Background On the 20th of June 2021, citizens of Armenia will head to the polling stations to participate in the parliamentary snap elections seven months after the 2nd Karabakh war (September 27, 2020 -November 10, 2020) and in a situation of resulting post-war political crisis. The Armenian society is highly polarized and confused about the future of the country more than ever before. According to the results of International Republican Institute (IRI) polls in May, more than 55% of the population find it difficult to answer which political party they will vote for in the elections. This lack of orientation seems to have deepened even more since the number of participants in the elections is quite high - twenty-two parties and four alliances were registered by the Central Electoral Commission running for elections on the 26th of May.
It is widely assumed that one of the two major forces – either “Civil Contract” led by the current Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan or alliance “Armenia” led by the second President Robert Kocharyan will win in the elections. The candidates refer to various public polls conducted in May and June, forecasting their victory. However, there is not much trust towards such surveys in Armenia since it is assumed that their results are manipulated depending on the political force who places the order for the poll.
All three previous presidents and the current acting prime minister are running for office. Other small parties and alliances are divided into groupings – those considered as conservative opposition mostly stating their intention to further deepen the relationship with Russia that will most likely ally with the “Armenia” alliance in case of its victory, moderate opposition that is advocating for reforms and seeking diversification in foreign policy and security, some of which are assumed to ally with “Civil Contract” in case of its victory, as well as nationalistic pro-Western forces and few small new forces with no explicit geopolitical orientation.
It is not clear whether either of these two forces will gain the majority vote, or if they will need to form a coalition with smaller parties, who will overcome the threshold and would be willing to be part of the government. It is not clear whether there will be a second round of elections. Some experts consider the results of these elections as unpredictable as ever. For the first time in post-Soviet Armenian history the outcome of the elections seems to be an open question.
The concerns over civil unrest
As stated by a number of political and public figures, there is a concern about the possibility of a civil war. The most pessimistic predictions suggest that Armenia may become a second Syria. Those concerns are conditioned by the degree of the hostility between the main political forces, the recent war and the question of accountability for it amongst the previous and current authorities, the history of developments and incidents affecting the internal power dynamics in the modern history of Armenia and the current degree of hostility and hate speech between them. Furthermore, the possible influence of external actors, first of all Russia the dependency on which has further increased since the war, as well as the impact of the continuing hybrid war by Azerbaijan, including military threats and information war affect the campaign. Although a number of small political forces have moderate or radical pro-Western orientation, the Western influence is neither direct or explicit
First President Levon Ter-Petrossian, whose party Armenian National Congress is running in the elections, has warned about an imminent civil war if one of the two axis wins. He states in his interviews that his party is the only “reasonable voice” able to extinguish the fire, and has suggested forming a technocrat government. He explains it by showing his readiness for a resolution to the Nagorno Karabakh problem based on a consensus in 1998 and his subsequent resignation aimed to prevent the war with Azerbaijan and civil war. The Head of Bright Armenia party Edmon Marukyan, also running, has positioned itself as a balancing force that is able to restore the national cohesion and has suggested forming a government of national solidarity. He has underlined that post-electoral turbulence will distract the already scarce resources, de-stabilize the country, and prevent focus on pressing issues, including the need to strengthen national security. Other forces adhering to extreme views believe that if the other side comes to power, national security will be endangered anyway.
Both likely candidates for winning in the elections – “Civil Contract” and “Armenia”-have reportedly reserved the two largest squares in Yerevan for a few days following the June 20th election. This has caused concern amongst the society about the possible post-election protests leading to civil unrest if one of the axes doesn’t accept the results of the elections.
Legacy of incidents from the modern history of Armenia
The ruling party, Civil Contract, recalls the terrorist attack on the Armenian National Assembly by a fringe armed group on 27 October 1999. As a result of this attack, PM Vazgen Sargsyan and Speaker Karen Demirchyan, amongst others, were assassinated. They were iconic figures in Armenia who had won a majority in parliamentary elections and were playing a major role in decision-making. The shooting remains a subject to conspiracy theories, involving some of the actors currently running in elections. Another dramatic incident in the modern history of Armenia was on 1 March 2008. The elections were followed by claims about fraud and demonstrations, use of force by the police and allegedly, also the army, resulting in the killing of eight protesters and two policemen. In those events, all four leaders of the current Republic of Armenia were involved – Robert Kocharyan was the outgoing President, Serj Sargsyan was the incoming President, Ter-Petrossyan, the first President was claiming that he had won in the election, and Nikol Pashinyan, the current PM was the supporter and co-organizer of post-election protests. After Pashinyan came to power in 2018, a lawsuit against Kocharyan and two other defendants was launched, and he was charged with overthrowing constitutional order in March 2008. However, on 29 March 2021, the Constitutional Court of Armenia ruled that the Criminal Code article in question (Article 300.1) runs counter to two articles of the constitution, and the case was dropped. The independence of the judiciary, including the Constitutional Court crisis only partially resolved in 2020, has been one of the most difficult and politicized issues on the reform agenda.
The 2018 Velvet Revolution led by Pashinyan resulted in Sargsyan’s resignation and was followed with categorization of various factions of the society as “the white and the black”, “the previous and the present” by the ruling My Step parliamentary majority. Pashinyan promised a Velvet Revolution and in fact, vetting of the judiciary announced by him in May 2019 largely failed, causing the dissatisfaction of liberal parties and civil society. However, the polarization of the society was further deepened as assessed by the opposition, international CSOs and local civil society.
Finally, the announcement of the tripartite ceasefire statement by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia on 9 November 2020 in the context of the 2nd Karabakh war was followed by public anger, including storming the National Assembly and other Government buildings, and physically attacking the Speaker of the National Assembly Ararat Mirzoyan. After months of a domestic political crisis, during which the conservative opposition was demanding the resignation of PM Pashinyan, parliamentary snap elections were announced in March. During this period, the government officials and the conservative opposition extensively used hate speech and disinformation, blamed each other for the defeat in the war, treason, mismanagement and bad governance that was intensified even further during the election campaign.
Before the war, Armenia was considered a country with a high level of internal security and public safety, with a low crime rate and a large police force. It is assumed that a number of people may be illegally holding weapons in post-war Armenia. When the military servicemen and volunteers returned to Armenia in November, the situation was chaotic, the control at checkpoints to collect weapons was not strong. Later on, handover and collection of weapons was carried out by the Ministry of Defence. However, some volunteers may have kept some armaments. The fears of civil war were significant in mid-November due to a Facebook post by the Prime Minister interpreted as a threat to spark a civil war even by some of his teammates. and those for an attempted military coup or at least intervention by the military in politics – at the end of February due to the appeal to the PM to resign by the Chief of Armed Forces and about 40 other senior military officers; however, they did not materialize.
Election campaign, hate speech and false narratives
During the campaign Pashinyan requested an “iron mandate” from his electorate, promised “vendetta” and used a hammer, allegedly given as a gift by a supporter, as a campaign symbol. In return, Kocharyan started using a hook, also allegedly received from his supporters. Most probably, Pashinyan implied by his intention for vetting, lustration and verdicts resulted by lawsuits for the cases of bribery against those associated with the previous authority, demanded by those who found his judicial reform and measures against the former authorities unsatisfactory. The conservative opposition perceived his judicial reforms as a threat of repression against them. The Human Rights Defender of Armenia made a number of statements criticizing the use of a hammer and hate speech during the campaign by various political forces with a focus on the ruling party as having an obligation for more accountability than the opposition. The liberal civil society does not appreciate the packaging of the judicial reform, vetting or lustration into a vendetta either. US watchdog Freedom House also expressed a concern over the outbreak of violent and hateful rhetoric used by Armenian politicians in the election period.
In the case of the victory of the “Armenia” alliance, there is a concern amongst some groups of the liberal opposition and civil society about the restriction of civic space. Liberal civil society was stigmatized and targeted after the revolution and especially after the war in Karabakh. Various false anti-democratic narratives have been spread in Armenia. One narrative claims that democracy and human rights weakened national security which resulted in the military defeat. Another claims that Pashinyan is still associated with the local pro-democratic civil society that had supported the Velvet Revolution, and both Pashinyan’s Government and civil society are promoted by Western globalists. According to independent analysts, these narratives are manipulative and asserted without substance. Kocharyan has stated on a number of occasions in the last few months, including during the election campaign, that if he is elected, he would ban the activities of “Soros office”, meaning the Open Society Foundation and its beneficiaries. This intimidates the liberal civil society and makes its members prefer the current government in spite of their disappointment and criticism over its failures. At the same time, according to an IRI survey, 48% of the respondents believe that democracy is the best possible form of government for Armenia, and only 18% of respondents believe that other forms of government are better than democracy.
External security risks
Armenia has been facing external security and defense threats before, during, and after the elections. These threats have intensified since mid-May when Azerbaijani troops violated the administrative border between the Soviet Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan and started advancing its presence in two regions of Armenia proper – Syunik and Gegharkunik. Similar developments had occurred since mid-December 2020 in Syunik, but back then it was presented as deploying on the new Armenian-Azeri border in the post-war situation. This Threat has been underestimated by most of the political forces and analysts who believed that Russia would prevent such escalations based on the Armenian-Russian strategic alliance, including the agreement on military cooperation and Armenia’s membership to the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The Azeri forces continued advancing their troops in the Armenian territory throughout the following weeks, with incidents of various scope, the most serious of them being the establishment of tens of Azeri military positions in Armenia and capturing six additional prisoners of war.
Armenia notified the Collective Security Treaty Organization of the threat to its security and territorial integrity but did not receive explicit guarantees from the organization for political or military support. The Armenian parliament and public had a political debate about whether or not Armenia should request the UN Security Council to address the violation of its territorial integrity. This also resulted in the announcement of a planned process of demarcation and delimitation by the prime minister of Armenia on 20 May 2021 based on a draft statement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. It caused controversy amongst the public since the process appeared to be imposed, rushed, and not corresponding to national interests and international standards. Those developments resulted in the resignation of the leadership of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia in the last week of May after announcing the necessity of conducting demarcation and delimitation in the context of negotiations over Nagorno Karabakh within the OSCE Minsk Group process.
There were concerns that the situation in the bordering regions of Armenia would escalate into a more systematic military offensive by Azerbaijan, resulting in the announcement of a military situation, during which elections would have been postponed in line with the Constitution. Those concerns intensified in light of the statements by the President of Azerbaijan since the end of December containing territorial claims and military threats to certain regions of Armenia. These statements were addressed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Human Rights Defender of Armenia on several occasions. However, the United States, France, the OSCE and the EU made statements urging them to refrain from military actions and demanded the withdrawal of the troops from the non-demarcated border, after which the intensity of the situation reduced.
No major incidents have been reported since the beginning of the official election campaign on June 7th Nevertheless, frequent minor incidents still occur between the Azeri troops and Armenian shepherds who take their livestock to the fields close to the illegal military positions established by Azeri troops. This results in human security concerns for the inhabitants of the border regions of Armenia, limits the freedom of movement and poses security threats on one of the major roads in Syunik where Azeri troops had established positions back in January. Besides, In spite of these serious concerns on the borders, the issue of Armenian prisoners of war held by Azerbaijan and the return of fifteen PoWs in exchange for landmine maps in Aghdam was manipulated by various political forces during the election campaign. The conversation between the Azeri and Turkish heads of State captured on a video demonstrates that the Armenian PoWs, the existence of which Aliyev previously denied, are being held in Azerbaijan for exchange in parts with some mined maps. The opposition accused the PM for not being able to achieve the return of all PoWs, as well as for handing over the maps of landmines in exchange for them that will facilitate prompt demining in areas adjoining Artsakh, thus putting its capital Stepanakert under a military threat.
We can conclude that some risk of civil unrest exists if one of the major actors does not accept the results of the elections, similar to what happened on March 1st, 2008, with the participation of all four previous and current authorities that are also running in the current elections. This risk is a possibility due to the mutual blame game, accusations and threats by those forces. Most likely each party fears that there would be lawsuits, repressions, or retaliation in some other form against them if the other side wins. At the same time, it may be hoped that the same forces have learned lessons from the events of March 1st, 2008, and would avoid them, especially now that the country is facing compelling national security threats. The repetition of the Syria scenario is not likely since Armenia is not a multi-ethnic state, nor is there a similar diversity of external actors with strong influence on the political processes in Armenia. The most influential external actor in Armenia is the Russian Federation, although the continuous hybrid threats by Azerbaijan also have a certain impact on the political discourse.
Regardless of the who the winning side will be, the key to overcoming the internal and external security challenges will be preventing public unrest in the country, refraining from inflammatory rhetorics by both sides, reducing the level of opposition/enmity which has escalated during the post-war period by restoring national unity, solidarity and social cohesion, while setting the goals of crisis management as a priority.
Content of the article is the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung Tbilisi Office – South Caucasus Region