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If there is one category of the population that has a reason to complain about the pace of change in Armenia, it is the political commentators. Every published piece of political analysis risks becoming obsolete in a matter of days. Thus, in the first part of this article I talked about the internal threat to “New Armenia” posed by the remains of the informal criminal-oligarchic system. In the few days that passed since the publication of the article, this criminal-oligarchic “deep state” received several serious blows. Obviously, the threat from this “deep state” has not been neutralized completely, but Armenia’s new government has shown its resolve when dealing with this challenge.

At the same time, increasingly, there are concerns being voiced in Armenia about the external threats that the country is facing today. Obviously, the most concerning threat is the possibility of incidents or escalation of the conflict with Azerbaijan. Reports about increased Azerbaijani military activity have been coming from various sources, including those in Artsakh. The Azerbaijani government seems to be on a propaganda offensive, including several militant statements and a military parade. Reports that the Azerbaijani military has seized territory on the border with Nakhijevan seem to have been refuted, however, this has also contributed to anxiety in Armenian society. The concerns about the situation in Artsakh are intertwined with those regarding Armenia’s new government’s relation with Russia, as well as other partners within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and EAEU. The sale of Belarusian “Polonez” multiple rocket launchers system to Azerbaijan is a particular issue of concern. So is the fact that US-made helicopters have been showcased by the Azerbaijani army.

Part 1: “They Had Forgotten Nothing and Learned Nothing” 

What Can Go Wrong: Internal and External Threats to the Armenian Revolution

In the first of a two-part series, Mikayel Zolyan looks as the internal threats facing Armenia’s new government following the Velvet Revolution - the continued resistance of the remains of the ancien régime and potential radicals within the revolutionary camp.

Assessing the threat is further complicated by the intertwining between internal political and external political processes. Using the threat of escalation in Artsakh as a tool of internal politics has been a trademark of Armenia’s ancien régime. Since the 1990s, Armenians have been hearing that protesting against the government, not to mention changing the people on top, was an unacceptable security risk, so they should go along with the government they have, whether they like it or not. Serzh Sargsyan’s government, which had few achievements to show in economy, social or foreign policy and saw several waves of  protests, used this argument to make up for the legitimacy it lacked. Today, it seems, security concerns, which are undeniably real, are further exaggerated by ancien régime supporters, both in traditional media or on social networks. This kind of propaganda hardly helps to restore the credibility of the ancien régime as a guarantor of security, especially given the revelations related to “General Manvel’s case.” Still, such messages contribute to a general sense of nervousness in society.


Assessing the External Challenges


Political commentators should be very careful in making predictions regarding the probability of military action. Predicting escalation of violence contributes to an overall atmosphere of mutual mistrust between the sides and thus may act as a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, downplaying the possibility of escalation can contribute to a false sense of security, which is also dangerous. Therefore, unless there are very good reasons to either expect or rule out the possibility of a violent escalation, a political analyst should refrain from making such predictions.

Having said that, the level of tension is hardly more severe today than has been the case throughout the previous years, for example in August 2014 or November 2014, not to mention April 2016. The region has been living under constant threat of military escalation for years, and the tendency toward escalation can be traced back at least to 2012, when the extradition and promotion of Ramil Safarov signified the new aggressive posture of Ilham Aliev’s government.

It is also hard to assess the degree to which recent developments inside Armenia altered Baku’s calculations. On the one hand, an argument can be made that the revolution actually helped to prevent incidents that could have happened, had Sargsyan retained his position. Aliev had decided to move the presidential election to April 11 long before the beginning of the Armenian protest, and some saw it is a sign of Azerbaijani leadership getting ready for aggressive steps regarding Artsakh. The protests and following government transition put Azerbaijani leadership under moral and political pressure to refrain from aggressive actions. For Aliev’s regime, with all of its human rights issues, it could be relatively easy to justify a military action against a corrupt regime of Sargsyan, but it would be a completely different thing to try to use a political crisis in Armenia and challenge a popular movement. True, Aliev’s government could have chosen to ignore such concerns if it had the backing of regional and global powers, especially Russia. However, it apparently received signals, that an escalation would not be a wise course of action.

This is one possible interpretation. However, a different argument can also be made. A change of government through mass protests, even in case of a peaceful transition of power, creates challenges for efficient functioning of the state system, and it could encourage Azerbaijani leadership to take its chances. In addition, Azerbaijani leadership fears “revolutionary contagion” from Armenia, which may be an additional stimulus to engage in more aggressive policy regarding Artsakh. Moreover, Armenia’s new government also needs time to establish fully functioning relationship with its partners, both in the West and in the East, but, most importantly with Moscow. This creates a window of opportunity, which could be used by Aliev’s government.    

Probably, both these interpretations have their merits, and the truth is somewhere in between, as it often happens. In any case, guessing what is happening within Aliev’s inner circle and what his calculations are is not a very efficient way to spend time. Instead we should focus on what can be done in order to avert the threat of escalation in Artsakh.


What to Do: Dealing with the External Challenges


Dealing with this danger should consist of several elements. One of them is obviously the military component, which we shall leave to military experts. It is obvious that a combat-ready military force is a guarantee of security of Artsakh and Armenia, and will remain such under any government in the foreseeable future.

Another component is the internal political one. The faster and smoother the process of transition in Armenia and Artsakh, the sooner Aliev’s government will realize that it should not bet on “internal chaos” in Armenia. Armenian government and society need to make sure that the government system is well-functioning and ready to face external challenges. This also refers to Artsakh, where the local authorities need to carry out the reforms they had promised, in order to strengthen their legitimacy and to make sure that the coordination between Yerevan and Stepanakert is efficient and has no potential pitfalls. 

Obviously, a lot depends on the kind of messages that go back and forth between Baku and Yerevan. Re-vitalizing the non-existent negotiation process is important. Obviously, Pashinyan’s position on Stepanakert’s participation is a sore point for Baku, and Pashinyan’s statements were granted to receive a rebuke from Baku. However, the degree to which Aliev’s government is ready to take its confrontational stance depends, to a large extent, on the position of the global and regional players. Therefore, a lot depends not just on what is going in Baku, but on what is going on the capitals of global and regional players.

Of these, obviously, Russia is the most important one, since Russia, more than other international players, has significant leverage over all parties of the conflict. Hence, securing a healthy relationship with Russia could be the key to ensuring Armenia's security. Here, Pashinyan's government faces a serious task. Pashinyan's two meetings with Vladimir Putin, as well as other contacts with Russian officials and media, were a good start. However, building a working relationship with Moscow, based on mutual trust and respect for Armenia's sovereignty is a task that will require significant effort on the part of the new government. Pashinyan, with his background of a journalist and political prisoner still remains “a dark horse” for Moscow's decision-makers, who fear that he may turn into a “new Saakashvili.” Though this perception is based on a misreading of the situation in Armenia, it remains quite common among the Russian elites, and it is also enforced by the lobbying efforts of both Azerbaijani authorities and Armenia's former government.    

Therefore, building a working relationship with Moscow will require significant effort. In addition to the already established Pashinyan-Putin format, Pashinyan’s team needs to establish formal and informal channels of communication with key Russian officials, especially those who have direct access to Putin and may influence his decisions. In addition, there is a need to counter Azerbaijani lobbying effort in Russia, which in the past years has been arguably far more successful than the Armenian one. Rebuilding and reorganizing Russia’s Armenian Diaspora organizations and improving coordination between them and Yerevan is another major task. The huge potential of Russia’s Armenian Diaspora, which is the largest Armenian community outside the borders of Armenia has been underused so far.    

Finally, Armenia’s new government, along with media professionals and analytical community, needs to develop a communication strategy to defeat the propaganda messages, spread in the Russian media by Azerbaijani lobbyists and other forces hostile to Armenia’s new government. Thus, it is important to constantly remind Russian society and decision-makers that Armenia is a Russian ally and a member of CSTO, so any complications with Azerbaijan, would put Russia into the uneasy position of having to chose either Baku’s or Yerevan’s side. Moreover, in such a situation, the failure to support Yerevan in such a situation would be perceived as a sign of either Russia’s weakness or unreliability, which could affect its relations not just with Armenia but with other allies as well.  

Obviously, Moscow is not the only capital, where Pashinyan's government needs to be active. It will also need to make sure that the links with Russia are not developed at the expense of the relations with other important actors, whether Armenia's neighbors, such as Georgia and Iran, or with global actors, such as EU and the U.S. Thus, when it comes to the EU, Armenia’s new government also faces important tasks. The EU needs to receive assurances of Armenia's commitment to the CEPA and development of relations with the EU in general. Here as well, lobbying efforts of the previous government have contributed to a somewhat cautious approach to Armenia's new government, however, this approach can be transformed as a result of active work of the new government. Regarding relations with the U.S., here as well, there is a lot of work to be done. U.S.-Armenian organizations, which have played an important role in the past in developing relations with Washington, have relatively little influence in Trump's administration, while Azerbaijani lobby-ism has been on the offensive.

So, many challenges lie ahead, but, compared to its predecessors, Pashinyan’s government also has an important advantage. It is the first Armenian government in years, or even decades, which has the overwhelming support of both Armenia’s population and the Diaspora, and whose legitimacy has not been undermined by disputed elections. More than that, the “Velvet Revolution” has given Armenia not just international recognition, but a certain type of “soft power,” which it has not seen before. The unique achievement of Armenia’s citizens has changed many things about how Armenia and its new government are perceived, if not globally, then at least in the post-Soviet space. We may not yet realize the degree of that power, but if used wisely, it can help Armenia transform its relationship with its neighbors and its partners. Moreover, Armenia, if it is able to achieve success in its current transition, has the potential to punch well above its weight in regional and maybe even global politics, becoming a laboratory for solutions and ideas that may transform the whole region and have a global influence. But this is a topic for another article...


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