New Challenges for Armenia after Snap Parliamentary Elections

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Armenia’s snap parliamentary elections not only surprised the losers, but also the winners.

After the final rally by former president Robert Kocharyan’s supporters, observers believed that finally the Kocharyan campaign had gained traction by outnumbering Pashinyan’s final rally. But the polls had their own logic and gave a landslide victory to the incumbent prime minister by 54 percent.

Kocharyan came a distant second with 21 percent of the votes and Serzh Sargsyan’s I Have Honor bloc did not even manage the 5-percent threshold for political parties, let alone the 7-percent one for alliances. However, Sargsyan’s alliance will have seven representatives in parliament because Armenia’s electoral laws require three opposition groups in the latter body.

Although Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party can pass any law in parliament with 71 representatives, Kocharyan is preparing to play hard ball, even without consulting the Sargsyan camp, which has not yet revealed its intentions as to whether it will join Kocharyan in his bid for the opposition.

The elections took place under peaceful conditions and the irregularities reported by the monitors did not impact the overall process.

Even before the final results were reported, congratulatory messages arrived from the European Union, Russia, France and other countries.

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President Emmanuel Macron’s message was the most meaningful, as it went beyond the limit of strict congratulations and pledged economic support and cooperation with Armenia to resolve the unfinished business of Karabakh.

One cautionary note needs to be made about the coverage of these elections in Western media outlets, where Pashinyan’s victory has been characterized as the victory of anti-Russian forces against pro-Russian ones. If the Pashinyan camp is tempted to subscribe to that point of view, it will be perceived as an irritant to the Kremlin.

Armenia’s elections have had a transformational impact domestically and internationally.

Beneath the veneer of the calm talks between Yerevan and Moscow, there is justifiable resentment in Armenia because of the cavalier attitude of its strategic partner when it was under attack. Armenia cannot veer too far from the Russian orbit, but for Moscow, a limited level of dissent may be tolerable, like Kazakhstan, which is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as is Armenia, but has a military treaty with Turkey.

On the other hand, Belarus, which is Armenia’s partner in the CSTO, rushed to congratulate Armenia’s adversary, Azerbaijan, on its victory over Amenia and to this day is supplying lethal armaments to Baku.

Armenia definitely and urgently needs to rehaul its foreign policy establishment, which is in shambles.

Despite the country steadily sending students to study diplomacy around the world, the ranks of its diplomatic corps seem empty in the 30 years since independence. It will be foolhardy for the Pashinyan administration to refuse to tap into the expertise of former foreign ministers on the ground that they were part of the old regime. The Caucasus is in constant flux and every day new opportunities may arise but with an amateurish approach in foreign policy, Armenia may lose valuable diplomatic opportunities.

Iran, for one, has been making waves in the region, after being released from the punishing US sanctions, and it has been flexing its muscles. Tehran was a partner of Russia in Syria supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime, but currently has been seeking an independent role in opposing the Russian-Turkish juggernaut in the Caucasus.

It is also offering economic opportunities for Armenia and Georgia, which, in the long run, may release them from the economic spheres of Russia and Turkey.

Another interesting and frightening development is the one happening between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent trip to Shushi, where he signed a treaty with Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev, technically absorbed Azerbaijan and lay the first building block of the pan-Turanist Empire which he has been aspiring to build.

Incidentally, Turkey and Azerbaijan have been holding their seventh military exercises on Armenia’s border. That is why Pashinyan has dispatched a military commission to Moscow to negotiate a new deal to reinforce the Syunik region, which is targeted by Armenia’s enemies.

The Pashinyan administration will also face many domestic challenges as the country is still reeling from the devastating effects of the twin catastrophes of war and the pandemic. Like all winners in the election, Pashinyan has made many generous promises to his electorate to build roads, to improve the economy, to develop science, etc. People are used to these pledges, which may or may not materialize, while governments also have excuses for the failure to make good on their pledges.

Any statesman who wins the election and fails to demonstrate magnanimity towards his opponents does not deserve his victory.

Along with his positive pledges, Pashinyan promised to put a stop to some of his negative habits which had come to characterize his behavior in the past. Either Pashinyan himself has realized this or his advisors have warned him to refrain from certain actions.

During his victory rally on June 21, Pashinyan came out as a reformed leader. Many people were expecting him to use the hammer (really), which he had literally wielded throughout his campaign, against his opponents, but instead he came out as uncharacteristically conciliatory in his speech. He extended his hand to the opposition to cooperate in the parliament. He also promised to look for qualified citizens outside his camp to invite them to serve in the government.

Pashinyan asked his audience to refrain from using foul language in the news media as well as social media. He confided that sometimes he himself had used such language “willingly or unwillingly” but in fact, he has been the promoter of that language when he served as the editor of the newspaper Haykakan Zhamanak, and later as opposition leader.

Unfortunately, the language used on social media is mind-boggling and hopefully Pashinyan’s appeal may temper it. Reading that kind of language, one is depressed to find out how low any Armenian can degenerate morally.

During his victory rally, Pashinyan touched upon a very sticky issue: church-state relations, which have hit a new low. It was very constructive approach by the winning candidate to mend relations with the church. His Holiness Karekin II responded in kind, by congratulating Pashinyan on his victory.

These public moves may help release some tensions but actions are needed beyond the rhetoric. During the war, the Catholicos had asked for Pashinyan’s resignation, which had created a sore point. It was not the Catholicos’ place to wade into the political waters. At best, he had to appeal for calm and conciliation. That angered the Pashinyan camp which reacted in an unstatesmanlike fashion by denying a police escort to the Catholicos, levying customs duty on paraffin oil Echmiadzin imports to make candles and by allowing the spoilage of tons of perishable food items at customs destined to Karabakh under the auspices of Holy Echmiadzin.

To top it all, the Pashinyan administration has arrested the director of the Izmirlian Hospital, Prof. Armen Charchyan, for having made some equivocal remarks to his staff, before the elections. Incidentally, the hospital is run by the Holy See of Echmiadzin.

This writer had the opportunity to hold long discussions with Pashinyan’s chief advisor, Arayik Harutyunyan, who is believed to be one of the major policy planners, as well as His Holiness. Unfortunately, they are entrenched in their positions. Hopefully the disaster that befell Armenia will have a sobering effect on both parties, reminding them that there are more pressing issues to attend to in the country at this time.

The domestic and the international media characterized the snap alliance as “against” and not “for,” because the electorate was faced with the prospect of the comeback of the old regime. They have suffered so much under that regime that their vote was against it, rather than in favor of Pashinyan.

Kocharyan, who had joined forces with the ARF, which has the best organized election machine in Armenia, certainly lost votes because of that association, since the party does not enjoy popularity in Armenia, unlike its counterpart in the diaspora.

Armenia is not out of the woods yet and Pashinyan’s administration will face many challenges that will require the resources of the entire nation, in Armenia and in the diaspora.

The new administration’s failure will only make the Turks and Azerbaijanis happy. When the stakes are so high, only vigilance, national unity and prudent policies can help Armenia survive.

 

 

 

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