CAUCASUS BLOG: But Mr Pashinian, Putin may not want the new “ancient Greece” on his doorstep…

CAUCASUS BLOG: But Mr Pashinian, Putin may not want the new “ancient Greece” on his doorstep…
The sudden rise of Pashinian (left) almost certainly even came as a big surprise to Putin.
By Will Conroy in Prague August 17, 2018

‘People’s Prime Minister’ Nikol Pashinian delivered a spirited speech to tens of thousands who on August 17, the day that marked his first 100 days in office, filled Republic Square in the Armenian capital of Yerevan.

In scenes reminiscent of the “velvet” revolutionary times of April and May, when the government was toppled in the face of huge, relentless crowds that packed out the central square day after day, and refused to budge, Pashinian addressed an impassioned audience—and made the striking claim that his administration had established the kind of “people’s direct rule” that once existed in ancient Greece.

In a speech that lasted more than an hour, Pashinian said the international community still failed to grasp what had happened in Armenia, saying: “In Armenia, there is no coalition government. In Armenia, there is no parliamentary majority. In Armenia, supreme power directly belongs to the people and the people carry out direct rule. This is the key meaning of the revolution that took place in Armenia.”

And he didn’t stop there. For anyone who didn’t get just how unprecedented the changes in Armenia were, he went on to describe Republic Square as the “supreme body of the people’s rule,” adding: “This means that from now on this government will be accountable to this square, will obey this square, and all key decisions must be made here at this square… In the future, the Republic of Armenia could be cited in the historical context just like ancient Greece is cited now and Yerevan could be cited like ancient Athens.”

Nagging feeling
By all accounts, the 43-year-old Pashinian’s performance was infectious, but a quick read through the online debates among Armenians and the far-flung Armenian diaspora makes it clear that there is a nagging feeling out there that the Kremlin is looking askance. Pashinian may be in the driver’s seat pushing the pedal of anti-cronyism and anti-corruption to the floor, but just lately Moscow has shown signs of becoming something of an argumentative back seat driver.

The “people’s democracy” that Pashinian is seeking to build in the small, impoverished nation of Armenia—a country of just 2.9mn people—clearly bears no resemblance to the highly centrally controlled ‘authoritarian democracy’ that holds sway in the giant neighbour to the north. Might Moscow have started worrying that the Armenians are beginning to set a rather ‘bad example’ to those reformist Russians who would dearly like to see the awakening of a threatening level of resistance to their illiberal state?

On July 31, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stepped forward and communicated that Moscow was "concerned". Concerned, that is, that Armenia's new government was making politically motivated anti-corruption moves against members of the dislodged establishment.

Referring to how on July 27 former Armenian president Robert Kocharyan had been arrested on charges of violently putting down the “Marti mek” (March 1) protests against his successor Serzh Sargsyan that took place in 2008 [Editor’s note—Kocharyan was two weeks later freed by Armenia’s Court of Appeals after a decision condemned by Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS) as “illegal”], Lavrov added: "The events of the last few days... contradict the recent declarations of the new Armenian leadership that it was not planning to pursue its predecessors on political grounds."

An “interest in the stability of the Armenian state”
More ominously, Lavrov also remarked that "Moscow, as an ally of Yerevan, has always had an interest in the stability of the Armenian state, and therefore what is happening there must be of concern to us," and concluded that his ministry had raised its concerns with the Armenian leadership and was hoping for a "constructive" response.

Once an activist jailed by the Armenian regime dominated by the Republican Party (HHK), and a former newspaper editor and opposition MP, Pashinian is nothing if not ambitious. On taking office he wasted no time in firing the country’s police chief and national security advisor, while on the eve of becoming prime minister he stated categorically that he would not be tolerating any oligarchs in his government or be allowing monopolies to operate in the Armenian economy. Just imagine what Russian-Armenian networks of power, influence and gain have been exposed or broken by that little pledge.

Not that Armenia doesn’t need a radical cleanse. As bne IntelliNews reported in early May, Armenia places 129th in Jeffrey Sachs’ World Happiness Report 2018, which makes Armenians one of the unhappiest nations in the world. Among things that make Armenians unhappy are corruption, low incomes and social injustice. Anti-graft watchdog Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2016 ranks Armenia as 113th of 176 countries, which makes it one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The Legatum Prosperity Index 2017’s sub-component of Economic Quality, meanwhile, places Armenia 114th out of 149 countries. Corruption is a cancer, the economy, dominated by the local strongmen, has underperformed and this country with an ancient history and a vibrant youth has grown deeply frustrated that talented people are simply unable to realise their potential.

But the self-made Pashinian, whose look and manner are informal and oriented to the younger generations, must know that he has come as a shock to the elites who previously ruled the roost—and he must know that any strategic move he makes, including the tentative steps he has taken so far to achieve better relations with the EU and Nato, will matter greatly to Moscow.

Quick to make nice
Pashinian was indeed quick to make nice with President Vladimir Putin, meeting the Russian leader in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi on his first trip abroad since becoming PM and promising him that close Russo-Armenian ties would endure, and stating: “We have things to discuss, but there are also things that do not need any discussion. That is the strategic relationship of allies between Armenia and Russia. ... I can assure you that in Armenia there is a consensus and nobody has ever doubted the importance of the strategic nature of Armenian-Russian relations.”

Armenia is of course locked in a decades-long conflict with its neighbour Azerbaijan over breakaway enclave Nagorno-Karabakh and Moscow, which has military bases in Armenia, has acted as a guarantor of security. That’s nothing to be sniffed at. Russia, moreover, sells arms to both countries and maintains a military presence in Armenia near Turkey—a powerful ally of Azerbaijan that does not have diplomatic relations with Yerevan.

All in all, Pashinian made a convincing start in persuading Russia—which reacted harshly to the revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia—that it would not be foolish in wishing him on his way and letting him head back to Armenia to make his own choices on what freedoms to offer his people. But nerves that were steady before have been rattled—along with having to decipher Lavrov’s slightly menacing words, Armenians were discomfited on July 17 when locally-based Russian troops carried out a military exercise in Panik village, Shirak Province, without giving notice to Armenian officials, causing some panic among the locals. And Pashinian, it seems, is actively attempting to quell any unease in the Kremlin.

Telephoned Putin
On August 16, Pashinian telephoned Putin to discuss activities of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). A bland enough assignment you might think—but it takes on that much more urgency when you bear in mind that the current CSTO secretary general, Yuri Khachaturov, Armenia’s former top army general, is facing criminal charges in Armenia related to the Marti mek crackdown a decade ago.

The Kremlin, noting that the conversation was initiated by Pashinian, said in a statement that the two men discussed bilateral relations between their countries and their “interaction in common integration structures and the CSTO framework in particular”. It remains to be seen whether Russia will tolerate the appointing of another Armenian chief of the military alliance of six former Soviet republics. The Russian foreign ministry has insisted that Khachaturov goes through a formal dismissal before that will even be considered.

Prior to Pashinian’s reaching out to Putin, on August 10, while visiting Armenia’s northern Tavush province, the Armenian leader reportedly came across as unfazed when answering questions on Lavrov’s remarks. “I think that this is a different situation,” he told reporters, according to the Armenian service of RFE/RL. “All of us, including our Russian partners, need to adapt to this situation. So everything is normal.”

Pashinian had more soothing words for Moscow in his ‘100 days’ address. While dismissing claims that his officials are scaring away investors with audits and undermining Armenia’s strategic relationship with Russia, he said. “I can say for sure that Russo-Armenian relations are not only not bad but … are good and will get even better.”

Whatever his more nuanced feelings may be, Pashinian will surely know that he’s in a game of realpolitik and that Putin’s officials will pick through the entirety of his speech with an unerring eye.