Photo by Eric Grigorian for EVN Report
Sense of collective euphoria, ecstatic energy, and an unbreakable will to change the country’s political realities and create a better tomorrow has engulfed Armenian society. Empowered and emboldened, its citizens are striving towards what President Armen Sarkissian has termed a “New Armenia.” The resignation of Serzh Sargsyan as Prime Minister, however, was the first step in creating a New Armenia; but the entrenched interests of the power structure that Sargsyan left behind, primarily in the form of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), have sought to halt, or perhaps slowdown, this drive toward a New Armenia. Thus, the collective euphoria has been tempered by a return to reality; the reality of political competition, conflicting interests, and a publicly-despised regime that still has some hopes of holding out.
The current complexity revolves around the popular movement, led by Nikol Pashinyan, challenging the existing political system and it’s leadership, while, at the same time, not challenging the Republic’s Constitutional and legal basis of the system. This has created a two-tiered problem: the structure of the government and its institutions remain legitimate, but those who serve, implement, and coordinate the policies of the government and its institutions are not. For Nikol Pashinyan and the popular movement, these two contradictions need to be reconciled in order for them to be able to engage in cogent negotiations and to legitimate their demands of legally supplanting the system. The underlying issue here remains legality. Why is this problematic? Because the legal and Constitutional structure of the country has been constructed in a fashion that inherently favors and benefits the majority, which, in our current state, remains the RPA. If any changes are to be instituted through the existing legal channels, then they must, by its very definition, be instituted through the vote of the majority. The task at hand, then, has been to pressure this majority, through the mass popular movement, to vote against its own perceived interests and in line with the will of the popular movement. The RPA’s calculations have been two fold: 1) they are, indeed, terrified of the popular movement and its consequences if they do not tread carefully; 2) however, and at the same time, the legal structure fundamentally favors them, and if they can navigate the legal discourse, and through this, appease the demands of the popular movement, then they stand a chance, to some degree, of saving their proverbial skins.
The Conflict Between Loss of Political Legitimacy and Constitutional Legality
The historical precedent that the current developments in Armenia have produced will reverberate for quite some time, both at the societal level as well as the political and Constitutional level. Within this context, the legality of these developments, and the scope of the Constitution’s applicability, requires, at the minimum, a clarification by all forces involved. Thus, for the sake of posterity, the competition for power by both sides must be grounded in tenable arguments that are consistent with the legal precepts and mores of the Republic.
The RPA claims its Constitutional authority to rule the country based on the 2017 electoral outcome of the parliamentary election. While this outcome was relatively controversial, it was not, however, rejected by opposition forces in absolutist terms. As such, the results were neither challenged in Armenia’s courts, nor did we see organized protests by the aggrieved parties against the outcome. Within this context, this underlying issue requires a degree of resolution. If the 2017 elections are deemed a fraud and thus inconsistent with the will of the people, then the RPA’s claim of legitimacy becomes negated. However, claiming illegitimacy after the fact is not a tenable argument: the opposition seemed relatively content with the 2017 results. It is within this context that the RPA has been consistent in its argument of addressing the recent crisis through the Constitutional framework. Namely, this is just another way of the RPA saying that whatever the existing Parliamentary configurations are, let us deal with it through this mandate. The premise here becomes straightforward: considering they Constitutionally possess majority, they will determine the outcome of who becomes Prime Minister and who forms the next government. In this context, the legal and Constitutional framework fundamentally favors the RPA.
Pashinyan is arguing that the will of the people, and their opposition to the RPA-dominated system, supersedes the political power of the Parliamentary majority, and within this context, the RPA’s appeal to Constitutional and legal discourse is moot. Thus, Pashinyan is not seeking to usurp the Constitutional legitimacy of Parliament, but rather, force the majority in Parliament to conform to the will of the popular movement.
Pashinyan’s position on this matter has not been cogently developed; I have not seen a nuanced and well-developed legal argument to negate this posturing by the RPA. But this is quite understandable: conceding that the system is “rigged” in favor of the majority, it would be a negotiation trap if Pashinyan engaged the RPA leadership through a legalistic and Constitutionalist discourse. As such, Pashinyan’s avenue has been political as opposed to legalistic: he is arguing that the will of the people, and their opposition to the RPA-dominated system, supersedes the political power of the Parliamentary majority, and within this context, the RPA’s appeal to Constitutional and legal discourse is moot. Thus, Pashinyan is not seeking to usurp the Constitutional legitimacy of Parliament, but rather, force the majority in Parliament to conform to the will of the popular movement.
This posturing by Pashinyan has further deepened the crisis of legitimacy within the RPA. Let us consider the demand of snap elections. Since snap elections are Constitutionally permissible, and this remains the demand and will of the people, the RPA’s options become as follows: use its Parliamentary majority to implement the Party’s will on the people, or, concede to snap elections and conform to the will of the people. Thus, the Constitutional framework can and is being used to pressure the RPA to proceed with the latter option. The second concern pertaining to the crisis of legitimacy revolves around the unanimous nomination and election, by the RPA, of Serzh Sargsyan as PM. If the RPA’s unanimous choice for PM was thoroughly and resoundingly rejected by the people, then this party’s capacity to claim the confidence of the people, or to have the mandate of running government becomes negated. Simply relying on its majority structure in Parliament no longer becomes a tenable argument. Namely, the RPA now falls into the trap of engaging in “the tyranny of the majority,” where the will of the majority in government usurps the will of society.
While the RPA may argue that they legally have a right to rule, this does not entail that they have the political mandate to rule, and as such, when legality conflicts with lack of a mandate, the cogent and acceptable outcome is resignation.
This “tyranny of the majority” presupposition further exposes the false sense of legitimacy that the RPA presumes it has simply due to the fact that it holds Parliamentary majority. Meaning, while they may argue that they legally have a right to rule, this does not entail that they have the political mandate to rule, and as such, when legality conflicts with lack of a mandate, the cogent and acceptable outcome is resignation. This is precisely what Sargsyan did: for all means and purposes, Sargsyan was legally, per the Constitution, the Prime Minister. However, regardless of this legality, Sargsyan resigned because the mass protests and the popular movement demonstrated that he did not have a mandate. As such, the people’s will superseded his ability to keep his position, regardless of its consistency with the Constitution. Accordingly, if the leader of the RPA, its choice for PM, and the very source of power within this party, resigned due to his loss of mandate, on what basis is the RPA presuming that it has a mandate, or that it can utilize the legalistic argument of leveraging its Constitutional authority to rule? Sargsyan’s resignation was a clear concession and admittance that neither he nor his party has a mandate to rule. The contention by the popular movement has not specifically insulated its demands upon Sargsyan; rather, the popular movement demands the entire resignation of the RPA. Within this context, the RPA’s only avenue of argument, that of Constitutional legality, is no longer tenable: Sargsyan’s resignation undermined the tenability of this argument. Simply put, when Sargsyan resigned, he specifically noted that he was wrong and the opposition (personified through Nikol Pashinyan) was right. The RPA, however, appears to be arguing that Sargsyan was wrong and the Party is right.
The other pertinent issue that needs to be addressed is the transparent hypocrisy of the RPA in its appeal to Constitutional legality. For the last 10 years of the Sargsyan Administration that was RPA-dominated, the Constitution served as a one-sided instrument that only applied to everyone else: the RPA elite were simply above the Constitution. Yet, all of a sudden, once their instruments of formal and informal powers have been constrained and hampered, they are now running to hide and shield themselves under the protection of the Constitution. This remains a sticking point for much of Armenian society, considering the fact that the RPA has reduced Armenia’s legal system, along with its Constitution, into a self-serving farce. In this context, ad hoc application of Constitutional principles for self-interest, or self-protection, fundamentally reeks of hypocrisy: the RPA cannot debase the Constitution when feasible, but then claim its venerability when desperately needed.
Refraining from the Geopolitical Trap
Nikol Pashinyan has done a very impressive job of framing the popular movement as primarily a domestic endeavor, and as such, these developments must be excluded from any geopolitical considerations. The underlying contention made is that the attempted regime change in Armenia does not aspire a reconfiguration of regional arrangements or alterations in obligations to its strategic partners. Simply put, Pashinyan has gone out of his way to confirm and re-confirm that the popular movement and the drive for regime change is neither a challenge nor a threat to Russia’s interests either in Armenia or in the region. This demarcation is inherently crucial because any Russian involvement may either tip the domestic balance of power, or embolden the RPA-led government into action, with consequences, the thought of which has terrified and deterred both sides from engaging in violence.
That Russia tacitly supports the RPA, or that it would prefer Karen Karapetyan as Prime Minister is both a tenable and a very logical argument. The fact that in his recent discussion with acting PM Karapetyan, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that the Constitutional framework should be the avenue through which matters are resolved directly dovetails with our initial analysis: this primarily favors preserving the legal powers of the RPA. This Russian preference, however, is neither policy nor position, but rather, it is just that, a preference. Now, the question that arises is quite obvious: what measures is Russia willing to take to make this preference a reality? While well-developed analysis has suggested that certain conditions must be present in order for Russia to actually take action, such as threats to Russia’s perceived “privileged zone of interest” (i.e., post-Soviet space) or the risk-worthiness of military action,  it must also be noted that Russia has a very unique relationship with Armenia that is not purely transactional, and as such, it is very risk-averse to overplaying its hand.
Two assessments make this very evident for Moscow. First, Russia from the start has been convinced by the realities on the ground: that this socio-political upheaval is organic, grass-roots, and a clear consequence of Sargsyan’s orchestrated power grab.
That Moscow has declared neutrality and reaffirmed the domestic nature of the issue is highly indicative that Russia does not perceive its interests in Armenia to be threatened. That this neutrality will continue to sustain itself is beyond anyone’s guess.
In this context, Russia does not have any suspicions that these protests are foreign-funded, or have been designed to challenge Russia’s interests in either Armenia or the region. As such, the organic nature of the popular movement, and its purely domestic orientation, has made it evident to Russia that there are no risks to its interests. Second, noting the organic and spontaneous nature of this uprising, Russia is very careful not to overplay its hand by throwing its weight behind the current RPA-led regime. Namely, Russia is not willing to flame the growth or spread of anti-Russian sentiments in Armenia by backing or supporting an extremely unpopular government. This has become a bit more evident as we have seen a concerted effort by the RPA leadership to garner the Kremlin’s sympathies. That Moscow has declared neutrality and reaffirmed the domestic nature of the issue is highly indicative that Russia does not perceive its interests in Armenia to be threatened. That this neutrality will continue to sustain itself is beyond anyone’s guess. But considering Moscow’s healthy respect for Armenia’s recent domestic developments, and its realization that Armenia’s over-reliance and dependence on Moscow is lopsided, the Kremlin has no cogent reason to overplay its hand when it already has all the leverage it needs in preserving its interests in Armenia.
Negotiations and Snap Elections?
Karen Karapetyan’s negotiating tactic appears to encompass three main attributes. The first revolves around outwitting Pashinyan, the second seeks to outmaneuver Pashinyan, and the third aims to win the public relations battle. Collectively, Karapetyan is seeking to project a posture that is moderate, multi-party, and inclusive; namely, he is attempting to paint Pashinyan as unreasonable and non-negotiable. Karapetyan’s posturing suggests that there will be much pushback from the RPA, and they will do this methodically, with the hopes of buying some time to determine how to utilize their entrenched interests. Further, by requesting the inclusion of other political actors and forces in the negotiations, Karapetyan is saturating the political arena, with the hopes of slightly limiting Pashinyan’s political capital by including other political forces. So far Karapetyan’s three-tiered approach has not produced viable results: RPA is losing the public relations game, Pashinyan has neither been outwitted nor outmaneuvered and, more importantly, the remaining political parties have declared solidarity with the popular movement (this does not, at this stage, entail direct support for Pashinyan, but it does clearly indicate a preference of Pashinyan over Karapetyan).
The continuation of this impasse is not tenable, and this is clear to everyone: either the RPA concedes and finds a way to give the Prime Ministership to Pashinyan in some face-saving way, or they are prepared for the intensification of civil conflict and, possibly, the complete deterioration of peaceful political discourse.
The continuation of this impasse is not tenable, and this is clear to everyone: either the RPA concedes and finds a way to give the Prime Ministership to Pashinyan in some face-saving way, or they are prepared for the intensification of civil conflict and, possibly, the complete deterioration of peaceful political discourse. Considering the fact that Serzh Sargsyan was far more powerful in his control and influence over the state’s institutions and security apparatus, and considering that in relation to these capabilities he refrained from using force, a relatively weaker Karapetyan cannot consider the use of force as a viable option. In this sense, the RPA is either trying to buy time and gain a stronger bargaining hand, or, they are digging in and waiting for the worst. Well, digging in is not a strategy: it is a desperate posture without an endgame. Thus, either the RPA is proceeding towards self-entrapment, or they are prolonging the inevitable with the hopes of developing a face-saving exit strategy.
This contentious atmosphere, overarchingly, is about the forming of an interim government, and as such, who will control and coordinate the snap elections? Considering the RPA’s well-established and well-documented history of electoral fraud, the popular movement, obviously, cannot in any way agree to an RPA-dominated interim government. The RPA, at the same time, is cognizant of its extraordinary institutional powers, especially the nationwide infrastructure that it has, with patronage-based political machines in every marz, city, and/or municipality. Thus, if they are to stand a chance in the snap elections against the popular movement, then they have no option but to retain the mechanisms through which the electoral process is controlled.
The popular movement, on the other hand, does not have a well-structured nationwide electoral apparatus. As such, they have a great deal of organizational work to do in preparing for snap elections. Simply put, the RPA is the only nationwide party; all other parties that are part of the popular movement, or have joined in sympathy, are regional actors. Thus, Yelk does not have a well-developed national infrastructure; matter in fact, they have no presence in most of the city councils, townships, or mayoral offices in the country. Pashinyan’s Civic Contract, for example, is specific to Yerevan and has some presence in Gyumri. Bright Armenia, Pashinyan’s ally in Yelk, is primarily in Vanadzor. The Prosperous Armenia Party (BBK), under the tutelage of tycoon Gagik Tsarukyan, controls Kotayk, and even if Tsarukyan agrees to support Pashinyan, this again, will primarily have specific electoral dividends in Kotayk. The Syunik region, and much of rural and southern Armenia, on the other hand, simply does not have an electoral infrastructure other than the RPA’s. Within this context, the popular movement, under the leadership of Yelk, and along with presumed or possible allies (BKK or ARF) must quickly and methodically develop both grassroots and organizational infrastructure throughout the country in preparation for snap elections.
Ending the Myth of the Symbolic Father
In Armenia, the analogy of the government, or the political leadership, as symbolizing a fatherly figure and the citizenry as the devout children, has been a common theme in conceptualizing power relations between those in authority and those subjected to such authority. For too long, however, the oppressive elements in Armenian society, these symbolic father figures, have fancied themselves as practitioners of realpolitik, where in their state of mind being abusive and unjust are merely exercises in strength. This arrogant indifference to the suffering of their fellow Armenians, their symbolic children, became normalized as being an expression of fatherly dominance. Thus, they deemed it natural that the strong should dominate the weak. Perhaps, in their ignorance, they were unknowingly paying homage to Thucydides, who famously said, “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” But this false dichotomy of strength through abuse and weakness through suffering no longer holds; Armenian society sees abuse for what it is: shamelessness. And it sees suffering for what it is: true sign of strength and honor. This New Armenia that is being created, then, has rejected the abusive father through a new adage: The honorable do what they can, and the shameless will suffer what they must!