Armenia's political crisis could soon come to a head. On May 1, the parliament is set to elect a new prime minister in a special session, and opposition leader Nikol Pashinian is calling for large-scale demonstrations to be held the same day. Moreover, Pashinian has vowed that if the position of prime minister and oversight of fresh elections are not given to a people's candidate (such as himself), then demonstrations will continue and intensify. That outcome would be a substantial concern for Armenia's key ally, Russia. As events unfold, Russia is positioned to both shape and be shaped by the Armenian crisis.
Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast highlighted the busy election season the Caucasus would experience this year as Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia each held presidential elections. Stratfor forecast that the larger states nearby — particularly Russia — would influence foreign policy in the region more than ballot box results. As Armenia's political crisis has unfolded, this has proved accurate.
The close connection between Armenia and Russia goes back to the late Soviet and early post-Soviet eras. During the 1980s, when Armenia was still a republic of the Soviet Union, the glasnost and perestroika reforms spearheaded by Mikhail Gorbachev brought a growing agitation for Armenia to incorporate Nagorno-Karabakh, which was then a Armenian-majority ethnic region in Azerbaijan. The issue led to riots and ethnic clashes in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and it culminated in a military conflict between the two countries from 1988 to 1994. Though Moscow was initially noncommittal while the Soviet Union remained intact, Russia's support for Armenia was eventually a decisive factor in its victory over Azerbaijan. Since the conflict, Armenia has remained a steadfast ally of Russia, in large part because of Armenia's difficult geopolitical neighborhood. In addition to remaining at odds with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia has a tense relationship with its rival's key ally, Turkey. Armenia's precarious position between these two powers, its landlocked location and its small size make a larger power's backing necessary for survival. As that larger power, Russia has stationed 5,000 troops in Armenia and is responsible for the country's defense.
Because of this, Armenia has one of the strongest partnerships with Russia among the former Soviet states. Armenia is a member of both the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union, and many of its economic assets are controlled by Russia. Even though Pashinian's demonstrations have shaken up Armenia's politics by successfully forcing longtime ruler Serzh Sargsyan to step down, Armenia's next leader is unlikely to significantly shift the country's geopolitical focus away from Russia. Pashinian, who could very well be Armenia's new leader, has said as much himself. Moreover, Pashinian has promised to preserve Russia's military presence in the country and keep Armenia in the CSTO if he comes to power.
Unless Armenia's political situation devolves into chaos and mass violence, Russia is not likely to intervene militarily. Unlike Ukraine, where the Euromaidan protests called for greater ties with the West rather than Russia, the Armenian protests have focused decidedly on domestic rather than foreign issues. And Moscow has acknowledged as much, and Russian officials have constantly referred to events in Armenia as a domestic affair.
However, Russia is no mere bystander to Armenia's political crisis. Moscow has been actively engaged with all of Armenia's major political figures — in both the government and opposition — throughout the protests. Russian President Vladimir Putin has held several phone calls with Armenian officials, Pashinian has met with an unnamed Russian official, and Armenia's foreign minister has paid a visit to Moscow. With a vote to appoint a new prime minister fast approaching, Moscow is keen to maintain connections with all parties in Armenia's political spectrum and ensure continued alignment between the two countries.
While a significant shift in Armenia's foreign policy remains a remote possibility, the political crisis still poses potential problems for Russia. Because Russia and Armenia have broadly similar cultures and political structures, Moscow is watching the protests warily for signs of how opposition demonstrations within its own borders could take shape. Armenia's protests were successful in forcing the prime minister to resign and have persisted to push for greater change in the political system. Moscow is looking to ensure that its own protest movements don't follow a similar trajectory. While the Kremlin has somewhat softened its stance toward demonstrations in recent years, the attitudes and expectations of people in Armenia — and across Eurasia as a whole — are clearly changing in ways that test governments throughout the region.
Moscow's concern about a potentially extraconstitutional turn has caused Russia to call on Armenians to respect the country's constitution. Russia is, after all, more interested in Armenia's stability than in the occupant of the seat of power. As events in Armenia move forward, Moscow will do what it can to shape outcomes from behind the scenes with the knowledge that the protests have the potential to affect not just Armenia, but Russia as well.