Armenian Prime Minister Under Threat

The tactical flexibility and impressive self-confidence that fueled Pashinyan’s rise to power have become his biggest weaknesses.

Armenian Prime Minister Under Threat

The tactical flexibility and impressive self-confidence that fueled Pashinyan’s rise to power have become his biggest weaknesses.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. (Photo: Press Office of the Government of Armenia)
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. (Photo: Press Office of the Government of Armenia)
Monday, 16 November, 2020

Domestic politics in Armenia have been shaken as never before since renewed fighting broke out in Nagorny Kabakh on September 27.

Armenia went on to suffer the triple shock of an unprecedented military defeat, an unexpected loss of territory that included a significant part of Karabakh and an unforeseen challenge to the Armenian government. After nearly 45 days and nights of intense combat and ineffective defence, the Azerbaijani victory continues to reverberate throughout Armenian society.

However, the domestic challenge to the government, with calls for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign, is both less and more than it seems.

Despite the initial shock of the prime minister’s acceptance of a Russian-imposed agreement to halt the war, demonstrations against the government remain largely ineffective.  The protests, which have drawn 10,000 participants at most, have yet to galvanise widespread support.  And that lack of momentum stems from the fact that much of the opposition leading the protests remain seriously unpopular and significantly discredited, tainted by ties to the corrupt former government and lacking any real policy alternative.

The political challenge is less significant due to the absence of any credible rival to Pashinyan.  In fact, the prime minister had truly no choice but to accept the Russian agreement.  Although that Russian plan was both imposed on Armenia and implemented unilaterally by Moscow, it was the only feasible way to save lives and salvage what remained of Karabakh. 

In this context the fall of Shushi [also known as Shusha], the disputed territory’s second largest city, was the turning point, making any further defence unsustainable and raising the real possibility of the loss of Karabakh in its entirety.

Although the threat from the political opposition may be insufficient to force the prime minister’s resignation, the Pashinyan government’s political future is certainly open to question. 

Its weakness is driven by several broader considerations.  Pashinyan has become increasingly stranded in uncharted political waters.  Both the Karabakh issue and the subsequent conflict itself predated Armenian independence, and the country’s modern politics has always been driven and defined by it.  No political leader or party has ever faced the challenge of governing without this essential element of domestic discourse and public policy.

Rather ironically, the prime minister’s political future lies more in his own hands than in the actions of the opposition.

Pashinyan’s somewhat reckless and impulsive style of leadership has done more to undermine his standing than anything that the opposition has done or said. 

The prime minister’s midnight Facebook post on November 10 announcing an end to the war and acceptance of the Russian agreement was a significant misstep. His dangerous reliance on informal social media as a platform only weakens and lessens the authority and legitimacy of his office. 

The lack of any preparation of Armenian society or public opinion for the scale and severity of the war’s losses sparked an emotional outburst of rage and frustration.

That violent display of public anger culminated in the storming of the Armenian parliament and the assault of its speaker Ararat Mirzoyan, and Pashinyan should have taken heed of the intensity of public anger. 

Instead, in a further example of a serious political mistake, another late-night Facebook badly-worded post on November 15 raised fears that Pashinyan was intent on using force against the demonstrators.

While Pashinyan issued a clarification early on November 16 with a hastily arranged press conference, the damage was done.  More troubling still, Pashinyan seems to have not yet learned a lesson from this misstep.  The prime minister faces an especially difficult and daunting challenge to control himself and restrain his impulsive political style. 

Although his tactical flexibility and impressive self-confidence were crucial assets in Pashinyan’s successful rise to power in the 2018 Velvet Revolution, those very same traits have become his biggest weaknesses. 

Political agility has devolved into an impulsive and often indecisive style of leadership, and his pronounced self-confidence has developed a tendency for arrogant micromanagement and a priority for personal loyalty over policy competence within his team.

A surprising paradox emerges in a broader assessment of the current domestic political situation in Armenia. 

In political science, the resiliency of a legitimate, popular and freely elected government is widely accepted as significantly more stable than an authoritarian system based on corruption and patronage rather than free and fair elections. 

Yet in the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the aftermath of the Karabakh war reveals the exact inverse of such a calculation. 

It is Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev who has mastered nationalist discourse and succeeded in “riding the tiger” of war.  Despite the limitations of entrenched corruption and authoritarian rule, there is no challenge to the Aliyev government. 

Instead, it is Pashinyan who is under pressure, facing the most serious challenge to his leadership to date.  And his inherent political advantages of a demonstrable legitimacy, an overwhelming parliamentary majority from a free election, and a rare success in leading a non-violent change of government, are little consolation and less effective to resist the pressure he is now under.

But over the longer term, the domestic political reality will correct itself, converging with the calculation of political science. 

For Azerbaijan, the outlook for the Aliyev dynasty is less assured and bleaker once the emotional victory of the war for Karabakh fades.  And after ruling Azerbaijan after 27 years, the Aliyev government is ill-equipped to meet rising expectations for more victories and greater achievements. 

So in this context, Armenia’s current domestic discontent will come to be viewed as a temporary aberration.  Recent events have proved shocking; but the country’s institutional democracy will ultimately have a stabilising impact.

Richard Giragosian is director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia.

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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