By Tigran Grigoryan
I was invited to participate in a closed-door discussion a month ago in one of the major European capitals. The subject of the discussions was the latest developments between Armenia and Azerbaijan context, as well as the Karabakh settlement process. Several international experts, as well as lawmakers from the European parliament and from a national parliament, were taking part in the event.
During the discussions, one of the lawmakers expressed a view that has become very popular in the West since the end of the Second Karabakh War. He argued that the European Union and the West in general should support Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s government, as he is the best hope for democracy in Armenia and for peace in the South Caucasus. The parliamentarian also emphasized that Pashinyan is Azerbaijan’s best chance for reaching a peace settlement with Armenia.
This narrative has been circulating in European capitals for a while now. My colleagues who had a chance to participate in similar off-the-record meetings in the West have also heard this view from various high-ranking Western diplomats and politicians.
However, this is an extremely problematic approach that could potentially undermine the process of Armenia’s democratic consolidation and contribute to possible democratic backsliding in the country. It is reminiscent of the West’s relationship with the Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s administration after the fall of the Soviet Union, when multiple undemocratic practices were tolerated and even unconditionally supported for the sake of preventing a communist comeback.
Prominent Russian journalist and writer Mikhail Zygar penned an extensive book on Russia’s flawed 1996 presidential elections entitled Everybody is Free: The Story of How Elections Ended in Russia in 1996. Zygar’s volume is a fascinating account of how an ailing Yeltsin, who at some point in the race had to undergo a heart surgery and had an extremely low approval rating, was made president by the country’s oligarchic elites with the active backing of the West. The 1996 elections, as well as other prior anti-democratic events tolerated by the West, such as the shelling of the parliament building and the adoption of the “super-presidential’’ constitution in 1993, created the necessary preconditions for an authoritarian return in Russia. In short, they paved the way for the emergence of a strongman like President Vladimir Putin.
Having said this, I am not implying that the current political situation in Armenia is identical to the one in Russia in the 1990s. Armenia’s last two parliamentary elections have been recognized by domestic and international observers alike as transparent and free. Since the Velvet Revolution of 2018, Armenia has also shown significant progress in various democracy and anti-corruption indices.
At the same time, though, some worrying trends have been noticeable since Armenia’s defeat in the Second Karabakh War in 2020. After its landslide victory in the snap parliamentary elections of 2021, Pashinyan’s government has been consolidating power in Armenia. The ruling party has been taking control of independent bodies, stuffing them with loyalists.
The vocabulary used by the prime minister and his team is quite often extremely populist and divisive. The demonization and dehumanization of political opponents have become common practices utilized both by the government and the opposition. Moreover, the first signs of high-level corruption and the emergence of a new class of oligarchs are also visible.
This is why the narrative about the need for the West’s unconditional support for Pashinyan’s government is dangerous and problematic. In 2018, Armenia indeed started a process of democratic transition. However, there are no guarantees that this process will reach its end-goal of democratic consolidation.
Democratization is not a linear process, and democracy in Armenia cannot be taken for granted. Instead of supporting political actors that are viewed as pro-democratic, the West should focus on strengthening Armenia’s civil society and independent media, creating an environment where further consolidation of power and abuse of power by the government will become harder.
What’s more, the assumption that unilateral concessions by Armenia to Azerbaijan will bring comprehensive peace to the region is also erroneous. An unjust peace in the South Caucasus will only create new grievances and perpetuate the conflict. It will also greatly damage the West’s standing and public image in Armenia.