Armenia: Sustaining the momentum of change

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Since being swept into power on the wave of mass protests in April-May 2018, the Armenian government has struggled to sustain momentum. New authorities focus on deepeningg their drive against corruption and reversing over a decade of politics largely defined by a culture of official entitlement and impunity.  And in the face of dangerously high expectations, the government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is also burdened by the need to deliver results, especially given the political risk of crucial parliamentary elections that seem to be put off until next year.

Domestic Policy: Taking on all taboos

After the unexpected victory of forcing former Armenian president-turned-premier Serzh Sarkisian from power in April-May, Armenia’s unconventional Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan continued to take on all taboos in Armenian domestic politics. Such approach most notably evident in a decision by the country’s law enforcement to arrest former President Robert Kocharian on July 27-28.The charges against Kocharian are related to his role in ordering a deadly crackdown on opposition protesters during a post-election crisis on March 1, 2008. Mass manifestations were triggered by a disputed presidential election that saw Serzh Sarkisian succeed Kocharian as president.  This case, and a court’s decision to imprison Kocharian for a two-month period of pre-trial detention, was even more unusual for Armenia, which has long been hindered by the lack of an independent judiciary.

The case of the former Armenian president, charged with “overthrowing constitutional order”, holds profound repercussions well beyond Armenia, and may set an important new precedent regarding the fate of other former leaders throughout the former Soviet space.  The criminal charges stemming from that 2008 crackdown, which relied on army units, were also brought against two other high-profile figures: Yuri Khachaturov, a retired army general who was Armenia’s deputy defense minister at the time, and retired General Mikael Harutiunian, who was Armenia’s defense minister during the 2008 protests, and who is believed to have fled Armenia to take refuge in Russia.

Economy: Environmental activists vs. miners

Despite the priority focus on Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s unprecedented anti-corruption campaign, several weeks of protests targeting the country’s mining sector have tended to raise fresh concern over Armenia’s investment climate. Mass manifestations have also undermined the Armenian government, which seemed unprepared for responding to a wave of environmental activism.

By late July, however, the government moved to respond. Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinian expressed “deep concern” over allegations by a U.S.-based mining company that former officials are involved and actively supporting the protests, which have disrupted operations at the Amulsar gold mine in southern Armenia since late June.  The government has also moved to form an independent commission empowered to study the claims of serious damage by the mining operations lodged by environmentalists.

After visiting Washington in mid-July, Armenia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Ararat Mirzoyan announced that Armenia no longer qualifies for the multimillion-dollar Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) U.S. Aid program. The reason is recent “upgrade” of the country by the World Bank from a “lower middle income” to an “upper middle income” country.  To date, Armenia has received $177 million in MCA funding provided for the rehabilitation of its rural irrigation networks.

A second financial aid package of $60 million for the reconstruction of the country’s rural roads was suspended by the U.S. after the 2008 post-election crisis in Armenia and due to concerns over entrenched corruption.  Nevertheless, the Trump Administration is now reportedly seeking for other avenues for increased economic assistance to Armenia in a bid to reward the reform efforts of the new Armenian government.

Foreign Policy: Russian military exercises without warning

Amid the signs of an already strained relationship between Armenia and its primary security partner Russia, a military exercise by Russian troops based in Armenia on July 17  only raised tension further. The live-fire exercise, held in the northwestern Shirak province, not only scared local residents, who had no advance warning of the maneuvers, but also triggered sharp reaction by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. The head of the state criticized the incident as a “provocation against Armenia’s sovereignty” during a subsequent cabinet meeting.  

For his part, however, Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan noted that Armenian officials were informed one day before the exercise by the commander of a Russian military base stationed in Armenia, Colonel Vladimir Yelkanov. Russian military base includes some 5 000 n troops, as well as tanks, armored vehicles, artillery systems and MiG-29 combat aircraft stationed in Gyumri, the administrative center of Shirak.  The Russian base has been further bolstered by the additional deployment of helicopter gunships and other military hardware in the wake of a controversial 2010 Russian-Armenian agreement that extended its basing rights in Armenia to 2044. The document, unlike other Russian leasing agreements for foreign military bases, also allows for all expenses and costs to be covered by successive Armenian governments.

And in response to Armenian media reports, Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan announced on July 23 that Armenia “has no intention” of revising the status of Russian border guards serving on the country’s border with Turkey and Iran, which is governed by a bilateral treaty from 1992 and 1995.  Although the spokesman explained that Defense Minister Tonoyan raised issues related to “certain legal clarifications and technical details” regarding the Russian military presence in Armenia, these wered “only with the aim of improving and developing” security ties with Moscow. Russia maintains control over border enforcement and control of the Armenian borders with Turkey and Iran, as well as supervisory control over the sole international airport in Yerevan, reflecting a Cold War legacy that views these as external borders.

After concerns over a heightened risk of renewed fighting over Nagorno Karabakh, a renewal of diplomatic activity offered some hope in the wake of the first meeting between the newly appointed Armenian foreign minister, Zohrab Mnatsakanian, and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Elmar Mammadyarov, in Brussels on July 11.  Seen as the first of several rounds of talks set for this year, including a session in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, the initial meeting included a preliminary discussion of “a range of possible confidence-building measures” and other means aimed at strengthening the diplomatic peace process.

At the same time, however, the “war of words” only escalated, as both Armenian and Karabakh military officials reacted to threats by Azerbaijan.  The Karabakh defense minster, Lieutenant General Levon Mnatsakanian, for example, announced July 17 that Armenian and Karabakh military forces could “paralyze Azerbaijan’s economy” with missile strikes if Baku provokes renewed hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh.  He went on to explain that such retaliation “is definitely part of our tactical plans”, adding that “in general, the art of warfare requires strikes” targeting such facilities as the hydroelectric power station near the Azerbaijani town of Mingachevir, as well as military targets in case of a resumption of hostilities.  

In response, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry warned that Baku itself has sophisticated  missiles capable of destroying key Armenian facilities, including the Metsamor nuclear power plant.  This follows a late June threat by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev of military strikes against “strategic” Armenian targets during a military parade in Baku. The parade featured Belarusian-made Polonez and Israeli-made LORA missiles which were supplied to the Azerbaijani army in recent months.