By Hrachya Arzumanian
Armenia struggles to get out of the deep crisis after the military defeat in the Artsakh war. In the last days of February, the political crisis developed into a state crisis, when it is now necessary to operate not only with the categories of political space but also of state sovereignty.
The deepening political crisis in Armenia is a consequence of a number of foreign and domestic political factors that can lead to a cumulative effect. Of the internal political factors, the decisive role is played by Armenia’s political leadership, whose motives cannot be assessed without conducting public, political, and judicial scrutiny. This is also true for a number of high-ranking political and military leaders who have been in power throughout the entire post-Soviet period of Armenia, including the 17+ political forces that are part of the alliance.
Today, Armenia failed to leave the zone of crisis instability when society and the state have come close enough to the edge of chaos and paralysis of state institutions. Such a threat pressures the socio-political forces to focus their attention and energies to avoid scenarios catastrophic for the Armenian statehood. Armenia’s forecasting horizons become extremely narrow and cover several weeks or even days, as is the case these days. The Armenian government’s actions and a number of destructive political forces make it impossible to initiate socio-political processes to overcome the crisis, focusing all the attention of society on containing it.
Background Information: the present cycle of crisis
The loss of control over the political discourse and agenda forced the Armenian government to initiate a new round of crisis, in which it was not the alliance of 17+ parties that got involved in the current cycle of the crisis, but the most important institution of the state – the army, which forces us to speak not only of a political crisis but also of threats to state sovereignty.
The trigger of the crisis was the dismissal by the Prime Minister of the First Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces, Tiran Khachatrian, whose reaction to Nikol Pashinyan’s statement seemed unacceptable to the latter. Although the crisis is once again formed as a personality problem, its real causes are certainly deeper. In particular, we can confidently say that the situation is developing in the same pattern when an attempt is made to draw artificial lines of demarcation already among the state authorities and transfer the blame for the results of the war to the armed forces.
The Prime Minister knew that the First Deputy Chief of the General Staff’s dismissal in conditions when the army is recovering from a severe defeat would cause a reaction. The General Staff of Armenia and the armed forces, in general, issued a statement demanding the prime minister’s resignation. The move, which the Prime Minister regarded as an attempted military coup, although the army limited itself solely to a statement, to date has not taken a single action that could be considered as initiating a coup. In response, the Prime Minister of Armenia signed a decree on the dismissal of the Chief of the General Staff, General Onik Gasparyan, but the President of Armenia-Armen Sarkissian refused to sign it, arguing that it is unconstitutional and returning it to the Prime Minister with a call to find a compromise, not to aggravate the crisis. Nikol Pashinyan, however, immediately returned the order to the President for signing again. According to the procedure, the President has three days to make a decision.
The post-war crisis is unfolding around the Armenian political leadership’s artificial political agenda, focused on maintaining power and trying to evade responsibility for the military defeat instead of overcoming the consequences of the war. Society is forced to focus not on the problems of the dead, the return of prisoners of war, refugees and wounded, the ongoing military pressure of the victorious countries, leading to new concessions from Armenia, but solely around the question of who is responsible for the results of the war.
The lines of demarcation in society and politics have formed around the authorities’ desire to show and prove that the previous authorities are to blame for the results of the war. In the months that have passed since the war, Armenia’s political agenda has been formed around an artificial confrontation between the current and former authorities, Nikol Pashinyan, and the 17+ political forces alliance, demanding the immediate resignation of the Prime Minister. Moreover, both sides abandoned the constitutional way of resolving the crisis by holding early elections as it is a common procedure in democratic countries.
The Armenian society is offered a false choice between the two poles, formed around the problem of preserving/returning power and the problem of responsibility and guilt of individual politicians, but not facing the challenges and threats to Armenia after the war. Society is asked to choose between the two political forces responsible for the results of the war, choosing between bad and worse, but not between the ways out of the crisis. The current government in Armenia is building a political discourse in the country, based on the past, to assess the previous government’s actions, but not the future and overcoming the crisis. The natural reaction of a society experiencing a post-war syndrome to such a choice was apathy and indifference. Society does not want to choose and does not see an alternative, which leads to the degeneration of public political life into a struggle for power.
Nevertheless, the formation of just such an agenda allows the Prime Minister of Armenia to retain power since the Armenian society is categorically against the previous government’s return. Paradoxically, the actions of the 17+ alliance strengthen the position of the prime minister, allowing him to retain power amid growing public pressure, which is increasingly aware of the scale of the losses. The public activity and categorical nature of the 17+ alliance make it possible to shift society’s attention from the problem of responsibility of the current government to the previous governments when such statements by the Prime Minister as “I am responsible, but not guilty” become possible.
Thus, the public’s attention is focused on choosing between the two political forces responsible for the beginning and results of the war, but not overcoming the crisis and the consequences of the war, which leads to the deepening and widening of the crisis. The current government and the 17+ alliance have proposed a surrogate political agenda that has nothing to do with Armenia’s real challenges and threats to a society experiencing a post-war syndrome and a deep crisis. The society’s awareness of the artificiality of confrontation and the inability to make political decisions to overcome the crisis within the framework of the constitutional process, and its unwillingness to go for a violent change of power lead to the exhaustion of the political agenda.
Society denied both the authorities and the pseudo-opposition the right to talk about politics when all the diversity of political life was reduced exclusively to the struggle for power. The consequence was the departure from the political life of both the current government and the 17+ alliance, which no longer formed and controlled the political narratives presented to the society. Armenia’s political life has left the public space and moved towards the depths of the society, where the processes of self-organization and the formation of new political forces are taking place. Such a result, of course, was unacceptable to both sides and external centers of power.
With any development of the processes, it can be stated that the steps of the Prime Minister have already caused effects that are unfolding in the political arena. Nikol Pashinyan, by his decision, led to the politicization of the army as one of the few state institutions that retain functionality, thereby regaining control of political and public discourse. Society is once again forced to focus around an imaginary agenda and artificial dividing lines. Moreover, the prime minister’s political team included an extremely dangerous narrative of subordination of the generals and senior officers of Armenia’s armed forces to the Russian and not the Armenian authorities even though it was the political leadership of Armenia, represented by Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutyunyan, who announced on February 22 about the reforms already underway with the involvement of the Russian military. “The military reform in Armenia is not only planned but is already being carried out, and our Russian colleagues are directly involved in this process,” he told RIA Novosti.
Another critical element of the unfolding crisis is the attempts of the 17+ alliance to declare its support for the army in the hope of taking over political control of the process. The inability of the military to distance itself from marginal political forces and any other steps and actions by the army, in addition to the already made statement, will inevitably qualify as an attempt at a military coup, which is unacceptable based on state interests and will have catastrophic consequences for the future of Armenia. As a result of the steps initiated by Armenia’s political leadership, Armenia is now drawn into not only a political but also a state crisis, where a dual power has developed in the country for some time. The Prime Minister of Armenia is unable to dismiss the General Staff’s Chief, and the army has exhausted its possibilities to influence the situation.
Thus, a stalemate is developing in Armenia due to the imbalance in relations between government branches as described in the constitution. As a result, the Prime Minister has concentrated practically unlimited power in his hands (1). Armenian public and political life turn out to be centered around one politician’s decisions, which is unacceptable, and in the future, Armenia’s constitution must be radically revised.
The prime minister’s unwillingness to seek a compromise and a way out of the situation, for example, by announcing the date of early elections, will lead to a deepening of the crisis. The crisis is aggravated by the limited time during which a compromise can be found – three days, after which it can go beyond the constitutional space.
If the first round of the political crisis after the end of the war unfolded for several months, then the current one will be passed in a few days. Shrinking the time during which it is necessary to make more and more complicated decisions is one of the symptoms of Armenia’s approach to the edge of loss of control and chaos. If we remain in the logic of its deepening, the next round of the crisis will require already lightning-fast decisions within a few hours. The ability of the political leadership of Armenia and the prime minister to make such decisions raises deep doubts.
As a result, the dual power can be replaced by a period of anarchy, when the center of making sovereign decisions will be outside the state institutions, which will become another symptom and characteristic of an emergency situation and a deep systemic crisis – already a crisis of the state sovereignty of Armenia.
(1) Arzumanian, Hrachya. “Trends in the Social and Political Life of Armenia and the Principles of Forming the Frame of the Armenian Statehood,” Ararat Institute for Near Eastern Studies, 31 January 2021. On-line access 21 January 2020. Last access: 28 February 2021 (https://araratinstitute.org/2021/01/31/trends-in-the-social-and-political-life-of-armenia-and-the-principles-of-forming-the-frame-of-the-armenian-statehood/)
Author’s Bio: Hrachya Arzumanian, Doctor of Political Science, PhD in Computer Sciences. Academic Fields: Complexity thinking in Policy, Strategy, National Security and Military sphere. The author of ten books and more than 300 papers, articles and reports. Former Adviser to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Artsakh (2006 to 2020). The chief of branch on preparation of work of Security Council of Artsakh (2006-2008). The Chief of IT Service of Artsakh Defense Army from 1995-2001.