Armenia goes to the polls – and its future hangs in the balance
In the shadow of last year’s war with Azerbaijan and the return of the country’s old guard, it’s a decisive weekend for a fractured electorate
“There is a future,” shouts Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister, as he walks with a crowd of supporters in Ararat, a small town outside the capital Yerevan.
Three years since he came to power in Armenia in a peaceful revolution, this is Pashinyan’s slogan for a country emerging from the trauma of last year’s brutal war with Azerbaijan which ended in humiliating defeat.
In 2018, he walked through most of the country on foot on his way to Yerevan, building momentum to successfully challenge an entrenched regime. But this weekend, the country will vote in a highly charged parliamentary election that is, in effect, a referendum on three years of Pashinyan’s reforms which were stymied by conflict.
Many voters will be asking how far Pashinyan’s slogan really goes in the current situation. In the wake of the defeat over Karabakh, sealed in a Russian-brokered ceasefire last November, Armenia has faced what feels like an apocalyptic situation.
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Chaos, confusion and blame reign in public, as the country attempts to process the loss of Karabakh and some 3,705 soldiers (over 250 are also missing) and a challenge to the very integrity of the country itself as borders are redrawn.
Backlash by protesters
Clashes and kidnappings at Armenia’s borders, now patrolled closely by Azerbaijani forces, have made security an urgent priority. And the country’s old inside players – who reorganised themselves after the 2018 revolution – have entered the contest to decide Armenia’s future.
Right after the ceasefire agreement on 10 November last, anti-Pashinyan protesters stormed the country’s parliament. Against a backdrop of territorial concessions, a coalition group called the Homeland Salvation Movement – composed of 17 opposition parties and headed by a former prime minister – held sit-in protests in Yerevan for months. However, these yielded no results.
The head of Armenia’s army later blamed the defeat on Pashinyan and joined demands for his resignation – a step the prime minister called an attempt at a military coup.
With so much noise, it’s hard to figure out what Armenians really think of their current predicament – or how they’ll vote this Sunday. But there’s a palpable sense that people will be voting for Pashinyan not because they support him, but because they can’t vote for anyone else.
As the Pashinyan march makes its way through Ararat, Yuri is polishing shoes. He tells us he doesn’t know who he’s going to vote for yet.
“I trust people, not promises which are never fulfilled,” he says, showing us how his fingerprints have been erased by hard work.
Yuri’s son is an officer, and was recruited to participate in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan. “Pashinyan’s hands are tied,” he continues, interrupting his work to gesture with his hands. “I can’t work like this. It’s the same for Pashinyan. There are too many people working against him.”
"They are trying to prove to you that you made a mistake thinking you can be the decision maker in your homeland"
On the local level, Yuri says he has seen positive change since Pashinyan was elected. “In the past, whenever I needed a document from the local administration, they would kindly ask me to refill their heating oil supply,” he says, providing an example of petty corruption rampant prior to the 2018 revolution. “Now they are afraid to.”
Indeed, Pashinyan’s message is simple: Armenia’s oligarch regime is using a smear campaign to undo the Velvet Revolution of 2018 – and get away with old crimes.
“They are trying to prove to you that you made a mistake thinking you can be the decision maker in your homeland, in your own country,” Pashinyan wrote in a recent campaign address (signed off “Yours, Nikol”) on 6 June. “They want to prove to you that time showed that you can either be a serf in your homeland or lose it.”
“They” refers to Armenia’s old regime, embodied by Robert Kocharyan, a former president and oligarch in his own right, who has sought a political rebirth since the 2018 revolution, and Serzh Sargsyan, the country’s former prime minister and president, who was kicked out three years ago.
As Pashinyan sees it, the main source of popular discontent is that many of the country’s corrupt officials, including Kocharyan, have not been jailed yet.
However, Kocharyan and Sargsyan, former members of the Republican Party regime that ruled Armenia for two decades, still have some popular appeal. And perhaps most importantly, have released alleged secret tapes concerning Pashinyan’s negotiations over Karabakh during the war.
“In 2018, people voted for Pashinyan – because of the stagnant economic situation, they wanted a change. Now, even Putin has said he doesn’t understand why Pashinyan refused peace,” says Artash, a lawyer from the working-class Yerevan neighbourhood of Shengavit. Here, he refers to Pashinyan’s decision not to broker a ceasefire in exchange for the Karabakh city of Shushi in the heat of the fighting last year.
“From now on, we want professionals to lead the country,” he says – a broadly held opinion among Kocharyan supporters.
Armenia’s crisis manager?
Kocharyan’s rebirth has involved him rebranding himself as the country’s saviour – a crisis manager and strongman as opposed to Pashinyan, who he calls a “loser”, “capitulator” and “traitor”.
Kocharyan voluntarily returned to Armenia after the 2018 revolution for investigation over the events of March 2008, when security forces suppressed protesters after an election – killing ten people and leaving Pashinyan, then an opposition politician, on the run.
Despite months of pre-trial investigation, the court never even studied the case against Kocharyan, as Armenia’s constitutional court backed the former president. Accusations of “overthrowing the constitutional order” against Kocharyan were dropped last April.
Indeed, it seems Kocharyan’s public image as a patriarchal strongman – burnished by the brutal murder of an old acquaintance who allegedly insulted him in the early 2000s, reportedly with a casual greeting of “Hi Rob” – is a major asset ahead of Sunday’s vote.
"If Kocharyan is elected, he will punish those who didn’t vote for him. Everyone remembers what he did to his classmate"
Gayane* in Kapan, a town in the southern Syunik region, told us that her sister works in a factory owned by Kocharyan allies – and therefore “doesn’t talk to her about the upcoming elections”.
“If Kocharyan is elected, he will punish those who didn’t vote for him,” she said. “The whole country remembers what he did when his [former] classmate casually greeted him in 2001. His bodyguard killed the man in a cafe, in broad daylight.”
“You know Robert Kocharyan’s character. If a kid accidentally stood on his foot in kindergarten, he would later confront that kid as an adult and punish him,” said Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Armenia’s first independent president, at his Armenian National Congress Convention.
Democracy vs security
Armenia’s southern region of Syunik – of which Kapan is the capital – looms large in the election. Since last year’s war, Syunik has become a border region, as Azerbaijani forces occupied what was previously called the “buffer zone” – territory that surrounded Nagorno-Karabakh.
As part of the November ceasefire, there are plans to create cross-border economic and transport links that will divide up the region – to connect Azerbaijan to its enclave Nakhchivan on Syunik’s western border.
The movement of Azerbaijani troops, including the taking up of positions very close to Armenian territory – and on certain occasions, directly encroaching on it – have added extra pressure amid the election campaign.
Last week, up to 15 Armenian prisoners of war were returned to Armenia in exchange for the latter’s landmine maps – and Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev has admitted using Armenian POWs as political leverage for corridor and border negotiations.
But Syunik, known for its mining industry, is also the only region where Pashinyan does not enjoy the support of local elected authorities – and the prime minister appeared to postpone his election visit before finally deciding to travel on 15 June, albeit in a car rally together with supporters.
“For them, Syunik is no homeland, but a source for refilling their offshore accounts”
Last time he visited the region, in April 2021, his entourage met with a violent crowd in the town of Meghri, on the border with Iran.
“For them, Syunik is no homeland, but a source for refilling their offshore accounts,” Pashinyan told a crowd in Goris on 15 June, referring to opponents who accused him of “selling out Armenia”. His declaration also raised the issue of corruption and the opaque finances of the region’s mining industry.
He then declared that Syunik’s massive copper enrichment plan at Zangezur had been “privatised for pennies” – and that those responsible would be judged by the people come election day.
“They use their private companies to launder the people’s property, via the Zangezur Copper Molybdenum Combine, and put the money in their relatives’ pockets, exploiting the border tax services as another source. We will deprive them of all those sources [of funds] and return them to the people,” Pashinyan added.
But it’s hard to see evidence that Pashinyan’s message is resonating with people – many are disillusioned with the results of the 2018 revolution and are still shocked by the horror of last year’s 44-day war.
Edik, a taxi driver from Goris, a town in Syunik, predicts that many will abstain from voting. He said his hometown was overwhelmed during the war; Goris is the first stop in the Lachin corridor, a route that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, and thus became home to families fleeing the conflict, as well as health and humanitarian workers.
“We are not over it [the war]. We don’t care who will get the top job,” one vegetable store owner said as they sold fruit imported to the high-altitude Goris from Ararat valley.
Another man, Armen, seated on a bench in the central square of Goris, said: “I will vote for Pashinyan, but I will be cursing him when I cast the ballot.” Armen lost a son in last year’s war, and tells us that his vote is “against Kocharyan”.
Sona Baghdasaryan, an economics teacher at the Kapan branch of Armenia’s national polytechnic university, explained: “Security is a priority for me. We are a small country. In order to survive, we need to have a reliable ally who will ensure our integrity, like Russia.
“We are alone, we don’t trust Russia to secure the borders anymore, but the EU didn’t do so much during the war either”
“The revolution awakened great hope in the hearts of every Armenian,” she continued. “We wanted security, economic growth, prosperity, and free connections to Europe. But bitter experience has shown that Armenia is not ready for this freedom yet.
“We need a strong hand that will guide us correctly. People did not direct their freedom correctly [before]. As a result, Armenia found itself in the current situation.”
Another resident of Kapan, Victoria Aghabekyan, who is head of a local development NGO and an English-language teacher, expressed her confusion at the vote – and the choices available. “I haven’t decided yet. We are alone, we don’t trust Russia to secure the borders anymore, but the EU didn’t do so much during the war either,” she said.
“Right after the war, my student numbers skyrocketed – they wanted to leave,” Aghabekyan explained. “I’m afraid that no matter the election results, things will stay the same.”
The owner of a cafe in Goris said: “People only hope that this will be over soon.”
She started her business by taking a bank loan, but added that the global pandemic, as well as last year’s war, have made life very difficult for her. he is also concerned at how the election is affecting personal relationships.
“Three brothers were sitting here the other day. They were shouting at each other. One was for Pashinyan, one for Kocharyan and the other for [Edmon] Marukyan,” she revealed, referring to another opposition reform candidate.
The 2021 parliamentary vote comes as Armenia is changing its formal – and informal practices – around elections.
Vote buying, intimidation of voters,use of administrative resources, and disguised forms of “charity” have been widespread at previous elections.
Recent amendments to the country’s election code have now criminalised vote buying. This reform was a Pashinyan campaign promise since 2018. (Though MPs with Pashinyan’s party, Civil Contract, in fact voted down these changes several months before the elections – to public consternation.)
Bribing someone to vote for a candidate and receiving it can now be punished by up to five years’ imprisonment. Ruben Khlghatyan, the former mayor of Armavir, and candidate with the Have Honor alliance, was arrested after reportedly transferring a 9m Armenian dram (£12,800) bribe to a resident last week.
This move may not have eradicated the problem of vote buying, but it may have curtailed it, said Daniel Ioannisyan, a member of a parliamentary commission on amending the electoral code and programs director at the Union of Informed Citizens NGO.
Whatever the results on Sunday, the situation in Armenia will take time to settle. Some predict post-election clashes or legal contests over the results, while others forecast possible coup attempts
Armenia’s old regional rating system, where one had to vote for both a national and a regional candidate, was abolished to avoid clientelism and electoral fraud.
Candidates now appear in alphabetical order, and voters vote for parties instead of candidates. Party campaign budgets are also limited to 500m drams (£700,000) but “a lot of expenditures do not have to be registered in campaign budget accounts, [but] they will be by the future amendments”, according to Ioannisyan. Most of the electoral code reform, however, will not come into effect until 2022.
“Suspiciously, some campaigns are hiring too many workers in their campaign headquarters,” claimed Ioannisyan, who believes that this may be a way of influencing voters. “These people are technically workers, not bribe takers.
“To control this, we need an amendment to the code of campaign financing. Currently only posters, TV ads and rental costs have to be calculated in the campaign budget, with a limit of 500m drams.”
Armenia’s electoral reform and the way elections are set up are a good example of the challenges facing a sustainable democratic system here. Criminalising fraud and making campaign budgets more transparent are the two main pillars of the reform.
In Armenia’s new proportional system, a 5% vote threshold helps to create a balance between alliances and to consolidate opposition groups in parliament – at least, that’s the idea.
“In Armenia, most of the 20 smallest parties are not going to pass the 5% threshold, almost 20% of the votes cast won’t count,” said Harout Manougian, an election systems expert who contributed to Armenia’s electoral reform.
“My main concern is that if there isn’t a 51% majority, the other parties won’t consider the new government legitimate.”
Pressure on voters
Beyond campaign funding and electoral reform, concerns around “administrative resources” – pressuring people who work at certain large public or private sector institutions to vote – remain.
Many people in the Pashinyan government and members of his Civil Contract party working in the local authorities are trying to avoid being accused of this, with some taking time off in order to participate in the campaign.
“When they say ‘administrative abuse’, they often mean state authorities. However, some private companies have more leverage over their employees – like our cement factory,” said Aram, a worker in an Ararat cement factory owned by the powerful oligarch, Gagik Tsarukyan, who has been under investigation for alleged vote buying over the past year.
The factory, situated in the Ararat valley to the south of Yerevan, employs around 1,200 people in the town. Since the Velvet Revolution, workers have organised strikes here, demanding a rise in pay and a public apology by the company director for insulting the workers.
“When Tsarukyan does his campaign meetings, he comes to the factory hall, not to the town square. And employees are summoned to attend that meeting,” explained Aram.
“We have tried protecting our working rights, let alone voice our political disagreement. The best thing we can do is keep silent about our vote”
“We work on Saturdays, unregistered. We don’t get any health insurance, and work in an open pit in both snow and sun,” said Aram, who also moonlights as a taxi driver. “We have tried protecting our working rights, let alone voice our political disagreement. The best thing we can do is keep silent about our vote.”
Aside from vote buying and administrative resources, though, there are likely to be many people who simply will not vote.
While this is partially a technical problem – many registered voters do not permanently live in Armenia – the country also has a record of people abstaining.
As if to illustrate this, a woman selling fruit in Kapan said that they “don't believe in anybody’s [election] manifestos” and would not “even read them”.
“We lost about 4,000 young people because of failed politics. I won’t be voting,” she added.
Right now, there are several scenarios for what will happen after election day on Sunday: a 51% majority, a possible coalition government to be formed by 26 June, or a second round organised on 18 July.
Indeed, it’s clear that Armenian society is currently deeply polarised, and there are expectations in some quarters that the results could provoke further discontent, or even clashes, according to some – including former president Ter-Petrosyan. Beyond the frontline, the loss of Karabakh and the danger it poses to Armenia are keenly felt.
“When you win, everyone is a hero. When you lose, nobody takes responsibility,” said Samvel Babayan, a former commander of the Karabakh army and a parliamentary candidate.
According to Babayan, Armenia lost last year’s war due to developments in the arms industry – a reference to Azerbaijan’s use of the latest in drone technology and air power.
While Azerbaijan was bolstering its weaponry, Babayan explained, Armenia did not take steps to defend itself, such as updating its air defence system.
He thinks there should be an official investigation into who is responsible for the defeat – to stop the constant public search for guilty parties.
“We are on the verge of civil war. Unfortunately the campaign is contributing to that”
For political expert Olya Azatyan, this public search for those responsible for the Karabakh defeat overshadows the need for genuine political debate – and could lead to clashes.
“We are on the verge of civil war. Unfortunately the campaign is contributing to that,” she says.
“Machismo and violence are omnipresent in candidate speeches. If you look at the debate, this society is only composed of middle-aged men shouting at each other. Peace activists are now muted – they exist but society stifles them.”
While the majority of parties align with pro-Russian views – Russia is key to the country’s security – then on the other side of the table sit parties which support democracy, civil society and foreign investments.
Kocharyan recently stated he would apply a foreign spy law like the legislation implemented in Russia.
“This divide is a good sign that the debate is beginning to turn into concrete ideas. Perhaps it will allow the current opposition to become stronger,” explained Azatyan.
If Armenia’s administrative processes have improved since 2018, including electoral code, changes still need to be strengthened to achieve structural reforms, added Azatyan.
“It’s been a long time since we had no idea of what the election results are going to be in advance,” she said. “This is a small part of the democratic reform process in a post-Soviet country.
“Another will be a real and strong opposition and a government composed by professionals to commit to reforms, in justice, economy and education,” continued the political expert, who believes this is the first time Armenian voters are convinced that their votes actually count.
“For now, we have political parties that are artificially mushrooming, and a weak opposition whose election campaign is based on interpersonal violence against the current government,” she added. “Fair and free elections, as well as structural reforms, would constitute the second phase of the revolution.”
Whatever the results on Sunday, the situation in Armenia will take time to settle. Some predict post-election clashes or legal contests over the results, while others forecast possible coup attempts. At the very least, then, the country’s political class will need to find a new language to unite a society so divided by defeat.
* Some names have been changed to protect their identities.
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