Armenia is still a fledgling democracy. Although the last set of national and local elections were considered free and fair, the country is still a long way from laying down the roots needed to hold democratic norms in place.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan inherited a heavily-centralized constitutional structure, one that he railed against during the 2015 referendum, when he was an opposition MP. It was blatantly obvious back then, and confirmed in 2018, that the 2015 Constitution was meant simply to keep Serzh Sargsyan in power beyond his presidential two-term limit. In the process, the post of Prime Minister was granted enormous powers, and nicknamed a “Super PM.” Under the current Constitution, the PM has direct control over all of the law enforcement, investigative and clandestine operations of the country. The Constitution also guarantees a “stable majority” in Parliament, by forcing a second round runoff among the top two parties if no governing coalition can put together a majority after the initial results.
Although Pashinyan was very critical of these changes when they were brought in, he has sat at the nexus of these extensive powers for almost three years now, without making any changes. In January 2020, a Constitutional Reform Commission was formed, consisting mostly of hand-picked representatives of different government agencies, just as Serzh Sargsyan’s was. Albeit with coronavirus and the Artsakh War, 2020 was not a year that was conducive to public consultations, this body has been very opaque, with little in the way of reporting their intended directions or how far along the process currently is.
It is easy to point to reasons why good intentions were never put to action. During the COVID-19 pandemic, democracy was in retreat throughout the world as once-sacred civil liberties were curtailed for the greater good. But Pashinyan had promised to be different. He had promised a “People’s Constitution.” Today, he stands empty-handed.
Pinning All Hopes On One Man
The person who led the latest crusade for democracy in Armenia is Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power on the wave of the 2018 Velvet Revolution. As a result of that movement, the semi-feudal/oligarchic system of governance was dismantled, allowing for sweeping reforms and changes. Yet, as Pashinyan settled into his position at the top of government, he surprisingly assumed a more evolutionary method of governing. Although he often continued using the word revolution in describing his vision and policies, including promising an “economic revolution,” none of his subsequent steps or decisions as PM have been revolutionary. Now, in post-war Armenia, it remains to be seen how genuinely dedicated Pashinyan is to the democratic project he jump started, and whether he has the political skill to see it through.
Observing Pashinyan’s actions and decisions as PM shows that he either does not understand the essence of democracy, does not have the political will or maturity to super-charge the establishment of democracy in Armenia, or has abandoned his democratic principles. Although competitive, free and fair elections are the backbone of democracy, they are only building blocks. Pashinyan often seems to equate democracy with elections – the view that once a party or leader is elected through a free and fair election, the work of democracy is complete until the next one. Pashinyan might be the only revolutionary in history to treat the previous regime’s Constitution as acceptable rules for running the revolutionary government.
Your Own Buddies Can’t Hold You Accountable
The next most glaring abdication from building truly democratic institutions has been not allowing Parliament to become a sufficiently independent political body. It is reasonable to conclude that Parliament won’t debate or legislate on any politically sensitive issues without Pashinyan’s consent. Three months after the end of the war, Parliament still hasn’t engaged in any meaningful debate, let alone any actual action on the war, the reasons for the defeat, or the November 10, 2020 ceasefire agreement. Unlike the current majority in parliament, one that was sufficiently independent and political would have taken up the issue of creating a special truth commission to investigate all aspects of the war. Yet, over three months into a ceasefire, only the Bright Armenia Party (BAP) has put forth draft legislation related to creating such an investigatory body, which does not seem to be gaining any traction with My Step. As leader of the majority party and government, Pashinyan is currently the one person in Armenia most responsible for the growth of Armenia’s democracy. Unfortunately, he has not worked hard enough to deepen democratic governance principles throughout Armenia’s branches of government, which is sorely needed in a country that was under one-party communist rule for 70 years.
The devastating defeat in the 2020 Artsakh War has brought a new political and geopolitical reality to Armenia. No matter how much Pashinyan and his party wish to proceed as if it’s business as usual, politics in Armenia is currently stuck in the mire; with each passing day, it gets harder to get out. The political stalemate must be overcome before the country can move forward with renewed vigor and vision. Even if citizens have not come out onto the streets in overwhelming numbers to protest the great loss of life, land, and national security, there is no doubt that people’s trust and confidence in Pashinyan is in serious decline. Many who wholeheartedly supported the revolution now believe Pashinyan is incapable of leading the country any further. In any democracy, especially one with a parliamentary system, a leader in Pashinyan’s position would be expected to resign shortly after signing the ceasefire agreement, given the disastrous consequences for the country. Absent a resignation, it would be expected that the PM’s own party leaders and members would have moved to force that leader from his position. Yet, neither Pashinyan nor his Civil Contract Party seem to grasp the nature of the moment and what democracy and statehood requires of them. What’s more, Pashinyan’s MPs have refused to lift the invocation of the Constitution’s martial law provision, thus preventing any vote of no confidence from being introduced in Parliament. The longer the country stays in political limbo, the greater the risk of unexpected consequences and explosive countermeasures. Just a few days ago, on February 25, the political tension in the country dangerously ratcheted up when the top commander of the armed forces and dozens of military leaders released a written statement calling for the resignation of Pashinyan and his government. After almost a week of tense standoff, on the afternoon of March 2, President Armen Sarkissian decided not to further delay Pashinyan’s request to relieve Chief of the General Staff Onik Gasparyan of his duties, partially resolving the conflict between the Prime Minister and the military.
Where Does the Road Lead?
In a move to appease disgruntled citizens still reeling from the shock ending to the war, through a Facebook post on November 18, 2020, Pashinyan offered a roadmap of his priorities to show the country that he was still capable of producing an agenda and achieving results. It is difficult to believe that his staff could not produce an actual professional document to reflect deep thought and analysis when the country truly needed to see that the person in charge was capable of leading the country out of its post-war ditch. Instead, Pashinyan’s so-called roadmap was nothing more than a declaratory wish list. Calling this 15-point list a roadmap is like calling a list of vegetables a recipe. Pashinyan’s roadmap includes such grand plans as “reform of Armenia’s armed forces” and “overcoming the coronavirus pandemic and restoring economic activity” – both of which would require an entire five-year term’s worth of hard work to achieve, let alone the six-month timetable he laid out for himself. Real roadmaps are detailed descriptions of routes and directions which lead to a desired destination, and not simply a list of city and street names, which is essentially what Pashinyan published for public consumption.
With the war’s results, there is nothing more for Pashinyan to do as the democratically-elected leader of the country absent a new mandate from the people through fresh elections. The country suffered a heavy military and geopolitical defeat on his watch, and as the country’s leader, he is ultimately responsible – period. To what degree the defeat is his fault is up for discussion, but as the person in charge of the country, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, especially given the fact that Armenia’s war campaign was shockingly disorganized, he must pay a political price. Pashinyan had a golden opportunity to push the democratic movement in Armenia a few steps forward if he had conformed with the norms of democracy by resigning. This move would have signaled to Armenians that he is a true democrat and willing to accept full responsibility for his leadership failure. Instead, Pashinyan played semantics, stating that, although he is the person most responsible for the war’s disastrous outcome, he does not bear the highest share of blame.
He then argued that only the people can decide whether or not he leaves office because it was the people who elected him. But he has waffled on giving the people exactly that opportunity by scheduling a snap election. While true that the people voted to give Pashinyan’s team a large majority in parliament based mostly, if not solely, on Pashinyan’s personal popularity, technically the people did not directly vote for Pashinyan as PM. Under Armenia’s parliamentary system of government, the people vote for a political party, whose MPs then elect the PM. Had Pashinyan resigned, his party would still hold a large enough majority in parliament to elect someone from within the party as interim PM pending new elections. This would have gone a long way in releasing pressure from the political animosity in the country.
Now Is Not a Good Time For Some
There are those who say it is too risky and dangerous for Pashinyan to resign given the precarious post-war situation in the country. The main fear is that the old regime will have a chance at coming back if there is a power vacuum. First and foremost, Pashinyan’s resignation would not leave a void in leadership because he would still remain head of the majority party in parliament, which could immediately vote in a new PM from their ranks. Second, there are no indications that any significant portion of the electorate, let alone a majority, would be willing to vote for any party associated with the old regime if given a chance. Immediately after the ceasefire was made public, at Pashinyan’s weakest point, the old regime and their coalition to topple Pashinyan were only able to gather a few thousand people at rallies. The movement, which never had enough steam to remove Pashinyan in the first place, has still not achieved its single-minded goal of removing him from office after almost four months of rallies and marches. As for Pashinyan, he is ultimately responsible for the war’s outcome as PM and Commander-in-Chief. Even he has not shied away from this axiomatic truth, although only through his words. The benefit to the democratic movement in Armenia with Pashinyan’s resignation and fresh elections far outweigh any risk of political turmoil for the reasons already discussed. It’s at difficult times like this when new leaders must be allowed to emerge. It cannot be that there is only one person capable of leading the country out of this post-war mire. Dictators, not democrats, think like this.
Currently, the big x-factor in Armenia is Russia’s position on Pashinyan’s political future. It is logical to conclude that Pashinyan, though intensely critical of Russia on many important geopolitical issues as an opposition figure, has become the most convenient person to support Russia’s policies in Armenia, given Pashinyan’s severely weakened position. Shortly after the end of the war, Putin publicly stated his support for Pashinyan, strangely, and perhaps even sarcastically, praising Pashinyan’s bravery for signing the ceasefire agreement. Putin then urged the other leaders of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) to support Pashinyan as well. Like the two Armenian leaders that preceded him, his archenemies Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan, Pashinyan may also be shifting the support base and legitimacy for his administration to Russia from the citizens of Armenia. If he believes that Russia’s military, political and economic support for Armenia is currently indispensable and irreplaceable, then Pashinyan may also conclude that he is also indispensable and irreplaceable as leader of Armenia given Putin’s support. The potential for Pashinyan’s anti-democratic shift was unthinkable after the revolution, but given the situation in Armenia after the war, it cannot be ruled out. It is important to remember that Armenia is in an economic union with Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan – a collection of countries (except for the latter) which are known for leaders who measure their grip on power in decades, not mere years.
Won’t Go Quietly
The electorate voted for Pashinyan, as with any democratically elected leader, to make difficult political decisions. If the circumstances in the country require that he resign, then Pashinyan inherently has the mandate to do so. The norms of democracy do not require that he ask the voters for permission as resignation is a political decision based on the political reality in the country. Sadly, Pashinyan is showing that, like many leaders in nascent or faux democracies who preach democracy but act otherwise, he clearly believes he is the only person with legitimacy to lead the country. One such leader is Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus. After holding the office of President for 26 years, Lukashenko is still not ready to pass the baton, even after months-long rallies and protests throughout Belarus. Lukashenko even admitted that he has likely stayed in office too long. Yet, he refuses to step down; even after 26 years in power, he believes he is still the only person capable of leading the country. Dictators like Lukashenko often equate themselves with the state. It would be disastrous for Armenia’s democratic prospects if Pashinyan follows this example.
Only a negligible minority in Armenia’s political class believe Pashinyan should be barred from seeking re-election in any upcoming contest. The most popular demand among opposition circles is for Pashinyan to resign and at some more appropriate time in the future, but definitely ahead of the next elections scheduled for 2023, he can compete again in early elections. Armenian citizens elected Pashinyan’s party on a specific agenda, mainly that of rooting out corruption, putting an end to rigged elections, and cementing a democratic form of governance where the three branches of government sufficiently counterbalance one another. The devastating defeat in war and the signing of the November 10 ceasefire agreement, where Armenia lost thousands of young lives and large swaths of land, is definitely not something Pashinyan was given a mandate for. Thus, snap elections are a must.
Assume Pashinyan is correct when he says that it is only through elections that he should be required to relinquish his seat. If the political situation in Armenia begs for snap elections, which it clearly does, then the majority party, Pashinyan’s My Step alliance, needs to call new elections. Instead, Pashinyan continues to engage in delay tactics. Initially, he organized a round of consultations with several political parties before announcing in early February that there would be no snap elections, given the lack of political consensus. As a precondition for early elections, Pashinyan insisted that BAP and PAP sign a memorandum of understanding that they would not put forth a candidate for PM upon Pashinyan’s resignation. Under Armenia’s Constitution, the only road to dissolution of parliament and snap elections is for the Prime Minister to resign, and that a new PM not be elected in two rounds of voting in parliament. It is politically weak and outside the Constitution for Pashinyan to put any precondition for snap elections on opposition parties. If there is only one legal mechanism for snap elections, Pashinyan and his party must take it. His see-saw approach on this issue is simply adding to an already high level of uncertainty and anxiety in the country. He continues to periodically proclaim the need for fresh elections, yet the fact is he also continues to deny the country the right to elect a much-needed post-war parliament and government. Pashinyan’s insistence on agreement from the opposition is especially curious given his comfortable majority in parliament – in other words, even if either opposition party put forth a candidate for PM, the chances of either being elected is close to zero, as it would require a significant number of defections from Pashinyan’s ranks. Shying away from much needed elections, and trying to cast the blame on others, is once again an abdication of political responsibility on behalf of Pashinyan – at which he is becoming much too proficient. According to a recent Gallup Armenia poll, 58% wish he would get on with it. Democracies hold elections, not find excuses to avoid them.
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