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May 4, 2018 | 13:11 GMT

9 mins read

Armenia's "Velvet Revolution" and the Karabakh Conflict Resolution

Protesters attend a rally in support of opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan in the Armenian capital of Yerevan on May 1.
(VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
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By George Vlad Niculescu for the European Geopolitical Forum (EGF)

On 17 April 2018, Armenia's National Assembly overwhelmingly voted to install Serzh Sargsyan — former president of the country — as prime minister. They unequivocally ignored the "voice of the street" calling for a change of face at the helm of this rather small, but ambitious post-Soviet state. This vote was supposed to conclude a power capture scheme started back in 2015. At that time, president Serzh Sargsyan, nearing the end of his second presidential term, organized and won a contentious constitutional referendum that changed the country's governing system from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary one. The referendum reduced the presidency to a ceremonial role, and consistently increased the prime minister's powers., Under pressure from independent civil society, then president Sargsyan promised not to turn up as candidate for the prime-ministerial post. Nevertheless, in the first quarter of 2018, he just went along with plans to capture political power beyond his completed presidential mandates. In that sense, on 9 April 2018, he installed Armen Sarkissian — a former diplomat — as the new president of Armenia, with overwhelming support from the National Assembly. He might have expected the handpicked new president would have granted unambiguous support to his upcoming premiership.

However, the plan of ex-president Sargsyan to retain power by skilfully manoeuvring in his favour the constitutional rules of a young democracy prompted opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan, leader of the Yelk ("Way Out") movement, to publicly announce in the day of the vote: "The National Assembly marionette session has started, and so are mass protests across the republic", cited by Armenian Public Radio. "I officially declare: Armenia has entered a revolutionary situation, and I hereby announce the start of a peaceful, people's velvet revolution." (Eurasianet.org)

Faced with massive public protests provoked by Mr. Pashinyan's calls for civil disobedience in response to a perceived abuse of power by the ruling coalition, the freshly elected Prime-Minister Sargsyan was forced to resign on 23 April 2018, while admitting: "I was wrong. The street movement is against my tenure. I am fulfilling your demand." (nytimes.com). Karen Karapetyan, who had just left the post of prime minister to make way for Mr. Sargsyan, stepped back in as acting prime minister.

According to local sources, quoted by the "New York Times", the demonstrations were fuelled by a new generation of Armenians disenchanted with the small elite of politicians and their oligarch allies who have long controlled the government and much of the economy. The protesters dismissed the standard argument that Armenia needed unvarying leadership to negotiate an end to the conflict on Nagorno-Karabakh with neighbouring Azerbaijan, and to deal with the ensuing tense relations with Turkey.

What potential implications might this "velvet revolution" have over the South Caucasus regional stability, with a focus on the prospects for conflict resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh?

As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), Armenia has been a close regional ally of Russia. Moreover, large swaths of the Armenian economy, including the key energy, banking, telecommunications, and transports sectors, have been tightly controlled by the Russian economic elite. The only Russian military bases in the South Caucasus have been placed on Armenian territory, at Gyumri and Erebuni. In late 2016, Russia and Armenia have signed a mutual assistance agreement providing for the creation of a joint military force tasked with "ensuring military security in the region and thwarting or repelling possible foreign aggression against Armenia or Russia" (armenianweekly.com). Moscow has also been the main supplier of weapons to Armenia. This overwhelming alignment of Armenia's economic and security interests with those of Russia evolved over the last 25+ years. It has been mainly induced by the Azerbaijani-Turkish economic blockade against Armenia, as well as by a growing economic and military disbalance between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which might eventually threaten the territorial status quo in Karabakh.

However, aware of the weaknesses entailed by its overdependence on Moscow, Yerevan has continuously struggled to balance its relations with Russia by strengthening ties with the West, in particular with NATO, the EU, and the US. The signing by Armenia in November 2017 of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with the EU has been hailed as the harbinger of a new Armenian multi-vector policy, that "will allow Armenia to make the most of its geo­graph­ic potential", and "turn Armenia into a bridge between the EU and Russia". (Stepan Grigoryan on oc-media.org). This balancing of relations with Russia and the West might have also helped Armenia to preserve the territorial status quo in Karabakh, despite Azerbaijan's persistent political, diplomatic, economic, and military strides to reverse its territorial losses from the Nagorno-Karabakh war in early 1990's. Mirroring the Armenian multi-vector policy, Baku has also sought  strengthening ties with both Russia and the West, including by building new energy infrastructure, and selling Caspian oil and gas to the West, while purchasing modern weapons systems from Russia. However, Baku preferred to stop short of joining the Russia-led CSTO and EEU, most likely due to its alternative strategic relationship with Turkey.

At the same time, the multi-vector foreign policy promoted by former president Sargsyan combined with relentless multi-layered pressure from Azerbaijan has resulted into a hardening of the Armenian position on Karabakh by literally rejecting any political compromise: "As for Armenia, the 2016 April War has significantly diminished the readiness of Armenian society to accept solutions based on the idea of immediately withdrawing from parts of the security zone, simultaneously postponing the referendum on the final status of Karabakh.[…] the absolute majority of Armenian society strongly believes that in the current situation any changes to the status quo, which will not lead to the immediate recognition of Nagorno Karabakh independence by both Azerbaijan and international community, will only usher in a new war." (Benyamin Poghosyan on commonspace.eu). This hardening of the Armenian position on Karabakh could be equated with bringing the conflict management efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs (Russia, France, and the US) to a crushing deadlock, hence dramatically raising the risk of resuming the 1992-1994 war with Azerbaijan.

Consequently, the hard-line Armenian position on Karabakh might have disturbed not only Baku, but also Moscow, Brussels, and a few leading Western capitals, who might have felt their conflict management efforts were seriously undermined, and their leverage over Yerevan, as far as Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution was concerned, significantly curtailed. Hence, Moscow and Western capitals might have joined forces to derail former president Sargsyan's plans to retain absolute power beyond April 2018, as a new prime minister. This might explain, on the one hand, why "Russia has acted with restraint in response to recent events in Armenia" (Anna Ohanyan on worldpolicy.org), as well as Mr Sargsyan's swift back off when his power capture plans were faced with significant calls from the street for his resignation. He might have calculated that his swift, peaceful withdrawal would enable his Republican Party to retain power beyond his tenure under the former prime minister Karen Karapetyan.

However, this might have also been the end of the tacit collaboration for regime change in Yerevan by Russia and the West. While Russia might be happy with the re-appointment of Mr Karapetyan as the new prime minister of Armenia, mainly given his pro-Russian credentials, the West might rather push for snap elections yielding a new Armenian National Assembly with a broader representation of pro-Western political forces. Such a politically competitive approach, if supported in the street by a significant part of the public, could pull Armenia closer to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia at the centre-stage of the ongoing geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West. Such an evolution might have yet unknown consequences on the stability of Armenia, and the broader South Caucasus region, including on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution.

Therefore, while it might be true that "we should not expect this [velvet revolution] to have geopolitical repercussions beyond Armenia's borders, nor should we see it as a signal of Russian decline or as a prompt for potential Russian intervention. Sargsyan's downfall is not about geopolitics" (Thomas de Waal), Armenia's future (and that of the broader region) would largely depend on Kremlin buying into Anna Ohanyan's recent argument on worldpolicy.org:

"By moving Armenia into the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union in 2014, and giving Russia monopolistic control over sectors of the Armenian economy over the past decade, then-president Sargsyan may have […] created a geopolitically safe space for Armenia to democratize without the risk of openly confronting Russia's interests in the country."

In conclusion, in a post "velvet revolution" context, Armenia might be able to keep on its current foreign and security policy track aiming to counter-balance its economic, and security overdependence on Russia with loose, Moscow-controlled links, with NATO and the EU. However, it is also most likely that the new government in Yerevan should soften its stance on Nagorno-Karabakh to allow efforts of conflict management by both Moscow and the West continue unabated. To facilitate this evolution, Baku should strictly abstain from any provocative actions across the whole border with Armenia and the Line of Contact with Karabakh until the political crisis in Yerevan was solved. Otherwise, hard liners would have a point in maintaining Armenia's current hardened policy on Karabakh, that might be subsequently reversed only by warfare.

On the other hand, if Armenian opposition drove people on the streets to push forward political claims for democratic reforms without due concern to Russian regional interests, Moscow might become persuaded that the Armenian "velvet revolution" was in fact a thinly disguised "Colour revolution". In that case, the risk for Armenia and the broader South Caucasus region to be drawn to the centre stage of the ongoing geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West would dramatically increase.

The "sword of Damocles" over Armenia's strides to return to democracy hangs of steadily nurturing Russian restraint in responding the "velvet revolution" by providing consistent reassurances that this is no "Colour Revolution". The reverse side is a serious risk of transforming a peaceful street protest against political abuse and manipulation straight into a broadening frontline for the current pan-European geopolitical conflict.

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