The resignation of Armenia’s long-time leader Serzh Sargsyan shows that the Armenian political establishment suffers from a crisis of legitimacy. While Armenia’s political environment is likely to get more lively, there is no indication that any political force is ready to tackle the country’s main conundrum: the tight interlinkage between Armenia’s reliance on Russia and its conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Serzh Sargsyan had served as Armenia’s President for a decade, and being term-limited, sought to engineer a transition to a parliamentary form of government in which he aimed to maintain power as Prime Minister. This appears to have been too much for many Armenians, who took to the streets to demand his resignation. Public opposition appeared to be strongly entrenched: Signs of splits in the army surfaced in the past week, with soldiers fraternizing with protesters and army units making it clear they would not obey orders to be deployed in the capital.
Public protests are no novelty in Armenia. The country did maintain a strong sense of political unity in the first years of independence, a time when it fought a war against neighboring Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly Armenian-populated enclave in Azerbaijan. Thanks to Russian support and Azerbaijani disorganization, Armenia managed to gain military control not only over Nagorno-Karabakh but over seven adjoining Azerbaijani districts. But as soon as that victory was assured, Armenia’s own internal disputes came to the fore.
In 1996, the opposition challenged the legality of the re-election of Armenia’s first President, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, with street protests. While it failed to prevent his swearing in for a second term, this episode prepared the ground for a palace coup in early 1998, not coincidentally after the President had indicated his willingness to make concessions to Azerbaijan in the all-important Karabakh conflict. Sensing that his public legitimacy was weak following his disputed election, a triumvirate of his closest advisors unseated him, all of whom were intimately connected to Nagorno-Karabakh. Robert Kocharyan, who would succeed Ter-Petrosyan as President, had been the president of the unrecognized territory; Vazgen Sargsyan was the leader of Armenia’s union of war veterans; and Serzh Sargsyan (unrelated to Vazgen) had been the leader of the Nagorno-Karabakh military forces. For the 20 years that have passed since the 1998 presidential election, a native of the separatist territory has held the office of Armenia’s President.
Since Kocharyan’s term ended in 2008, public protests have become the norm following Armenian elections. Sargsyan’s election to succeed Kocharyan that year was marred by opposition claims of fraud, and led to violence on the streets of Yerevan that claimed the lives of ten demonstrators. In other words, the resentment in parts of Armenian society against Sargsyan that is currently on display did not emerge suddenly: It has been brewing for a decade. During that time, Sargsyan sought to balance the fractious and outspoken nature of Armenia’s polity with an effort to build up a semi-authoritarian form of government with the reins of both political and economic power firmly in the hands of his Republican Party of Armenia.
But Sargsyan also led Armenia deeper down the path it chose in the early 1990s, when it sacrificed much of its independence and sovereignty for the sake of territorial conquest. Moscow had been playing both sides of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict to gain maximum control over both, a policy that continues to this day. It promised assistance to whichever country would accept allegiance to what we now call Russia’s sphere of influence. In the end, the two countries made opposite choices: Azerbaijan decided that the country’s independence was more important than the unclear prospect of securing Russian help in getting back Karabakh. Armenia, by contrast, felt that maintaining control over Karabakh trumped all other matters.
In the years that followed the 1994 ceasefire, Armenia’s leaders made a series of choices that appeared gradual at the time, but taken together, came to limit the country’s room for maneuver. It joined Russian security structures, welcomed the expansion of Russian military facilities on its soil, handed control of its international borders to Russia, and transferred ownership of strategic industries to Moscow to pay off its debts, including its nuclear power plant and energy distribution networks. But Armenia simultaneously sought to maintain as intensive relations with the West as it could. This policy of “complementarity” worked until 2013, when Armenia, like Ukraine, was scheduled to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. Much as in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin objected to the signing—and following a tense meeting in Moscow that September, President Sargsyan announced Armenia would not sign the EU deal, and instead join Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union. Yerevan has since signed a much watered-down version of the agreement with Europe, but the episode showed that when push came to shove, the country’s independence was subject to question.
For Moscow, Armenia has been both a reliable ally and a source of trouble. On the one hand, Russia’s influence on Armenia is paramount, and Yerevan rarely challenges Moscow’s policy priorities. On the other, Moscow has often felt that Armenia’s government does not control its population and civil society effectively enough. Indeed, over the past several years, Russian authorities have pushed Sargsyan to deal more “effectively” with the opposition. Mindful of his public legitimacy and aware of the dangers of going too far, Sargsyan did not heed that advice.
It is telling that all forces in Armenia now emphasize that the dispute is purely domestic, and has nothing to do with the country’s foreign policy. Indeed, Armenia defies the Western imagination, in which post-Soviet states fit neatly into two categories. On one side, we imagine countries with authoritarian governments that cling to Moscow for their security; on the other we see nations yearning for democracy that are also oriented toward America and Europe. Thus, ever since Russia’s actions in Crimea, Western politicians have repeated their intention to shore up Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova and defend these democracies against Russian pressure—and ignored the countries, from Armenia or Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, who do not fit neatly into these categories.
But this confusion of normative matters and geopolitical orientation is artificial, and certainly was of no help in guiding Western policy toward the two protagonists of the South Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan. For these two countries, geopolitical orientation has nothing to do with their domestic system of government, and everything to do with the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, Armenia’s opposition leaders have gone out of their way to stress that they do not aim to change Armenia’s foreign policy orientation.
The problem is that Moscow may see things differently. Russian officials have seen all popular challenges to government authority in the post-Soviet space as a threat to its own regime interests. President Putin understood long ago that if countries like Georgia and Ukraine succeeded in building accountable, democratic forms of government, Russian citizens would demand the same. On a deeper level, Moscow’s claims to a “sphere of influence” demands weak, authoritarian governments that respond to the wishes of the Kremlin and not to their own populations.
Some observers have expressed surprise at Moscow’s apparently unperturbed reaction to the loss of a trustworthy ally in Sargsyan. But in fact, it is likely that Moscow learnt from the experience of its protégé Viktor Yanukovich in Ukraine, and urged Sargsyan to step down to avoid a challenge to the Armenian system of government as it stands. This would explain the speed, uncharacteristic for the region, with which Sargsyan stepped aside.
But the Armenian opposition, led in the streets by the firebrand Nikol Pashinyan, is not satisfied: They appear intent on pressing for more systemic change to the way Armenia’s political and economic system is run. If so, it may not matter that they pledge allegiance to Armenia’s Russian orientation: They would be seeking to undo a regime type that is a requirement for Russia’s sphere of influence, and which Moscow may very well intervene to preserve.
For the past decade or more, the West has stood by silently while Armenia has sunk deeper into the Russian sphere of influence. Neither America nor Europe has endeavored to find a way to offer Armenia an exit ramp from its dependence on Russia. The Obama Administration did make a brief attempt at this, but it made the mistake of seeking to “unlock” Armenia through its relations with Turkey. That ignored the fact that the main factor determining Armenia’s foreign and domestic policy is not its relationship with Turkey but the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. This is not an easy nut to crack, but until the West invests seriously in resolving this conflict, Armenia will remain the prisoner of choices it made in the past 25 years—and peace and stability will continue to elude the South Caucasus.