It's Getting Personal... Elections in Armenia
The 2021 Parliamentary Elections in Armenia are increasingly about two people.
Anti government prostest in Armenia against Nikol Pashinyan Image:Cornelius_brandt/Shutterstock
Electioneering in Armenia has been hotting up in the final week before the June 20, 2021 polling day. In an atmosphere described by Richard Giragosian of Yerevan’s RSC think tank as “toxic… [with] a vicious and vindictive trading of accusations,” the campaigns seem “marked by a poverty of ideas” and mainly focused on personalities.
That’s because, although voters will be presented with a bewildering choice of well over 20 parties and alliances, the two leading contenders for the role of Prime Minister are already very familiar, some commentators characterizing the battle as the new against the old.
The ‘new’ is the incumbent Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, a reformist outsider who rose to power in 2018 on a domestic agenda of social justice and democratization but who has been labelled a traitor by some opponents as Armenia’s leader during the disastrous 2020 Second Karabakh War.
His leading rival is Karabakh-born Robert Kocharyan, who was himself Armenian president between 1998 and 2008. His previous rule ended with crackdowns that led to legal charges (eventually dropped in March 2021). His earlier period leading the self-declared (though unrecognized) Nagorno Karabakh Republic makes him a particularly divisive figure for Azerbaijan. Along with fellow Karabakh-Armenian Serzh Sargsyan, the president that followed him into power (2008-2018), Kocharyan is seen as leading an informal ‘Karabakh clan,’ accused of having installed cronies from Nagorno-Karabakh into positions of power and of ‘strangling’ the Armenian economy by their decades of focus on Karabakh.
Though wildly unlikely, some Armenian conspiracy theorists even go as far as to suggest that the former Sargsyan government was encouraging Armenia’s Velvet Revolution that saw Pashinyan’s rise to power. It’s hard to believe, but the argument goes that Azerbaijan’s retaking of Nagorno Karabakh (including other occupied regions) had become essentially inevitable given Armenia’s poorly funded military, so it would be better for the interests of the ‘Karabakh clan’ that someone else was in power when that happened.
Suggesting an almost mirror-image reading of the situation, and one that’s almost equally improbable, Azerbaijan-based professor Oleg Kuznetzov suggested back in March that Pashinyan was prepared to ‘lose’ the occupied Azerbaijani territories as a political weapon with which to break the Karabakh clan.
Armenia certainly has many pressing issues, including the future of its dated nuclear power station and the anti-dumping penalty tariffs recently slapped on aluminum company Armenal, Armenia’s main exporter to the US. However, in the match of personalities, the Kocharyan campaign seems keen to play on the emotional strings of the Karabakh defeat as its main attack.
Slickly produced campaign ads feature imagined characters day-dreaming at the ballot box about what a Pashinyan victory might mean for them. In one, a fisherman sees the spectre of gruffly officious Azerbaijani police officers confiscating his catch. In another, a housewife mentally fast-forwards to a scene in which her daughter reads a history book about Shusha, now firmly part of Azerbaijan. In both, the wavering voter uses these mental spurs to scrunch up the Pashinyan ballot paper and throw it in a rubbish bin. Quite what Kocharyan is proposing to do differently seems unclear in these ads. While he has said that he believed that “Artsakh” (the name given by Armenians to Nagorno Karabakh) could be re-established and that the Armenian army needs to be strengthened, he has stopped short of implying that territory should eventually be retaken by force. Kocharyan, described by one journalist as “Putin’s old friend,” has also suggested that he would take Armenia back into an unambiguously pro-Russian orbit compared to Pashinyan’s approach, which had been to attempt to broaden relationships with the EU. However, for now, Russia seems to be keeping an open mind to either candidate.
Commentators are divided upon what would be the best outcome from an Azerbaijani perspective. However, a strong Pashinyan victory would have the advantage of allowing Baku to continue dealing with the man responsible for the 2020 peace agreement. And that might help ensure that the creation of the key transit corridor to Nakhchivan is achieved as agreed.
“Who would you prefer to win?” we asked some Azerbaijan friends living in North America. “Well, it depends which hat I’m wearing,” said one with a smile. “But I suppose the devil in me would like to say Kocharyan. It’s a bit like Putin in 2016 wanting Trump for the White House… because he knew that Trump would cause the most damage. Whoever is in power will have a big mess to sort out, but the mess would be bigger if they vote in Kocharyan. Which is good for Azerbaijan. Well, at least that’s the simple answer – a gut reaction. But maybe if we step back a bit, Pashinyan’s better for the longer-term good of the region. Who knows – in the end, it’s hard to believe that anyone will get an outright majority, so whoever’s in power, it will be hard to take the difficult decisions to make peace last.”