From Revolution to war: Domestic developments in Armenia

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The content of the publication is the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung”.
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Pre-Revolutionary Situation and 100 Days of Prime Ministership of Nikol Pashinyan

In 2015, President Serzh Sargsyan and the Republican Party changed the effective Constitution of the Republic of Armenia to ensure a shift from a semi-presidential state to a parliamentary state. The parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition forces, as well as a large part of the civil society interpreted this move as an attempt at reproducing Serzh Sargsyan’s power, enabling his re-election as Prime Minister. Later, in the 2017 parliamentary elections, the ruling Republican Party[1] won the majority of votes and formed the one-force government. This new Constitution was in fact that for Serzh Sargsyan's "personal" government, where the Prime Minister had super powers. However, the new constitution was to come into force on April 9, 2018, upon the expiry of the incumbent president’s term in office, and there was a vacuum of power in Armenia between this date and the election of the Prime Minister on April 17. Nikol Pashinyan’s rationale for starting an opposition movement emerged in this context aiming at the prevention of  Serzh Sargsyan's re-election and the disruption of the power reproduction process.

The April-May 2018 pan-Armenian mass rallies, led by MP Nikol Pashinyan, aimed to neutralize the transfer of former president Serzh Sargsyan's system within the framework of the parliamentary system. In 2017, the human rights organization Freedom House published its Nations in Transit report, where, among others, Armenia was rated as a state with a semi-consolidated authoritarian system.

Under the pressure of the April-May popular protests, combined with the struggle of various groups of the ruling elite, it became possible to force Serzh Sargsyan to resign, admit that Nikol Pashinyan and the movement led by him “was right.” This statement was, in fact, that of a non-violent, legitimate transfer of power, where the incumbent regime in the person of Serzh Sargsyan accepted the legitimacy of Nikol Pashinyan as the leader of the opposition, furthermore, created the necessary political environment for a smooth transfer of power. Serzh Sargsyan's speech was addressed first of all at the state bureaucratic and law enforcement agencies, necessarily preparing a smooth and bloodless scenario of the transfer of power, indirectly calling to follow Nikol Pashinyan and the movement led by him. By the way, Serzh Sargsyan had the opportunity to use force, taking into account Serzh Sargsyan's experience of coming into power in the 2008 presidential elections and the post-election processes. During those events, brutal force was used against protesters, 10 protesters were killed, but nevertheless Serzh Sargsyan managed to further stabilize his shaky public legitimacy. Later, it became clear that the incumbent Deputy Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan had made an attempt to use the window provided to take power with the support of the security forces, however that attempt had failed.

The leader of the revolution and the revolutionary team later pursued the constitutional path through the election of Nikol Pashinyan as Prime Minister by the Republican-majority National Assembly of the 6th convocation, following the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan. In fact, pursuant to the letter and spirit of the law, the party, accused of seizing power and reproducing Serzh Sargsyan, was politically legitimized. On the other hand, by abandoning the entire legal process and the existing legal bases and institutions, the revolution could lead the country to irreversible shocks, fraught with unpredictable consequences. In fact, a chosen path was legally correct and within the constitutional logic, but was a bomb of slow action from the political perspective. In all their subsequent statements, reform projects, and legislative initiatives both Nikol Pashinyan and his teammates spoke about legality and being guided by the current constitutional norms, which was nothing but the preservation of the previous constitution and entailed the management of processes within its frames. This approach emphasized the principle of legal legitimacy of power transfer , which was later supported by the outcomes of the new parliamentary elections.

The election of the Prime Minister on May 9, 2018, marked the beginning of the constitutional and legal path towards the capitalization of the revolution. This path was as much a priority as the preservation of the rule of law in the country, the logic of the constitutional change of power, the more it was a reason for slowing down or hindering the reforms in the future. Becoming Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan immediately formed the Government of National Accord from among the parliamentary parties (YELK, PAP, ARF[2][3]), at the same time he staffed many spheres of executive management with his teammates on the revolutionary platform. Simultaneously with the strengthening of the government, a struggle started against the current elites. The well-known case of Republican Party of Armenia member of parliament, General Manvel Grigoryan was lodged, which, in fact, was a warning to the former elites. Grigoryan’s deprivation of his parliamentary mandate and his arrest came as a clear message that the same fate awaited any force that had a potential counter-revolutionary aspiration. This case also crushed the theses on "stability"  and "nation-army", proposed by the Sargsyan system, proving their failure. It was also a symbol of the end of the former "Karabakh political elite", that is, the first step in the implementation of the principle a new revolution, new faces in the domestic  political system.

This approach, however, was taken from textbooks and proved completely impractical in the context of a limited bureaucratic and underdeveloped political-party system. Let's not forget that according to many analysts, the consensus of Serzh Sargsyan's government with the society collapsed as a result of the April 2016 war and the subsequent loss of 800 hectares in Nagorno-Karabakh disputed region, self-declared Republic of Artsakh, which was the most serious blow to Sargsyan's reputation. This logic continues with the criminal cases initiated against Mihran Poghosyan, the former head of the Compulsory Enforcement Service, the former Minister of Nature Protection Armen Harutyunyan, the head of Serzh Sargsyan's bodyguard Vachagan Ghazaryan and others. It should be noted that at the same time, many representatives of the former system continued to work in the government, a circumstance that was presented as a new chance to the representatives of the former system and the rejection of the vendetta. In the future, nonetheless, both Pashinyan and his teammates would talk about systemic resistance, internal obstacles and circles serving the "former" in order to slow down or freeze the reforms. In the short run, however, with this approach, Pashinyan and his teammates managed to uphold both the protests of their supporters, satisfying the popular demand, and avoid total arrests and criminal cases, thus preventing the consolidation of the former elites against the new power. Later, of course, the draft law on the confiscation of illegal property was put forward, which was adopted as a result of an attempt to systematize the process. Initially, such a possible open confrontation with the former system could have had a devastating effect on the revolutionary leader and his team, leading to the collapse of the state apparatus and its activities.

On the other hand, the collapse of the RPA majority in the parliament, the withdrawal of businessmen-deputies and the deactivation of the RPA politics further contributed to the collapse of the previous system, and the extraordinary parliamentary elections were growing into an imperative. Stabilizing the situation within the executive power, depleting the legislative majority and step by step capitalizing on the mandate of the revolution, on the 100th day in office,  August 17, 2018, the Prime Minister and his team announced the priorities of the revolutionary mass platform and their political team and presented the road map for future changes:

1. To form a non-coalition government that enjoys the direct mandate and public legitimacy of the people;

2. To stabilize the country, keep it away from economic shocks and, moreover, carry out an economic revolution;

3. To establish a judicial system that enjoys the trust of the people and serves the primary cause of the revolution, i.e. justice, to fight and eliminate systemic corruption;

4. To establish transitional justice bodies to reform the judiciary and eliminate systemic corruption;

5. To ensure the March 1st case is solved and hold those who organized the coup d'etat accountable;

6. To achieve the settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh issue in a manner, desirable for the people and within the mandate of popular legitimacy;

7. To further develop and deepen relations with Armenia's strategic ally, i.e. the Russian Federation and partner countries, i.e. the EU and the US; and

8. To form, via snap elections, a legitimate National Assembly that enjoys the trust of the people.


Snap Parliamentary Elections and the Legislative Power

The meeting of the Prime Minister with the transitional justice bodies in July 2018 coincided with the period when the confrontation between Pashinyan and the RPA had intensified in the country. The RPA was trying to postpone the elections until next May, and Pashinyan insisted that it be held in December of the same year. Both arguments were understandable. Losing the constitutional majority in the National Assembly, the RPA faction with the support of the ARF and the PAP tried to overthrow the possibility of early elections at any cost and change the law on the NA Rules of Procedure. This led to the events of October 2, the dismissal of the coalition government ministers. Later, under public pressure, a political agreement was reached, Nikol Pashinyan resigned from the post of the RA Prime Minister, the National Assembly failed to elect a new Prime Minister twice, and the new elections were appointed on December 9, 2018.

In the parliamentary elections, the "My Step" alliance, led by Pashinyan, won a super-confident victory with a revolutionary public mandatemore than 70%, gaining a constitutional majority – and a legitimate right to form a sole government. As a result, the revolution stepped into its logical second stage, when after the formation of the legislature and the executive powers it was an imperative to transform the key sectors of the state. But that secure and absolute victory was also the starting point for the ruling party to position itself as faultless as any public and political criticism would henceforth be responded with a statement that a party with 70% legitimacy represented the majority of the population, hence it did not need to heed others’ opinions. Hence, those democratic elections that were highly credited by the public and objected by no other political party led to the formation of a parliament and a government beyond any checks and balances,. Here, in fact, the ruling party itself could be the checks and balances system by attempting to proofread or edit the mistakes, delays and its own fallacies offhand. Under these circumstances it came out that the rejection of the previous system as well as the absence of the acting political opposition’s public legitimacy had created a huge political vacuum, which was filled in by the revolutionary force. The latter, though, had no institutional bases as a party in terms of establishing both intra-party democracy, and partner relationships in politics.

Not having the required scope to represent all layers of authority, and the time necessary to get ready for the election, the Civil Contract party compiled its slate in quite a short period of time. The list consisted of numerous representatives of the civil society, who like-mindedly, came together around the principle of “for the sake of every boon” and “against every evil”. Yet, the intra-party democracy typical of an established party, the mechanisms of checks and balances were still in the making. Coming to power under these circumstances was a real trial for both the previous, and the incumbent members of the party. There was even a period of time when Lena Nazaryan, a member of the Party’s administration, announced that they had halted the process of replenishing their party in order to virtually block the penetration of opportunists and other elements into the bodies of the ruling party by that time. The defeats in the marzes (provinces) and in the 2019 LSG (Local self-governed bodies) [4], the lower level of the ruling party’s representation in and the victories of Elders’ Council members, mainly from the Republican Party of Armenia, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the Prosperous Armenia Party came to indicate also that the ruling party was primarily “from Yerevan”.

It was also of paramount importance to clarify the relationship between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forces. Having won the elections by landslide, Pashinyan and his administration proclaimed themselves the only legitimate force, which gained public confidence. The situation was also dramatic in the sense that the representatives of the previous system were meeting their legal engagements in the realm of opposition, thus delegitimizing the notion of opposition. The conjuncture was especially important since the legitimate opposition, together with the authorities in power, is a constituent of an integrated political system, and should be able to assume power any time. Yet, in that equivocal situation, Pashinyan and his administration actually had no alternative but to exploit the mandate of 70% ballots in case of any criticism from both the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition. On the other hand, the previous forces positioned themselves as an opposition, and by possessing huge media resources, started a real media campaign against the new authorities, which largely affected the current war as well. Since autumn 2018, the new authorities had been blamed on such topics of hegemonic discourse in Armenia, as “family break-up”, “profanation of national values”, “surrender of lands”, “secret and conspiratorial negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue”, and so on. As a result of that media campaign, the authorities were urged to enhance their rhetoric, especially in relation to the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and act as the guarantors of the status quo. The best examples of that reality are the statements made by the RA Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense (Davit Tonoyan) with the slogans: “Artsakh is Armenia. Period!” and “A new war, new territories.”

The delay of swift reforms, the resistance of the previous system, the clumsiness of the parliamentary majority, and their non-inclusive stance led to a political situation when the revolutionary circle, i.e. the forces, which had joined during the revolution, ended up in various camps, with the emergence of new political forces. The natural political allies of the revolutionary force, such as the Armenian National Congress and Citizen’s Decision, became their political opponents, too.

On the other hand, the representatives of the civil society gave extensive support to the “revolutionary” administration and the reforms proposed by the latter, a circumstance that by itself contributed to the involvement of numerous representatives in the legislative and executive bodies, as well as various committees and working groups who were engaged in the elaboration of reform packages and discussion of the legislative projects. As a result, the civil society, which could be a serious counterbalance for the power, partially merged with the authorities, thus undermining the system of public control and possible counterbalances. Later on, the majority of the civil society representatives, being unable to adjust themselves to the resistance of the acting systems of the executive bodies and  share the approaches to the solutions to domestic problems, lost their positions in the governement or tendered resignations voluntarily. On the other hand, as a result of that process, the civil society, which had gained momentum in its development during Serzh Sargsyan’s administration, split up; some grouped as opposition to the new authorities, and the others joined the authorities. Moreover, those two groups had virtually been speaking different languages for quite a long time, and had different, sometimes even conflicting visions on the future of Armenia and its current problems.  

Failure of Judicial and Legal Reforms, the Coronavirus and the Eve of the War

Out of all state institutions in post-revolutionary Armenia, the judicial authority had the lowest level of public confidence. For instance, the International Republican Institute (IRI) in Armenia carried out a public opinion poll in May, 2019, to shed light on the public attitude towards state institutions, the Church, and the challenges that the government was facing back then.

According to that survey, the respondents had the lowest level of confidence in the judicial system (36% positive). The survey, conducted, by the SEPEJ of the Council of Europe in 2016 – 2017, is also well-known, according to which reflects the public assessment of the judicial system activity and the attitude of court users to courts, highlighting all the challenging problems from the latter’s point of view.  

On December 19, 2018, RA anticorruption draft strategy and inaction Plan 2019-2022 were published on the RA Ministry of Justice integrated platform for the publication of draft legal acts ( Subsequently, on May 20, 2019, at a meeting with the legislative, executive and judicial representatives, PM Pashinyan presented the vision on the judicial reform, highlighting it’s the key provisions. This vision became popular by the name “vetting.” It stipulated that all judges in Armenia must undergo the so-called ‘vetting’. Comprehensive information on the judge’s political affiliation, origin, property, status, previous activity and performance, individual and professional features should be collected.

Subsequently, parliamentary hearings under the heading of “Prospects of Applying Transitional Justice Tools in Armenia” were initiated which, however, failed to ensure any substantial success. Moreover,  Minister of Justice Artak Zeynalyan was replaced by Rustam Badasyan, and the process was halted for a while to fail afterwards. The draft was strongly criticized by civil society organizations who demanded to terminate the process of the adoption of the draft and review the document in a very short period of time.

The reasons behind the failure to introduce the mechanisms of transitional justice and implement the judicial reform, in all likelihood, are numerous and mutually complementary. The ruling party used to speak about the incompatibility of the Constitution, and the negative feedback by the international partners (the Venice Commission). The assessment of the potential risks by the ruling force was, perhaps, even more significant, according to which the judicial system could be paralyzed. Another important factor was, certainly, the possible lack of confidence in the potential of the ruling power, the absence of institutional approach, and the exaggerated perception of the previous system’s resistance. Indeed, there was such a resistance, and it could entail a confrontation, but the ruling force might well neutralize it due to swift and abrupt reforms and its public confidence rating, as a firm ground for noticeable changes, which, however, did not occur. Prime Minister Pashinyan commented on this matter in a press conference, stating that swift changes could not be successful, hence necessary measures were being taken, yet they were not targeted at being swift and creating a puppet court, servicing the regime. The actually announced investigation of the property, income and profit declarations of in-service judges and the checks of new candidate judges’ integrity were formal and useless tools, given the situation the current system was in and the urgency of the problems.

The failure of the judicial reform, the pending new law on political parties, the suspension of constitutional amendments, the referendum on the changes to the constitutional court, which collapsed because of the coronavirus pandemic, made the authority fall into a predicament. The ruling party, having had 70% ballot of public confidence, did nt implement swift and considerable reforms in the systems of state government and justice, and gradually wasted the mandate of rapid and effective change.

On top of this, the coronavirus pandemic gave rise to new challenges for the Republic of Armenia and the ruling party. As a result of unsatisfactory and ineffective actions of the police and inspection bodies, the entire burden fell on the healthcare system. Thus, the coronavirus crisis and the ineffective governance substantially undermined public confidence in the ruling party and its political weight.

The best indicator of the considerable attenuation of the political legitimacy was Gagik Tsarukyan’s, head of the parliament’s second largest force, demand for the resignation of the government. Eventually, without seriously reforming the system of state governance, by creating super-ministries and maintaining a government model without any realistic mechanism of checks and balances, losing political allies and by freezing or straining the relations with almost all notable political forces, PM Pashinyan and his administration were faced with unexpected external natural disasters: first, the coronavirus pandemic, and then the war. Following all these challenges, the coronavirus pandemic and the actual defeat in Artsakh’s new war, the ruling authorities considerably lost their public legitimacy and political reputation, as a result, the newly emerged vacuum of public confidence was in relation to both the previous authorities and opposition, and the new authorities. Though, on the other hand, surveys of the current state of public opinion come to show that the ruling party, in the person of Prime Minister Pashinyan, still continues to enjoy about 44 % public support.

In the current situation, it is possible to hold snap elections if a significant public demand is created, of course, after the situation settles down and stabilizes. The decline of legitimacy because of the war is first and foremost a challenge to the ruling team, as long as they are planning to continue reforms and need legitimacy to implement them. A major change in the government may calm things down for the time being, but it is only a temporary solution; it cannot address the existing challenges in the long run. Probable parliamentary elections will also contribute to the political inclusion of the government and the prevalence of parliamentary processes, in order to move the current opposition from the streets to the parliament, so as not to shake the foundations of the state and those of public solidarity, as well as form a new post-war public agreement.


[1] RPA(Republican Party of Armenia, ruling party under leadership of Serzh Sargsyan)

[2] (3) YELK(Way Out Alliance (Armenian: «Ելք» դաշինք, including Civil Contract, Bright Armenia and the Hanrapetutyun Party), PAP(Prosperous Armenia Party), ARF(Armenian Revolutionary Federation, also known as Dashnaktsutyun).

[4] Local elections