Armenia’s Domestic Crisis Has Regional, International Ramifications

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In an interconnected world of politics, no crisis can be considered solely local. Reverberations cross the boundaries of any country in question. We may consider Armenia’s current domestic crisis as a local squabble at our own peril, because reactions arriving from many world capitals make abundantly clear that many distant parties have a stake in the situation brewing in Armenia.

Many of Armenia’s current problems are now sidelined by political bickering by many factions which are trying to draw the attention of their constituents to their own agenda.

The challenge to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was initiated by a coalition of more than 16 parties which have rallied around Vazgen Manukyan, a former prime minister, demanding Pashinyan’s resignation as the sole responsible person for the defeat in the 44-day Karabakh war.

Pashinyan is retaliating against those demands by rallying his own partisans in Republic Square, to demonstrate that he still enjoys popularity among Armenia’s voters. Indeed, he and his My Step alliance were elected with a landslide of more than 70 percent of votes in 2018.

Most recent polls show that while his popularity has plunged, he still has an edge over other contenders with 45 percent popularity.

The problem with Vazgen Manukyan’s camp is that ghosts from the old regime dominate his ranks, in particular, the former presidents and Ishkhan Saghatelyan and Gegham Manukyan from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a party which has never crossed the threshold of two percent in any parliamentary election.

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A powerful voice and force is former president Robert Kocharyan, who plans to throw his hat in the ring for the next elections without the backing of a party.

The recent standoff between the army brass and the prime minister could have bolstered Manukyan’s situation but the army refuses to lend its support to any particular group. Therefore, the standoff helps Manukyan’s claim only marginally, if at all. Although the coalition of 16 parties has made some inroads, it lacks full traction yet.

Now, the political drama is centered around President Armen Sarkissian, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Army Chief of Staff Onnik Gasparyan.

The recent Karabakh war which looms in the background is the root cause of this tripartite crisis.

It all began with on February 23, when Pashinyan, during an interview, said that one of the major weapons at the disposal of the Armenian Army, the Russian-made Iskandar Missile, had exploded only 10 percent of the time. He was ridiculed publicly by Gen. Tiran Khachatryan, the First Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Armenia, who was then summarily sacked.

But a most powerful rebuke came from Russia’s Defense Ministry Spokesperson Igor Konashenkov and Pashinyan apologized, saying that he had been misinformed. That did not end the controversy, because latent tensions, which had been brewing in the ranks of the armed forces, exploded. The next demand came from the army chief Gasparyan, 10 generals and 30 officers who signed a declaration requesting that the prime minister resign, accusing him of putting Armenia “on the brink of destruction.”

The officers also stated that their “patience had run out.”

Pashinyan retaliated by demanding Gasparyan’s firing and sent his request to President Armen Sarkissian to sign within the three days prescribed by Armenia’s constitution.

The president refused to sign the decree and sent it back, arguing that it is not in the best interest of the republic.

The process could have taken a longer time, because after the president’s refusal, Pashinyan could have appealed to the Constitutional Court. Instead, Pashinyan chose a public showdown, accusing the army of threatening to stage a military coup, which he later mitigated by stating that under Article 155 of Armenia’s constitution, the army has to obey civilian rule and cannot get involved in partisan politics.

The army’s grievances sprang from Pashinyan’s undue interference in military matters during the war and his obvious plans to purge the ranks of the army. Generals are not come by easily because it takes many years of education and training to attain that rank, and thus, they are not disposable.

As the evolving political developments will demonstrate, there is a virtual tug-of-war behind the scenes. Army brass in Armenia are mostly trained in Russia and are believed to be influenced by Moscow. Therefore, purging the army is not only Pashinyan’s doing. There are outside forces who would like to see Russia’s influence diminished or dissipated in Armenia.

The March 1 commemoration turned out to be an opportunity to stage a show of force by many parties. The 16-party coalition rallied on Baghramyan Street, across from the parliament. The Armenian Popular Pole (Bever) comprising Sasna Tserer and the European Party demonstrated in front of the Matenadaran and their demand to revoke the Russo-Turkish Friendship Treaty of Moscow (1921) was covered in the Russian and Turkish media.

The most populous rally was in Republic Square, featuring Pashinyan, who in the days previous had promised to make an important declaration. Instead, it turned out to be a harangue against Onik Gasparyan, often apologizing for his mistake and those of his ruling My Step coalition. He accused Gasparyan of ignoring his own responsibilities of defending Armenia’s borders, and instead meddling in politics under the guidance of Serge Sargsyan, without producing any evidence. Sargsyan is being used as a convenient and effective scarecrow. Once his name is uttered, the public does not seek any proof.

Beating the dead horse of the March 1, 2008 clashes which cost the lives of 10 citizens serves as convenient subterfuge for Pashinyan to duck the more pressing current issues, specifically, the loss of 5,000 youth on his watch.

On the sidelines, a parliamentarian from My Step, Vahagn Hovakimyan, has called for the impeachment of President Sarkissian, based on Article 141 of the constitution. It seems that the constitution allows the president to sign decrees and he cannot refuse to sign them.

Pashinyan turned the rally into a launch of his reelection campaign. None of the burning issues facing the country were addressed, including the return of the POWs, the plight of the wounded, compensation for the displaced, defense of Armenia’s borders, nor the threats still coming from Turkey and Azerbaijan.

It looks as if Pashinyan had recovered from his despondent mood after the reactions from the major capitals of the world, echoing his warnings of an impending army coup.

When war was raging in Karabakh and on Armenia’s borders, when 5,000 young Armenian soldiers were being killed and tens of thousands were wounded, including civilians by illegal phosphorous and cluster bombs, and facing armed combat from 2,700 Syrian mercenaries, there was a conspiracy of silence around the world, except for lip service from France and cynical statement by then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (“we hope that Armenians can defend themselves”) but as soon as the news about a potential military coup circulated, a profuse outpouring of defense for Armenia’s democracy spewed forth.

These expressions of support and warnings are cynical and meaningless, suggesting that as long as it is not a military coup, the fate of the country did not matter.

The Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) warned that Armenia’s constitutionally elected government has to be respected. “We continue to support democracy,” read the statement.

NATO headquarters, whose F-16 fighter jets and other munitions were used against Armenia, warned against “the further escalation of the crisis.”

The US State Department’s warning was indirectly referring to Moscow. It cautioned “Armenia’s armed forces to stay out of politics.”

State Department Spokesman Ned Price said that the US “very closely” monitors developments in Armenia. “We remind all parties of the bedrock democratic principle that states the armed forces should not intervene in domestic politics.”

The most revealing comments came from Ankara and Baku, those staunch defenders and practitioners of democracy. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned what he described as attempts to stage a military coup in Armenia: “Nikol Pashinyan is already in a situation where the people could achieve his resignation. But they are talking about a direct overthrow of the government. Our position is clear. We are against such steps. Turkey opposes any coup, including in Armenia.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu issued a similar statement.

In turn, President Ilham Aliyev was concerned that a military coup in Armenia could jeopardize the application of the tripartite declaration of November 9.

It was not convenient for Moscow to dig further into the situation. Thus, it was satisfied by a statement issued by a member of the Duma that the problem was a diplomatic issue for a sovereign country like Armenia.

“We hope that Armenia’s internal developments will not reflect on the tripartite declaration,” he said.

Analyzing the complete silence of all these parties during the war, during which numerous violations of the Geneva Convention took place, where POWs, soldiers and civilians were tortured and killed on camera and civilian targets bombed, suddenly we saw expressions of concern. We can only conclude one thing: The West “owns” the democracy in Armenia and by extrapolation, it lumps the Velvet Revolution in Armenia with all the other color revolutions it encouraged in Ukraine, Georgia and very recently in Belarus. Therefore, we can see very clearly that a tacit war is being conducted in Armenia between Western and Russian interests. Consequently, Armenian citizens and their leaders cannot precipitate any domestic change without endangering the interests of those camps. Each politician and each party is a pawn on the chessboard of world politics.

This situation may be considered as the normal course of politics. But what goes beyond normal is Turkey’s interest in this cobweb.

Now that Turkey has helped Azerbaijan to crush the backbone of Armenia’s armed forces and has reduced the country to a basket case, it considers this period the most opportune time to extract concessions from Armenia. Armenia has nothing but the moral power of the Genocide, which Turkey denies and wishes to see dissipate as a liability.

Now that the Biden Administration seems amenable to recognizing the Armenian Genocide, President Erdogan is planning to reenact a performance of the country’s “football diplomacy” that took place between Serzh Sargsyan and Abdullah Gul in 2009, a charade of signing protocols in Zurich in the presence of then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Thus, Erdogan can scuttle any recognition by the Biden Administration by stating that third parties should not interfere as the country is negotiating with its Armenian counterparts.

This is not a conjecture nor guesswork, as Erdogan’s emissaries have been sighted in Yerevan, conducting backdoor negations. The editor of the Yerevan-based Azg weekly, Hagop Avedikian, has even mentioned the name of one emissary. Indeed, every time Turkey tries a rapprochement with Armenia, a Turkish citizen of Armenian descent named Samson Özararat emerges.s He has been spotted in Amenia, talking to politician Hovhaness Igityan.

We do not want to speculate about what may happen. Now that Armenia is in a weak position and Pashinyan is even weaker, more details may emerge.

No one doubts Pashinyan’s patriotism, but political expediency might override his better nature.

Any concession to Turkey by the Armenian government will set back for decades the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Plus, it will pit Armenia against the diaspora, since Erdogan claims that the Armenian government is a hostage to the “fanatical” Armenians in the diaspora.

The trauma of the Genocide is heavier for the diasporan Armenians, many of whom are the direct descendants of the Genocide survivors. Plus, Armenia’s citizens were banned for decades from learning about the Genocide or referring to it because the Soviets entertained a policy of not offending Turkey. Therefore, the impact of the Genocide is not as strong on the citizens of Armenia. This does not mean that Pashinyan can sell out the cause, but he needs to be careful as even a simple conversation can overthrow Genocide recognition.

In view of the perspective and the parameters of world political affecting Armenia and Turkey’s intentions in this given situation, political forces in Armenia can exercise caution and foresight to derive the proper conclusions.

 

 

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