Authoring a Policy Brief for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), RSC Director Richard Giragosian offered a broad overview of the geopolitical context in the wake of Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution” of 2018. In this assessment, entitled “Paradox of power: Russia, Armenia, and Europe after the Velvet Revolution,” Giragosian focused on the Russian response to the change of “elites” in Armenia, the critical imperative for European support, and the efforts by Prime Minister Pashinyan and his government to garner greater “room to maneuver” and more options to offset the danger of Armenia’s over-dependence on Russia, while accelerating and deepening domestic reform.
In a turn of events unprecedented for Armenia, a year ago opposition parliamentarian Nikol Pashinyan led a wave of demonstrations that forced the resignation of the then prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan. The main trigger was Sargsyan’s attempt to prolong his hold on power after serving as president for ten years. Over the course of 11 days of popular protest, Pashinyan applied pressure to the government by displaying personal charisma, tactical acumen, and political leadership. This stood in stark contrast to the entrenched ruling elite now tumbling before him and the crowds.
The incumbent Republican Party eventually conceded to demands for an extraordinary parliamentary election, in early December 2018. That election was a rare free and fair ballot in Armenia – one in which Pashinyan’s bloc, My Step, secured an overwhelming majority in the new parliament. Despite holding power for more than a decade, the Republican Party was unable to meet even the 5 percent threshold to secure representation.
This was the culmination of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution. But the country now faces two main challenges, both of which have implications for its future relationship with Europe and Russia. The first challenge is in how Armenia entrenches democratic norms and institutions, thereby fulfilling the important domestic goals of the new government and meeting the ambitions that the European Union avows for countries in its neighbourhood. The second is for Yerevan to manage its relationship with Moscow so that it does not hinder these domestic ambitions: it needs to maintain or improve its precarious situation in the South Caucasus while also obtaining greater freedom of manoeuvre beyond its own region, including in relations with Europe.
Unusually, the revolution did not possess a strong geopolitical element – either in the form of active involvement in its processes by third countries or in terms of it signalling a strategic change in geopolitical direction. No Maidan was this. But, quietly, for a number of years now, Armenia has been slowly edging out from under Russia’s shadow. This was true under Sargsyan too. Will it remain true now? The new government has little experience to draw on in terms of pre-existing contacts in Moscow; and, in any case, it sees domestic concerns as its priority. During the revolution, Russia recognised its own limitations and refrained from straying beyond them. Indeed, a paradox of power now hangs over its considerations in Armenia: Russia is only able to press its small ally so far before the situation risks acquiring a geopolitical character it did not have previously.
This paper explores the context that Armenia currently finds itself in, examines how it is likely to navigate its relationship with Russia and neighbouring states, and sets out what the EU should do to assist Armenia in the coming years. Underlying both the revolution and Armenia’s evolution towards a looser relationship with Russia is the significance of the non-violent change of government. This impressive ‘people power’ victory is not only an inherent threat to the Russian preference of more vulnerable, less legitimate, and more authoritarian partner states – it is also a critical validation of European ideals of pluralistic, truly representative democracy based on free and fair elections. Helping ensure the sustainability of Armenia’s choice would, therefore, also represent a success of Western resolve and commitment.