Protests in Armenia are continuing to make news around the world. Whoever ends up succeeding ousted Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan will have a profoundly complicated balancing act to perform, regardless of their intention to reform.
Nikol Pashinyan, the de facto head of the Armenian protest movement that has overthrown Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan and brought the country to a standstill since mid-April, has enticed protestors with the promise of strengthening democratic principles and forging closer relations with the EU – two promises that he insists will fix Armenia’s political and economic stagnation. However, with Armenia’s lack of democratic precedence, a troubled economy that has struggled to find its way after the collapse of the USSR, a thirty year old border conflict with Azerbaijan, and the massive influence of an aggressive Russia that is eager to avoid further loss of clout to the EU after the Georgian and Ukrainian political revolutions, there are many obstacles ahead that may thwart Pashinyan’s vision.
Armenians have watched in frustration as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, fellow former-Soviet nations, have forged closer ties with the EU and strengthened democratic practice, a move that the three nations have paid heavy consequences for; Russia has supported the creation of breakaway regions within their borders in an attempt to retain political influence. But the closer ties with the EU have come with benefits – in 2017 both Georgians and Ukrainians were granted visa-free access to the Schengen Zone as well as increased economic integration with the EU. In contrast, the Armenian passport is incredibly difficult to travel to the Schengen Zone with, much to the annoyance of the millions of Armenians with family members in Western Europe. While Sargsyan pledged to forge closer ties with the EU, he ultimately backtracked on his vow, opting instead to join the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, a move widely seen as caving in to Russian pressure.
Despite Armenia’s economic and democratic challenges, it is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that remains its largest obstacle. Though Armenia gained control of the region in 1993, the resulting displacement of 500,000 people and massacres of Azeri civilians have damaged Armenia’s international reputation. The Russian-brokered “peace” between Armenia and Azerbaijan has merely frozen the conflict, which is thawed out on a seemingly annual basis as an ever-more-prosperous and powerful Azerbaijan harasses Armenian positions. In April 2016, the conflict had a four-day thaw that resulted in hundreds of Armenian causalities and considerable territorial losses. Today, the Nagorno-Karabakh problem serves as a convenient distraction for the two states, as well as a raison d’être for Russia’s military presence in the South Caucasus.
Because Armenia dedicates so much of its resources and manpower towards Nagorno-Karabakh, it has consistently been ranked as one of the most militarized societies in the world. It also means that Armenia’s border with Turkey, Azerbaijan’s traditional ally, is closed. Turkey is unwilling to open relations with Armenia as long as it occupies Azeri land. Thus Armenia’s only open borders are with Iran, a country that does not bring it any closer to the west, and Georgia, which is beset with problems on its Russian border. Of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Pashinyan differs very little from his predecessors, and has insisted that Armenia should continue its occupation of the region – a platform that could prove to be a thorn in his side should he follow through with concrete attempts of reform.
Finally, when considering the possibility of reform, there is the elephant in the room – Russia’s extensive military presence and political influence in Armenia. Armenians would do well to consider the difficulties that Georgia and Ukraine have experienced as they leave Moscow’s sway. With two military bases in Armenia, Russia is unlikely to sit by idly if Armenia gets too comfortable with the EU. Pashinyan insists that his movement is neither pro-Russian nor Pro-Western, but as the world has seen in Georgia and Ukraine, in Putin’s area of influence, there is no middle path. Whoever ends up succeeding ousted Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan will have a profoundly complicated balancing act to perform, regardless of their intention to reform.