Armenia, the small country in the South Caucasus between Russia and Turkey, has been mired in political crisis for two weeks, after a group of army officials signed a letter calling for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to step down in what the country’s leader characterised as an “attempted military coup”.
The context of the unrest is Armenia’s catastrophic defeat in a short war against Azerbaijan late last year over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Swathes of territory which had for three decades been governed as a de facto extension of Armenia were recaptured by Azerbaijani forces in a stunning advance. (Shortly after the end of the war, I visited Azerbaijan and some of its recently reconquered territories, reporting from the region for the New Statesman.)
The crushing defeat struck at Armenia’s sense of self. As Thomas de Waal, a fellow at Carnegie Europe, wrote in Black Garden, his account of the conflict, for almost 30 years after the end of the Soviet Union, Armenia was no longer the “weeping nation” defined by the genocide of 1915. Rather, it had become a regional power, able to defeat its neighbour to claim land it considered rightfully its own. Until it wasn’t.
It is no surprise that last year’s defeat has roiled the country’s politics. Pashinyan, who toppled former president Serzh Sargsyan in a peaceful revolution in 2018, is blamed by many in the country for the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has repeatedly cited Pashinyan’s provocative statements, notably a fiery speech made in August 2019 saying that “Artsakh [the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh] is Armenia, full stop” – as a casus belli.
Nor was the Armenian government honest with its populace during the war. Many believed that Armenian forces were on the cusp of victory against Azerbaijan, right until the November night when Pashinyan appeared with Aliyev and Russian President Vladimir Putin to sign a ceasefire deal containing crushing concessions. As a result, the sudden news of Armenia’s surrender shook the country, leading to repercussions only now coming to the fore.
The final straw was Pashinyan appearing to claim in February that a Russian-made missile system used by Armenian forces had proven ineffective. As the ceasefire is underwritten by Russian peacekeepers, the unsubtle pronouncement went down badly with the military, wary of alienating Armenia’s patron, now more indispensable than ever.
Yet even so, the apparent attempted coup appears remarkably half-hearted. It seems to have been limited to 40 or so army officers signing a letter calling on Pashinyan to go. The military did not detain civilian officials or seize government buildings. The contrast between the ruthless efficiency of the military coup in Myanmar, carried out by the country’s experienced and pitiless junta two weeks earlier, is striking.
Pashinyan has offered to call snap elections, confident that he will retain power. Unusually, the opposition have so far refused the offer unless the prime minister concedes power to a transitional authority, probably because most polls show him comfortably winning re-election, though his approval ratings have more than halved to around 30 per cent since he came to power.
Pashinyan claims figures from the ancien régime he swept away three years ago are behind attempts to destabilise his leadership. Former leaders – widely perceived as corrupt – attempting to make a comeback not through elections but through coercion “shows how deep Armenia has fallen into chaos and uncertainty, bordering on state collapse, following defeat in Karabakh,” says Hovhannes Nazaretyan, an Armenian journalist.
Pashinyan’s coming to power in 2018 heralded remarkable liberalisation in Armenia, which, along with neighbouring Georgia, is now one of the only democracies in the region. The prime minister had harboured dreams of closer alignment with the West, shelved with the arrival of Russian peacekeepers. Most Armenians have no great fondness for Pashinyan but believe any plausible replacements would be worse. The outcome of this latest power struggle will determine the fate of Armenia’s fragile democracy for years to come.