Pashinyan Faces Traps in and out of Armenia

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Spending a few weeks in Armenia gives one the benefit of access to the ongoing processes that generate the news. But ironically, that news is not always true.

In Armenia, one is caught in the jungle of politics where news outlets chase fake news and where polemicists take over the role of commentators and one is at a loss to find a sober, impartial voice which would provide objective information and rational commentary.

After returning from Armenia, time and distance have filtered all the facts afforded me to have a better perspective on the politics that have gripped the country.

The Velvet Revolution has not run its course yet. It is to everyone’s advantage to consolidate the gains of that revolution. There is no returning to the past, yet moving forward has become a tremendous challenge for the young administration. Forces in and out of Armenia are trying to push back the achievements of the revolution.

Just last week, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s candidate lost his bid to become mayor of the city of Abovyan. When asked about this defeat, the prime minister answered: “We brought the revolution to allow people to have a choice. Thus, the revolution won.” Of course, some members of the ancient regime would have liked to interpret that single defeat as a sign of dwindling influence of the current administration.

It is hard to see how Prime Minister Pashinyan will navigate through domestic and foreign obstacles to achieve the goals of the revolution.

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At this time, several trends are developing. In the first place, the solid leadership of the revolution is splintering as it happens in all revolutions; the resignation of Artak Zeynalyan as the head of the judiciary was an unpleasant surprise. Similarly, a cloud hanging over the head of another powerful member, former head of the State Oversight Service of Armenia Davit Sanasaryan, is another blow.

On the other hand, Pashinyan had expeditiously assigned to ministerial and deputy ministerial positions people who had marched in the streets during the revolution and chanted slogans, without any vetting or even background checks. That expediency cost Pashinyan a high political price, especially in one case where Deputy Minister of Culture Nazeny Gharibyan fired celebrated opera director Constantine Orbelian. The embarrassment resulted in mass firings. Pashinyan announced the resignation of 27 deputy ministers, including Gharibyan, who had rendered the Orbelian case into a cause celebre.

To add insult to injury, there is currently a standoff between Yerevan and Stepanakert; Pashinyan has accused some unnamed forces in Karabakh of being engaged in treasonous activities. And these accusations are flying back and forth while the enemy is at the gate. The casualty from that fallout seems to be the resignation of a strongman and presidential candidate Vitaly Balasanyan who was serving as the secretary of National Council in Karabakh. It is purported that Pashinyan had sought that resignation.

Through all these diversion and distractions, the leaders of the old regime and their dependents are realigning for a comeback; new parties are emerging and new coalitions are being forged. There is a frenzy of buying media outlets by Kocharyan himself as well as the son-in-law of Serzh Sargsyan, Mikhail (Mishik) Minasyan, and of course all cannons are directed at the prime minister. What other sensitive subject can the opposition media find other than the Karabakh issue?

A sharp-tongued commentator, Levon Shirinyan, noted in a recent interview: “Who are those people who are blaming the prime minister for contemplating territorial concessions in Karabakh other than people who are vying to return to the past? They are the members of the Republican Party.”

Coming out of the domestic quagmire, one has to concentrate on foreign policy challenges that Armenia faces today. President Vladimir Putin is restrained but his docile media is not. In one of the Putin-backed newspapers, Robert Kocharyan was characterized as the “first political prisoner in the post-Soviet era.”

At a recent gathering of Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) members in Kazakhstan an embarrassing situation was created for Pashinyan, who was supposed to be awarded a medal along the leaders of the other member countries, but was bypassed. Also, a meeting was expected to take place with President Putin, but it was called off.

No matter how hard Pashinyan tries to ingratiate himself to Putin, the latter stays demonstrably aloof.

Pashinyan already paid dearly for his rash decision for calling for the head of General Yuri Khachaturov, who was serving as the secretary general of the Collective Security Alliance.

As Armenia tries to improve its relations with the West, it is risking further aloofness from the Kremlin leadership.

Armenia is beholden to Russia, which is its largest trading partner. It does not have too much to sell to the US and the West, and all that Armenia can expect from the West is some investment in its economic infrastructure. The US’s largess is not moving that fast in order not to indicate to Russia that Armenia is moving outside of the Kremlin’s zone of influence. Pashinyan was planning to catch up with Putin and mend fences at the 19th international economic forum which took place in St. Petersburg last week. Pashinyan made a convincing presentation at the forum but his meeting with Putin was curt yet courteous. Putin immediately reminded Pashinyan that Russia was the primary business partner of Armenia and had invested $2 billion. Pashinyan, in turn, stated that this year Armenia had a favorable growth figure of 7.1 percent through the year and that the April figures have been even higher — 9.2 percent. Pashinyan has ascribed this economic success to the process that Armenia cooperates with Russia through the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

But the undertone of this courteous encounter was another trap by the Kremlin, as we read on lragir.am. “Pashinyan had announced that he expects new ammunition from Russia. Not the Iskandar, because we have a lot of it, but also something not smaller. He said that they spoke about this during his meeting with President Vladimir Putin. Apparently, this statement was the reason why the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova tried to push past Nikol Pashinyan’s speech at the forum in St. Petersburg, turning the subject into mockery. Later, of course, Lavrov’s spokesperson corrected the mistake but it was impossible to hide the ‘plot.’”

Putin is a master politician. Pashinyan cannot win this game of cat and mouse with Putin.

As we can see in all domestic squabbling and international intrigues Pashinyan’s task is cut out for him.

Armenia needs political focus and consolidation of powers to meet the challenges and place the country on the path to recovery.

No one should rejoice over Pashinyan’s failure. Because that failure will turn out to be Armenia’s failure.

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