COMMENT: Pashinyan is unpopular but the opposition looks too weak to oust him

COMMENT: Pashinyan is unpopular but the opposition looks too weak to oust him
Nikol Pashinyan (bottom left) at Russia's May Day military parade earlier this year. Vladimir Putin's regime has attacked Pashinyan but Russia's failure to defend Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh has weakened its standing. / bne IntelliNews
By Zachary Weiss in Tbilisi September 27, 2023

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has been under fierce domestic – and Russian – pressure following Azerbaijan’s conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh last week but regional experts predict he will be able to ride out the storm.

“I do expect a degree of national unity in the face of the threat perception from Azerbaijan,” Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Centre in Yerevan says, arguing that the direction of anger towards Pashinyan would not last. “Anger at the government will soon give way to anger at the Russians for allowing this to happen and anger at the threat from Azerbaijan.” 

Protesters in Yerevan have demanded Pashinyan’s resignation over Armenia’s failure to prevent Azerbaijnani aggression, which they say was enabled by his acceptance of Azerbaijani sovereignty over the breakaway territory. He also faces calls for impeachment from members of the Armenian parliament.

Russia, a longtime ally of Armenia, has also been critical of Pashinyan in recent days, in a reaction to his own criticism of Russia failing to maintain regional peace. Russia’s 2,000 peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh have stood by while Azerbaijan first blockaded the territory from last December and then invaded.

The mood in Armenia could turn even more ugly as refugees flee from Karabakh, many requiring medical attention. An unknown number died and hundreds were injured in an explosion at a fuel depot on the night of September 25.

However, while Pashinyan is certainly losing support as a result of the latest violence, his political future may not be as precarious as it seemed when protests against him began.

Pashinyan, who came to power through a 2018 “colour revolution”, has navigated threats to his hold on office before and come out victorious. The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war ended in a Pashinyan-signed peace agreement granting Azerbaijan control of areas surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. At the time, Pashinyan faced calls for resignation from protesters, members of parliament, and high-ranking military officials. Yet Armenia held snap elections to determine its future leadership and Pashinyan’s party won them and he once again became prime minister.

Giragosian says that Pashinyan’s past political survival even in tumultuous situations shows that he has a good chance of staying in power. “This is the same Armenian government that was re-elected in earlier elections after losing the war in 2020,” he says.

He also says that the current opposition to Pashinyan in parliament is too weak to remove him, and no alternative opposition exists.

Benjamin Poghosyan, Chairman of the Centre for political and economic strategic studies of Armenia, notes that two narratives about the protests are spreading. The first is Pashinyan’s narrative: “These protests are organised by Russia to overthrow Pashinyan because Pashinyan is pro-Western, Pashinyan is pro-democracy, while Mr. Putin does not like pro-democracy and pro-Western politicians,” Poghosyan said, with the purpose of the protests being to oust Pashinyan and bring in a pro-Russian leader.

The second narrative is those of the protesters. “Simply, people are fed up,” over repeated losses in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, he notes. “Now, we are humiliated. People are being killed, Karabakh is destroyed,” and many are blaming the situation on Pashinyan’s failures. “You came to power in May 2018, and now its September 2023.” Without the defence of being a newcomer to leadership, people think Pashinyan “should be held responsible.”

Poghosyan does not believe that the opposition to Pashinyan is strong enough to remove him from power, partially because not enough protesters have gathered against him. They would need tens of thousands more to make a difference, given the large police presence defending the current government and their grip on power.

“The entire law enforcement agencies are under the direct control of Pashinyan,” Poghosyan says. He also doubted that any impeachment effort would succeed, given Pashinyan’s majority in parliament.

Poghosyan also notes that a lack of awareness about politics coupled with Pashinyan’s influence over his own party makes it unlikely that parliament could remove Pashinyan from office. “90% of people in Yerevan do not know anything about 90% of MPs of the ruling party faction.” 

Russia pushes back

The Russian pressure on Pashinyan is also unlikely to be enough to topple him. After Pashinyan argued that Russia had failed to help Armenia defend itself in a television address on September 24, the Russian foreign ministry pushed back on Pashinyan’s claims.

"The leadership in Yerevan is making a big mistake by deliberately trying to destroy Armenia's multifaceted and centuries-old ties with Russia, and by holding the country hostage to the geopolitical games of the West," the ministry said. 

Russia still has influence in Armenia, though not electoral. Armenia’s economy is reliant on Russia for imports, as the economic coupling between the two nations strengthened following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing Western sanctions.

Armenians indicated that Russia was among the top international allies in a poll released in May of 2023. Rather than directly interfering in Armenia’s political process, the threat of reduced Russian influence in Armenia as a partner and a peacekeeper could also contribute to Pashinyan’s unpopularity.

The United States may have interests in keeping Pashinyan in power. Armenia has drifted towards America and the West under Pashnyan’s leadership. Nato troops from the United States conducted training exercises with Armenian troops, leaving the day after Azerbaijan began its attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, and the American leadership has been increasingly supportive of Armenia in recent years. Almost exactly a year after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Armenia in 2022, the head of the United States agency for international development Samantha Power visited Armenia on September 25 of 2023, meeting with Pashinyan. 

Power emphasised the need for peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also praised Pashinyan’s leadership. “The steps that you have taken regarding the separation of powers, in the fight against corruption, all these are investments in the future of Armenia," Power said to Pashinyan. 

Poghosyan notes that the United States failed to deter Azerbaijani aggression, but can now argue that the United States will support Armenia in ways that Russia could not. He argues: “It could increase the U.S. image abroad and decrease Russia’s image more.”

An American presence as a peacekeeping force as a result of Pashinyan’s diplomatic efforts could even increase his popularity.