Pashinyan – the “people’s” oligarch
One week after losing a bid to be elected Prime Minister by the Armenian National Assembly, the country’s unicameral legislature, today, a majority of Assembly members voted for Pashinyan to become Armenia’s new Prime Minister. Pashinyan was able to rely on votes from the ruling Republican Party after a series of negotiations which saw the ruling party essentially cave into the so-called opposition leader’s demand to take power, in spite of the fact that Pashinyan’s own party only has 9 seats in the 105 person Assembly.
Pashinyan won his vote among Assembly members with 59 voting in his favour and 42 voting against. After securing support from the main opposition group (and formal rival) Tsarukyan Alliance, a party that currently has 31 seats, it became necessary for Pashinyan to gain at least 19 votes from Republicans willing to capitulate to Pashinyan’s demands.
While last week Pashinyan failed to achieve this, today he has reached his goal after nearly a month of protests which have been highly disruptive, but thus far peaceful.
After forcing the resignation of former President and Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan on 23 April of this year, Pashinyan continued to lead protests where he ditched his traditional business attire and instead marched on the street wearing camouflaged t-shirts, an Adidas cap, black backpack and scruffy beard. While Pashinyan is in fact a wealthy liberal media oligarch, it later emerged that he was given advice on dressing like a “man of the people” and ditching his oligarch image.
While Pashinyan has close links to the west and has generally been supported by the powerful pro-US Armenian diaspora of North America, Pashinyan has conspicuously avoided the typical inflammatory language of western backed so-called ‘colour revolutions’. That being said, Pashinyan and his comrades have proffered a conflicting message that on the one-hand the protests aren’t anti-Moscow per se, but that nevertheless, Pashinyan because of his own self-proclaimed strength was able to ‘ward off’ a Russian threat, even though such a “threat” was objectively non-existent.
Russia’s historically minimal responses to colour revolutions
The reality is that Russia’s response to nearby colour revolutions has been wildly mis-interpreted in the wider world, including in the west and in a great deal of pro-Moscow media. Russia only intervenes in colour revolutions or their aftermath when Russia’s vital security interests are threatened or when Russian people are in a grave danger of ethnic cleansing. Even here, Russia is selective and restrained in its approach.
In 2008, the so-called Rose Revolution in Georgia brought a western puppet President Mikheil Saakashvili to power after ousting the deeply compromised Eduard Shevardnadze who in spite of his credentials as a veteran of Soviet power politics, ended up displeasing both the US and Russia with a failed ‘look both ways’ policy. Russia did not intervene in the Rose Revolution even though a politically ambivalent Eduard Shevardnadze was replaced by a young overtly pro-US puppet. However, in 2008 when the Saakashvili regime began mobilising troops to begin a campaign of ethnic cleaning against Russian nationals, Russian peacekeepers and Russian refugees in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia intervened and pushed back the Georgian aggressor. The key element to realise is that it was only when Saakashvili began engaging in a military ethnic cleansing adventure that Russia intervened. When he took power in a western backed “revolution”, Russia did nothing.
In 2014, when a western sponsored fascist coup ousted the legitimate Ukrainian government, Russia recognised the democratic will of historically Russian Crimea when the people voted in overwhelming numbers to reunite with Moscow. However, what is crucial to understand is that while Russia did not “go into Crimea” but instead waited for the Crimean themselves to act before opening the doors for reunification, Russia has completely ignored a referendum in Donbass where the Donetsk and Lugansk Republics declared themselves independent. While Donbass Russians continue to be slaughtered by fascist aggression, the cold reality of the situation is that while Crimea is of great strategic importance because of its location on the black sea, the same cannot be said of Donbass in the 21st century. This helps one understand why Russia acted switfly to impliment the democratic will of Crimean, but except for aid delivery and attempts and mediating a dead-on-arrival peace settlement for Donbass, the Donbass people have been largely ignored by Moscow.
How Armenia fits in
As a landlocked country with few valuable natural resources, Armenia is not of great strategic importance except insofar as it could be part of a future Caspian to Black Sea economic corridor. Because the ongoing dispute over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan prohibits such a corridor from being constructed at this time, Russia has been concentrating its energies on building good relations with Armenia’s Azerbaijani rival for three key reasons: 1. Azerbaijan lies on the North-South Transport Corridor which links India and Iran via the port at Chabahar with Russia via Azerbaijan. 2. Azerbaijan has oil 3. Azerbaijan is part of the wider Turkic world which Russia is forging historically close ties with.
This is not to say that the Armenian ultra-nationalists are correct when they say that Moscow “abandoned” Armenia for Azerbaijan. On the contrary, it is in Russia’s interest and it is Russian official policy to try and bring peace between Yerevan and Baku in the hopes of inviting Armenia to participate in trans-regional trade projects. To this end, Armenia was a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union which neighbouring Iran just signed a free trade agreement with. As Iran forms a key part of the North-South Transport Corridor, it would be in Russia’s interest to integrate Armenia into the North-South Transport Corridor as a second Eurasian route from Iran’s southern coasts into Russia. All of this however must wait until the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is solved. Finally, it must be noted that Russia has always maintained neutrality in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.
Because of Russia’s neutrality over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and its warm relations with Azerbaijan, there was simply no need for Russia to intervene in Armenia as its strategic interests were not being directly threatened, not least because the best the US could do with increased influence in Armenia is cut Armenia off from the Eurasian Economic Union where cheap goods freely flow into Armenia before the prices are hiked by local oligarchs, while forcing Yerevan into a trading agreement with the European Union where expensive goods would freely flow into Armenia before the prices are hiked even more by local oligarchs. Furthermore, while the US could potentially use Armenia as a launching place for aggression against Iran, with thousands of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and with US Navy ships having a huge presence in the Persian Gulf, the US already has far easier ways to provoke Iran than through its northern border with Armenia.
Thus, with Pashinyan vowing to preserve Armenia’s partnership with Russia, while working to find a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, it would seem as though after a month of electoral chaos and street protests, one ambitious oligarch has merely replaced a group of older oligarchs who did not seek to put up a fight against Pashinyan’s increasingly bellicose demands to take power.
Over all, little will likely change for Armenia unless the US forces Yerevan into a non-cost effective trading deal with the EU that will simply cut Armenia off from the more economically suitable Eurasian Economic Union. Furthermore, while the US may try and force Armenia to close its borders with Iran, here again, only Armenia will lose out on its trade with Iran while Iran will continue to trade with neighbouring Turkey, while also trading freely with the Eurasian Economic Union on the existing routes to Russia via Azerbaijan.
When it comes to Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan has frankly shown a great deal of restraint thus far in not crossing the contact line into territory that is internationally recognised as belonging to Baku. With Pashinyan stating that he seeks to resolve the issue, he is clearly hoping to avert a would be Azerbaijani military operation to ‘take back’ Nagorno-Karabakh, something which remains a possibility if the first weeks of Pashinyan’s government are as chaotic as some are predicting that they will be.
In summary: Meet the new boss – same as the old boss. Meet Armenia’s new problems – same as Armenia’s old problems.