Two other parties, “Prosperous Armenia” and “Bright Armenia” also passed the 5% threshold, entering parliament. The Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) that led the country until the May 2018 ‘velvet revolution’ failed to do so. The election completes the political transition resulting from the revolution, but a low turnout of 48.63% indicates that disillusionment among Armenians remains high. Translating Pashinyan’s vision of a ‘new’ Armenia into reality will be challenging.
Now, with a strong parliamentary majority secured for a well-articulated programme, Pashinyan has to deliver in three main areas: domestic reforms, foreign policy, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Domestic reforms remain the top priority
Armenian society wants real change, given that it was held hostage by oligarchs and corrupt officials for years. Pashinyan promised to redraw the entire social and political structure of Armenia with a zero-tolerance to corruption. His first 100 days in office saw high-profile arrests of corrupt businessmen and former officials. These popular measures, however, also embroiled the government in various legal entanglements. Some moves, such as the clean-up of the customs service, can be seen as a significant success. There remains, however, a need for a real anti-corruption strategy to complement efforts to stimulate the economy, reduce poverty, and improve the quality of life.
Foreign policy is a work in progress
In the field of defence and security policy, it suited Pashinyan to emphasise continuity, highlighting excellent relations with Russia, continued membership of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEAU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), privileged ties with neighbouring Iran and Georgia, and good relations with the European Union (EU) and the United States.
Once in government, however, reality hit in. With the Kremlin deeply suspicious of Pashinyan, his hope of winning Putin’s trust was probably naïve. Pashinyan’s velvet revolution has revived the prospect of popular street movements sweeping away autocratic governments in the former Soviet space – unsettling the Kremlin, even though it tried to pretend otherwise. Moreover, the feeling that some CSTO/EEAU allies (e.g. Belarus) have better relations with Armenia’s enemy Azerbaijan is widespread in the public and a source of concern for Pashinyan. There is disappointment that Yerevan’s CSTO allies continue to provide arms and political succour to Baku. Pashinyan’s hope that Armenia could somehow spearhead reform in the EEAU and CSTO appear out of reach.
The West is still trying to size up Pashinyan and to understand where he came from and where he is going. During a visit to Brussels in July 2018, Pashinyan appeared to have unrealistic expectations about the amount of financial support the EU would be able to provide Yerevan. It left many in Brussels shocked. The delay in presenting the government’s roadmap for the implementation of the new EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) also raised concerns over the government's capacity. There is much goodwill to Pashinyan in EU and western circles, but he still has to find a way of turning this into tangible support. There is concern that he may not have the patience to persevere and to shape a deeper relationship with the EU over time.
Properly balancing the relationship with Russia and the relationship with the west – primarily the EU – will remain the main immediate foreign policy task of the Armenian government going forward.
Nagorno-Karabakh: Pashinyan’s Achilles heel?
So will dealing with the Karabakh conflict, which was more prominent in this election campaign than in previous ones. All 11 parties and blocs referred to it in their campaign programmes. Some parties called for Karabakh to unify with Armenia, while others supported its right to independent statehood or ‘self-determination’.
Pashinyan’s party emphasised that any negotiated solution has to be acceptable “to the people of Armenia and Artsakh”. It reiterated its call that the leadership of the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) join the negotiation process and have a determining voice.
Pashinyan’s opponents, particularly the RPA, accused him of preparing to sell out on Karabakh by making one-sided concessions. Pashinyan insisted that he was not going to engage in secret negotiations and that any deal would be subject to popular approval. Since coming to power, Pashinyan has not met formally with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. However, they have had two informal discussions – one in Dushanbe in September, and on 6 December in St Petersburg. The two leaders have agreed to make the content of their exchanges public, which was not the case hitherto. Since September, the situation on the ‘line of contact’ has significantly calmed down, with fewer cease-fire violations. A further positive step was an agreement to open a direct operational line of communications between the two defence ministers to help reduce casualties. All this augurs well for the future and creates a promising basis for an expected Aliyev-Pashinyan meeting in 2019.
Yet, the risks ahead remain high. While his convincing election victory has emboldened Pashinyan, his opponents still maintain influence in some parts of the state establishment, and not least within Karabakh itself. They see Karabakh as Pashinyan’s Achilles heel. His strategy based on transparency, inclusivity, and pragmatism will be put to the test. The ominous rumblings of the RPA, during the campaign, about the danger of a large-scale war cannot be ignored. As the side that has negotiated with Azerbaijan for a decade, RPA understands the risk if the Aliyev-Pashinyan honeymoon does not translate into tangible progress in the negotiations, and a disillusioned Azerbaijan decides to seek other options.
The 9 December parliamentary elections have strengthened Pashinyan’s hand as he advances his vision of a ‘new’ Armenia. The EU will have an important role to play in this process with CEPA acting as a roadmap for reform. Meanwhile, the challenges remain immense, especially considering the huge expectations of society.
Amanda Paul, Senior Policy Analyst in the Europe in the World Programme at the European Policy Centre and Dennis Sammut, Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research) and member of the EPC’s Strategic Council.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this Commentary are the sole responsibility of the authors.