Since Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution” of 2018, the Pashinyan government has embarked on a largely successful campaign to deepen and drive economic and political reform. This was most visible in the first three months of 2020, evident in the government’s initial flurry of activity across several reform areas and with the launch of a determined campaign against corruption. Yet despite the momentum in broader reform areas, the judicial system stood out as one of the more prominent institutional legacies from the old system of governance and emerged as the main priority in early 2020.
The obvious lack of an independent or even reform-minded judiciary should have been a much higher priority for the government. And the failure to address the lack of an independent judiciary sooner was a weakness for the government that presented an opportunity for government opponents to regroup and regain momentum. Against that backdrop of demonstrable policy neglect, the legacy Constitutional Court has recently emerged as the key battleground between the current leadership and a disparate but determined group of “old guard” loyalists of the former government.
Constitutional Referendum on Hold
Several months of conflict between the Armenian government and the country’s Constitutional Court devolved into a personal confrontation between the Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Constitutional Court Chairman. Consequently, the Armenian parliament voted on February 6 to hold a national referendum on a set of constitutional amendments that would remove seven justices on the nine-member constitutional court who were appointed by the previous government. With the introduction of a state of emergency on March 16, however, the planned constitutional referendum was postponed according to Armenian law, which requires any referendum to take place “no sooner than 50 and no later than 65 days after the end of the (30-day) state of emergency.”
Criminal Trial of Former President Opens & Then Postponed
Joining his predecessor to face criminal charges for offenses committed while in office, former President Serzh Sargsyan’s trial opened on February 25. The 65-year-old Sargsyan is accused of abusing his position by giving preferential treatment for the award of a state contract in 2013 to a friend, which prosecutors charge cost the state nearly $1 million in losses. Unlike the more politically-related trial of former President Robert Kocharian, Sargsyan’s case is largely a result of unexpected evidence obtained from an interrogation of a former Agriculture Minister and two other former officials as part of a separate corruption investigation. The trial was postponed on March 26, after the imposition of a state of emergency related to the coronavirus crisis.
Political Polarization & Politics of Confrontation
After several months of mounting political tension, with a small but aggressively vocal group opposed to the Armenian government, two specific incidents in January marked the onset of outright political violence. The first such incident, on January 23, was a bizarre two-hour hostage situation at the Erebuni Plaza business center, where a lone gunman, 32-year-old Artur Torosyan, entered the office building before eventually surrendering peacefully. Strangely, the acting police chief, Arman Sargsyan, came to the scene to personally lead the negotiations, eventually convincing the gunman to surrender and hand over his weapon. But the suspect was taken from the scene in the private vehicle of the policy chief, without handcuffs, and transported to a police station. The second incident, coming just days later, on the January 28 “Army Day” holiday in Armenia, involved a coordinated police crackdown and arrest of several “activists” notorious for their vehement and vindictive protests and social media campaigns targeting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, his government and even his family members.
Expectations for Sustained Growth Dashed by Coronavirus
Although the rapid and robust response to the coronavirus crisis by the Armenian government has been exceptionally prudent, the projected economic impact from both the crisis and its response will clearly negatively impact the economy, ending expectations for continued economic growth in 2020. The sudden downturn ends the optimism for sustaining Armenian GDP growth, which in recent statistics revealed a 7.6% growth rate for 2019, reaching $13.6 billion in what is now the country’s fastest growth since 2008 and driven by significant increases in trade and services, including a 9% surge in industrial output.
Nagorno Karabakh Peace Process Continues
In an unexpectedly intensive round of talks that lasted for two days, the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers met in Geneva on January 29-30 for what was described as the “most intensive” negotiations in years. With the French, Russian and U.S. mediators from the OSCE Minsk Group present, Foreign Ministers Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Elmar Mammadyarov held “thorough discussions” and pledged to “support the “intensification of negotiations,” suggesting that confidence-building measures (CBMs) will continue over the coming months. The Geneva meeting was the latest round of negotiations and followed a shorter, one-day session in Bratislava in early December 2019. And in an unprecedented moderated public discussion at the Munich Security Conference on February 15, Armenian Prime Minster Nikol Pashinyan and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev went head to head in a contentious 45-minute exchange that was more of a duel of historical diatribes than a debate over diplomatic discourse. Nevertheless, the exchange was important and offered a unique and unprecedented opportunity for the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to present their views and visions of the conflict in a public setting. And despite a degree of disappointment with the devolution of discourse, it was a revelation of the conflict reality.
Armenia-EU Relations: A More Sophisticated Strategy
As seen in the February 13 meeting between Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, representing the third such meeting in 18 months, the Armenian government has demonstrated a more sophisticated policy of not only engaging the EU but alsoenhancing Armenia’s strategic significance for Europe, beyond the foundation of the Armenia-EU Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA), expressed through a policy to pursue closer ties with Germany and France in particular. The visit to Germany also highlighted the important role the country holds as Armenia’s largest EU donor and trading partner, demonstrated by the $451 million in bilateral trade for 2019 that although represents a rather marginal 4 percent increase, still offers consistent and considerable economic support to Armenia. And in terms of local presence and impact, the German metals group Cronimet is not only the largest enterprise operating in the Armenian mining sector, employing more than 4,000 workers, but is also the number one corporate taxpayer in the country.
Photo: Constitutional Court of Armenia.
Photo credits: concourt.am