Armenia remains mired in a state of political vacuum. The deadlock between the Prime Minister and the country’s nominal President over effective control of the armed forces continues. The constitutional crisis is taking place over the backdrop of ongoing street protests by a gaggle of disparate opposition groups, who have shut down traffic in the centre of the capital and paralyzed the functioning of Parliament.
Demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, protesters continue to block access to the Parliament building.
Large numbers of police in riot gear guard other key buildings, including the Prime Minister’s residence. Several rings of them surround it. While the situation remains tense, there have been no reports of violence.
The protesters are from disparate political hues. Some are supporters of the country’s ousted old guard, which Pashinyan, a 45-year-old journalist and writer, forced from power in 2018 following massive street protests. There are also ultranationalists, as well as those from smaller groups and parties led by perennial opposition types. They have not produced any political platform and lack any common ideology.
They seem united only by seething anger with Pashinyan. They blame him for the stunning reversal of fortunes in which the country’s army was driven from Azerbaijani lands it occupied for nearly three decades. Armenia signed a Russian-brokered peace agreement in November after 44 days of all-out fighting.
There have been frequent outbreaks of protests since the battlefield defeat.
But the latest spark came as the Prime Minister and the titular President, Armen Sargsyan, came to odds over Pashinyan’s attempted dismissal of the Armed Forces Chief of Staff. The military leadership last month signed a written demand PM Pashinyan to quit, which he labeled an “attempted coup”.
Titular President Sargsyan was appointed from the old guard in 2018, just before massive street protests drove the real authorities from power. He refuses to rubber-stamp the decision or endorse the nomination of a new army chief of staff.
It now appears up to Constitutional Court to render a verdict. Who? The nominal President or the Prime Minister – has the ultimate say in deciding the fate of who effectively controls the Armed Forces? The body is widely seen as politicised and still made up largely of old-guard appointees, and what it will do is totally unclear.
The issue has deep regional implications, as without an effectively functioning government, it will be impossible for Turkey and Armenia to re-establish diplomatic relations, suspended for almost three decades. Such a step would automatically resolve any spurious outstanding territorial claims by radical forces and re-open vital trade links between Europe and Asia.
The dispute is exacerbated by the fact that under Armenia’s Constitution, the President is supposed to hold a largely ceremonial role. The document, last rewritten in 2017 in a move from a presidential to a parliamentary system, has many vague or unclear clauses, including the specific powers of the president in firing or approving army chiefs.
Armenia is an unusual case of a former Soviet republic where the military plays an outsized role in politics. It has been deployed several times to crush protests following disputed elections or ones regarded as riddled with irregularities by international observers.
In 2008 the army was sent into the streets by former President Robert Kocharyan after a month of increasingly heated protests in Yerevan. Eight people were killed and dozens injured as army troops fired indiscriminately into groups of demonstrators.
In 1996, former President Levon Ter-Petrossian’s government declared martial law and deployed tanks to quell massive gatherings, after elections deemed “deeply flawed” by international observers.
Despite the sudden uptick in tensions, there is no solid evidence that disparate opposition groups have the power to force PM Pashinyan to resign. He has recently held large evening rallies attended by upwards of 20,000 backers in Yerevan’s central square.
Pashinyan’s rise to power was the culmination of a “velvet revolution” three years ago, after he walked over 100 kilometers from the north of the country to the capital. He amassed supporters along the way, many fed up with years of massive corruption, a huge exodus of the country’s population abroad, and a history of fraudulent or questionable elections followed by the violent police or army crackdowns.
The cross-country march pulled a critical mass of upwards of 100,000 people in Yerevan, and the unpopular leadership resigned and agreed to new elections, which Pashinyan’s political grouping won.
The PM says he is willing to call new elections and has held periodic talks with opposition groups. In addition to the fracas over who effectively controls the army, another sticking point is whether he would retain his post until the new vote. If he were to leave the Prime Minister’s office before new elections, he would presumably lose a sizeable security detail amid a volatile atmosphere.