Armenia’s new political reality

Richard Giragosian, Regional Studies Center (Yerevan, Armenia)

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After the successful ouster of Armenia’s former president turned prime minister and the subsequent coming to power of acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in April-May, the election of a new parliament in early December affirmed the country’s new political reality.  With a sweeping political landslide, Pashinyan’s My Step party garnered an overwhelming 88 seats in the new 132-seat parliament, while in contrast, the former ruling Republican party was unable to even meet the five percent threshold for representation. Pashinyan, who resigned in October in order to trigger the new election, benefited from a still high wave of popularity, coupled with the absence of any real challenge from other parties.

Domestic Policy

Armenian parliamentary election

The results from the 9 December extraordinary parliamentary elections dramatically altered the Armenian political landscape and cemented gains of acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step alliance, which got an impressive 70.4% of the vote. For the former ruling Republican Party, the vote was a sound reminder of their sudden loss of credibility and popularity, as the once-dominant party ended a decade in power with a mere 4.7% of the vote, just short of meeting the five-percent minimum threshold to retain the presence in the new parliament.

Placing a distant second, the one-time second largest force, the Prosperous Armenia Party, was able to return to parliament with securing 8.3% of the vote, just ahead of the Bright Armenia Party, with 6.4% of the vote.  Based on the outcome for the newly enlarged 132-seat parliament, only three parties will be represented in the new parliament, with the Pashinyan bloc holding 88 seats, another 26 seats for Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia with 18 seats.

While the Prosperous Armenia party formally remains allied with Pashinyan’s bloc, the Bright Armenia party, which was once an integral partner of Pashinyan’s former three-party opposition “Exit” coalition, announced plans to be the only opposition party in the new parliament, which is due to be convened in early January.

Although the election was in stark contrast to earlier contests that were consistently denounced as neither free nor fair and marred by widespread voting irregularities, this election stood out as demonstrably improved, according to both domestic and international observers. Nevertheless, voter turnout was only 48.6%, a serious 12% decline from the last parliamentary election held in April 2017 and suggesting that voter interest in the race declined, despite the pronounced popularity of acting Prime Minister Pashinyan and his political bloc.


Conflicting details over reported new Armenia-Russian gas deal

After a bilateral meeting with Russian President Putin on 31 December in Moscow, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced a new agreement on the prices of Armenian imports of Russian natural gas. According to Pashinyan, the Armenian national gas distribution network, which is owned by Gazprom, will pay a higher price for Russian gas imports, although he stressed that the end price for gas will remain unchanged for consumers as a result of “our certain internal adjustments.”  

On the sidelines of the presidential meeting, Gazprom Chairman Alexei Miller and Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigorian signed a deal raising the wholesale gas price from $150 to $165 per thousand cubic meters, but noted that Gazprom will continue negotiations with the Armenian government on “the structure of internal gas tariffs.”

The Gazprom-Armenia network paid its parent company $150 per thousand cubic meters under a previous, now expired Russian-Armenian deal. Gazprom cut the wholesale price for Armenia from about $190 to $165 per thousand cubic meters in 2015 and again to $150 in 2016.  But in a confusing and seemingly contradictory report by Russian energy officials, the new agreement will impose a $15 increase, suggesting that the Armenian government may be forced to subsidize the difference.

Foreign Policy

Foreign Ministry appointments

In one of the slowest government ministries to institute personnel changes after the change of government, two key deputy foreign ministers were appointed on December 28. Two Armenian ambassadors, to Sweden and the United States, Artak Apitonyan and Grigor Hovhannissian respectively, were promoted to the posts of deputy foreign ministers, with several lesser diplomatic appointments for several new ambassadors also announced. Two former deputy foreign ministers, Ashot Hovakimyan and Karen Nazaryan, were also named as Armenia’s ambassadors to the Czech Republic and the Holy See (the seat of Vatican).

Cautious over U.S. sanctions, Armenia seeks to deepen ties to Iran

According to a statement released by the Armenian Foreign Ministry, on December 27 Armenia’s Ambassador Artashes Tumanian met with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi to discuss plans to deepen bilateral ties and develop trade and economic cooperation.  Prior to the meeting, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian stated on December 22 that Armenia plans to “deepen not only economic but also political relations with Iran” despite the challenge of U.S. sanctions that have been re-imposed by the Trump Administration.  

That concern comes in the wake of the October visit to the region by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, who pressed the Armenian government in its relationship with Iran.  More specifically, the U.S. official put Armenian officials on notice that unlike the past, Washington would now place greater scrutiny on Armenian-Iranian ties. He further asked for Armenian support to apply “maximum pressure” in order to “squeeze Iran” by enforcing tightened sanctions “vigorously”. But with two of its four borders closed, Armenia’s relationship with Iran is an essential consideration, only bolstered by the fact that Armenian trade with Iran soared by some 40%, reaching $297 million for the first ten months of 2018.

Russia warns Armenia to resist “U.S. interference”

On December 19 Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin warned that the United States was actively interfering in Armenia’s internal affairs and stressed that Moscow expects “that the current leadership of Armenia, which received a necessary mandate in the parliamentary elections, will have the courage to resist the unhidden external blackmail and pressure and will defend its sovereign right to independently make decisions based on national interests”. Karasin further added that the “tragic fate” of Ukraine and Georgia, which he said were “let down” by the West, “must serve as a warning” to Armenia.