With Armenia's snap parliamentary elections coming up in June, a lot of actors are looking at the country's domestic politics, but no one more closely than Moscow. In this op-ed, originally published on KarabakhSpace.eu, Benyamin Poghosyan looks at what the presence of the former Armenian president, Robert Kocharyan, means for Pashinyan and Armenian-Russian relations.
Armenia is actively preparing for the 20 June 2021 snap parliamentary elections. Political parties are making their final calculations regarding the format of their participation. The main battle will probably occur between the incumbent prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, and the second president of Armenia, Robert Kocharyan. The latter has already confirmed that he will lead an alliance of two or three parties. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the “Motherland” party, established by the former director of the National Security Service, Artur Vanetsyan, and the new “Rebirth Armenia” party established by the former governor of the Syunik region, Vahe Hakobyan, which unites several mayors from the Syunik, may create an electoral bloc under the leadership of Robert Kocharyan.
Every election campaign in Armenia has not only an internal but also an external dimension. The South Caucasus is the crossroad of interests of multiple actors – Russia, Turkey, Iran, the US, and the EU. The transformation of the world order from the US-led "Unipolar moment" to the more balanced multi-polar system has contributed to the revival of great power competition as a defining factor of international relations. This tectonic shift has resulted in the rise of competition for regional hegemony in the different parts of the world. The South Caucasus is not immune from these developments, resulting in increased attention of external actors towards the domestic political processes. We may assume that the US, EU, Iran, and Turkey will carefully follow Armenia's election campaign.
However, the key player here is Russia. The Kremlin has been the most influential external player in Armenia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. After the "Velvet Revolution" in Armenia in April–May 2018, there were many discussions among experts that the new democratic government of Armenia, with many overt anti-Russian officials in its ranks, will gradually decrease Armenia's dependence on Russia. However, only three years after the 2018 events, Russia has significantly increased its influence over Armenia, and now Armenia is more dependent on Russia than ever, since gaining its independence in September 1991. Russia is the sole guarantor of the security of Armenians currently living in Nagorno Karabakh and provides security for the Syunik region within the internationally recognised Armenian borders.
Not surprisingly, both Pashinyan and Kocharyan paid visits to Moscow recently. Kocharyan was there to participate in the Board of Directors meeting of the Russian state-affiliated "AFK Sistema", where he sits as an independent director. Kocharyan has long been perceived as a personal friend of President Putin, and the opening of a criminal investigation against him immediately after Pashinyan came to power – and his arrest – was perceived as one of the irritants in Armenia–Russia relations. President Putin congratulated Kocharyan regularly and publicly while he was in pretrial detention and met with his wife and son during his visit to Yerevan in October 2019. There was no face-to-face meeting in Moscow between Kocharyan and Putin during Kocharyan's latest visit to Moscow, but they had a phone conversation.
Meanwhile, Pashinyan made a working visit to Moscow on 7 April and had a face-to-face discussion with President Putin. Interestingly, just a day before Pashinyan's visit, the court acquitted Kocharyan of the charges related to the 1 March 2008 events. The criminal investigation will be continued against him on corruption charges, but few believe that this will lead to a prison term for Kocharyan. It is difficult to argue that the court decision was a political move by Pashinyan to appease President Putin, but it created a better atmosphere before the meeting. In his recent interview with the famous Russian TV host, Vladimir Pozner, Robert Kocharyan stated that he never tried to simultaneously sit on different chairs while he was a President, and that relations with Russia should be an absolute priority for any Armenian government. Meanwhile, during his meeting with President Putin, Pashinyan emphasised Russia's significant importance for Armenia, and the importance of the Russian peacekeepers' presence in Nagorno Karabakh. Pashinyan also asked Putin to support Armenia to construct a new nuclear power plant and to provide Armenia more Sputnik-V vaccine jabs.
Thus, two main participants of the upcoming snap parliamentary elections paid visits to Kremlin and expressed their loyalty to Russia. However, the Kremlin will not elaborate its policy in Armenia based simply on pro-Russian statements and expressions of gratitude and respect. The arrest of Kocharyan was an irritant for President Putin, and the recent court decision may satisfy him personally. However, the personal friendship with Kocharyan does not mean that the Kremlin will support his return to power. The Kremlin's strategic goal is to keep the new status quo in Karabakh for at least the short-mid term perspective (5-7 years). The only way to prevent any unanticipated developments is the smooth implementation of the 9 November 2020 and 11 January 2021 trilateral statements, including the opening up of existing – and the construction of new – communication routes in the South Caucasus. That will pacify the region while keeping Russia as a critical and ultimate arbiter. Not surprisingly, the communications which will connect Azerbaijan with Nakhijevan and Turkey will be controlled by the Russian border troops. This means that Russia will have serious leverage on Azerbaijan and Turkey as it will be able to close those routes for any reason.
In this context, Nikol Pashinyan is an ideal candidate for Russia, who will guarantee the smooth implementation of those trilateral statements. Deliberately or not, Pashinyan has managed to transform Armenia into a country with limited sovereignty vis-à-vis Russia. Thus, the Kremlin has absolutely no reason to force Pashinyan out of power. However, the Kremlin has not forgotten the overt anti-Russian steps initiated earlier by Pashinyan – the criminal investigation against incumbent Secretary-General of CSTO, criminal cases against leading Russian companies working in Armenia, and the appointment of overt anti-Russian persons to several key positions in his administration. There was, is, and will be a significant lack of trust towards Pashinyan. The Kremlin believes that the Armenian Prime Minister is ready to make another U-turn in his policy in the future and will again pursue an anti-Russian policy if he believes those actions may secure his grip on power. In this context, a Kocharyan with a strong presence in the new Parliament, will ideally fit into Russian policy to prevent such possible U-turns by Pashinyan from happening. Thus, the best outcome of Armenian elections for Russia is another term as prime minister for Pashinyan but without a constitutional or even simple majority in parliament. With much more weakened positions and constantly feeling Kocharyan breathing behind his back, most probably Pashinyan will not look for other patrons than Russia to guarantee his power and personal security, and will willingly implement every instruction coming from the Kremlin.