Nagorno-Karabakh defeat sparks political crisis for Armenia, PM Nikol Pashinyan

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Armenia’s defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh has led to a divisive political crisis in the country, raising concerns about the future of the reform movement behind the 2018 Velvet Revolution.

At the heart of this crisis is the Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power in 2018 after a popular revolution overthrew a government that was viewed as corrupt and beholden to Moscow.

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The former journalist, who had been imprisoned under Armenia’s old guard, assumed his premiership promising reforms, a crackdown on corruption, and closer ties with Washington and Europe.

But Pashinyan’s popularity didn’t survive the conflict.

Hours after the truce was declared, he was branded a “traitor” by protesters, who stormed parliament. Armenia’s President, Armin Sarkissian, called for snap elections and a technocratic government, while high-level cabinet members resigned, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs Zohrab Manatsakyan.

The prime minister’s fall from grace highlights the fragility of pro-democracy movements in a region that is widely viewed as dominated by Russian influence.

“Armenia always had fledging efforts at democracy but it had real corruption problems too. With the Velvet Revolution, it looked like it had broken out of that,” said Carey Cavanaugh, a former US Ambassador and co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’s mediating body.

“Now the conflict has gotten people very passionate and divided,” he told Al Arabiya English.

A hopeful revolution

“The revolution was a mostly domestically driven movement, supported by the general population and the civil society,” said Karen Harutyunyan, editor-in-chief of the Armenian news website Civilnet.

Within a year of taking power, the government’s crackdown on corruption had reduced the country’s shadow economy to a quarter of its GDP. Thousands of ethnic Armenians from the diaspora, including the USA and Lebanon, sought new opportunities in Armenia.

“The biggest achievement was that during these two and half years several elections – country wide and local, were held which were conducted without major violations and fraud. This is something that Armenia has not seen since the beginning of 1990s,” he added.

Some hoped that the country would be less beholden to Moscow, as it had been under previous governments. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and Armenia’s tensions with Turkey, had isolated the country from its neighbors, making it dependent on Russia for security and trade. Under Russia’s influence Armenia also forged alliances in Iran and Assad’s Syria.

“Armenia’s relationship with Russia has never been on an equal basis. At the beginning of his premiership, Pashinyan tried to stress ‘sovereignty’ and made several consecutive steps that worsened his relations with Moscow,” said Harutunyan.

But a radical foreign policy shift towards the West, as was seen after revolutions in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine, did not take place. Armenia maintained its defense agreement with Moscow among other Russian-backed structures, through which Yerevan controversially supplied aid to the Syrian government, a Russian ally, in 2019.

Preparing for peace

On the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, Pashinyan held initially positive meetings with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, with both sides agreeing to de-escalate.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but had been controlled by ethnic Armenians since 1994. A peace settlement signed in 2011 known as the Madrid Principles sought to determine the status of the territory and required Armenia to cede control of seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh that it gained control of in the 1990s conflict.

Facing resistance back home to his meetings with Aliyev, Pashinyan began stressing the autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian leadership, and evoked popular opinion in Armenia, both of which rejected the possibility of territorial concessions to Azerbaijan.

“Armenians felt they had won on the battlefield in 1994, but the reality of the late 20th century is that you don’t get to have military action and take land that wasn’t yours,” said Cavanaugh, “[Earlier leaders] held on to those lands as a bargaining chip, looking at how to move forward with that. Pashinyan did not fully incorporate that vision.”

In practice, this meant his rhetoric became harder than that of his predecessors, publicly stating that Nagorno-Karabakh would become part of Armenia. In May 2020, he announced plans to move the territory’s ethnic-Armenian parliament to Shusha, a symbolically important city for the Azerbaijanis.

These statements were interpreted in Baku as deliberate provocations from the whims of a populist leader. “In 2019, he asked President Aliyev for a year to study the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. We never heard back from him after that,” Tahir Taghizade, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the UK, told Al Arabiya English at a briefing in October.

But Pashinyan’s supporters welcomed his actions: “For years, the previous government were negotiating a deal that would have Armenians lose all their rights in Nagorno-Karabakh, while presenting it as a victory back home,” said an Armenian-born supporter living in the US who asked to remain anonymous. “Pashinyan tried to do things differently.”

Popular support for an unequal war

The ensuing war that broke out in September revealed how the balance of power had tipped since ethnic Armenians took control of Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan, which had been growing its arsenal since the early 2000s, was equipped with Israeli drones and Turkish fighter jets. By contrast, Armenian troops relied on inferior Soviet-era Russian weaponry.

In the first weeks of the conflict, Pashinyan’s appearances were widely praised by the Armenian public. “He was seen as active in his outreach, trying to draw international attention to the conflict and highlighting Turkey’s participation,” said Hrant Mikaelian, a researcher at the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute.

Pashinyan publicly encouraged volunteers to join the frontline, with his own son volunteering. Hundreds of Armenian soldiers were killed in just days, with the overall troop toll now at 2,245, according to the Associated Press.

The prime minister sought to portray the conflict as an existential threat to Armenia, and as part of a wider clash of civilizations between Western democracy and political Islam. He emphasized Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan, and the presence of Turkish-backed mercenaries fighting alongside the Azerbaijanis.

These messages resonated particularly in France, which had been rolling out a controversial new policy toward French Muslims at the time, and whose President Emmanuel Macron has a fraught relationship with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But these efforts did little to tip the war in Armenia’s favor. “The Armenian leadership was warned by diplomats that if Azerbaijan fought to take back what the international community recognized as [Azerbaijan’s] land, then the international community would not respond strongly against that,” said Cavanaugh.

Meanwhile, Pashinyan’s opponents in Baku and Moscow described him as an “insane” uncompromising leader who had led Armenia into a war that it could not win militarily.

Two Russian-brokered and one US-brokered ceasefire in October failed to stop the fighting. Moscow stated that it would only intervene militarily if Armenian territories were targeted by Azerbaijan, and the details of its military support to Armenia are still emerging.

Discomfort grew about Russia’s stated neutrality, with some Armenians blaming Pashinyan’s earlier hostile remarks toward Russia. “He should have dealt with Moscow more effectively,” said Mikaelian, who argues that Russia and Iran could be Armenia’s allies.

Though both sides are accused of war crimes, Armenia appeared to be escalating the conflict by targeting Azerbaijani cities outside of the disputed territory. “We suspect they are trying to provoke us into launching attacks on Armenia proper, to enable Russia’s military support,” said Ambassador Taghizade, at the time of these strikes.

Read more: Azerbaijani leader vows to revive region ceded by Armenia

A fragile ceasefire plunges Armenia into crisis

After six weeks of fighting, Azerbaijani troops took control of Shusha. They were just a few kilometers away from Stepanakert, the disputed territory’s capital for ethnic Armenians.

Facing further losses if they pressed on with the war, Pashinyan signed a Russian-brokered truce that would end the fighting and cede more than half of Armenian-controlled territories to Azerbaijan.

According to the agreement, Russian peacekeeping forces will be deployed for five years. This deviates from the terms of the Minsk Group, which prohibits co-chairs and neighboring member states from sending their peacekeepers into Nagorno-Karabakh.

“I personally made a hard, hard decision for me and everyone,” Pashinyan wrote in a Facebook announcement, “based on the belief that this is the best solution in the situation.”

In the ensuing weeks, Pashinyan has rejected calls to step down, but experts say his resignation is only a matter of time. His supporters fear what will become of Armenia’s revolutionary movement.

Some critics have called for the return of politicians that the Velvet Revolution had discredited, including former Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan who was indicted in 2020 for corruption and embezzlement.

Movses Hakobyan, the former chief of staff for the Armenian armed forces, blamed institutional changes that occurred after 2018 for Armenia’s “lack of leadership and ignorance” on the battlefield, as reported by Hetq.

And although Armenia never fully deviated from Moscow, it now finds itself more dependent than ever on its support.

Read more: Armenian prime minister urges stronger military links with Russia