Monday

8th Mar 2021

Armenia's democracy needs EU lifeline after war ends

  • Armenian elections have been unfettered and transparent (Photo: osce.org)

The end of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh is the start of a new test for Armenia's young democracy.

Protests erupted after a ceasefire deal was announced in the early hours of Tuesday (10 November) morning, with an angry mob storming parliament and beating one government official in the streets.

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But that dark moment was just part of other disturbing events this week.

Less violent protests continued by day, calling for the resignation of prime minister Nikol Pashinyan.

As the leader of the peaceful 2018 Velvet Revolution, Pashinyan was once hailed as a hero, washing away three decades of rule by corrupt leaders aligned with Moscow.

His rise was a triumphant moment for democracy. A vibrant and youthful civil society was on the rise, lifting his base of political support.

A crop of successful technology startups had created a baseline of innovative thinking, as well as the economic means for more people to stand up for their beliefs.

Momentum was on the side of a more free and flourishing society, with a growing capacity to fulfil democratic norms.

Elections were unfettered and transparent. Public road and highways were vastly improved. Oligarchs and monopolies no longer dominated Armenia's economy.

Then came the war on 27 September.

Armenia was outmanned, outgunned and outmanoeuvred. Azerbaijan, with nearly four times Armenia's GDP and three times its population, brought out an arsenal of high-tech weaponry, supported on the ground with assistance from Turkey and Syrian mercenaries on the frontlines.

Six weeks later, the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh ended with significant losses and painful concessions by the Armenian side. Pashinyan had capitulated, literally at gunpoint, in a deal brokered between Turkey and Russia.

Armenians were crestfallen. In the following days, a political alliance called people to the streets, demanding Pashinyan's resignation.

They were led, most notably, by the Republican Party and Prosperous Armenia, two parties affiliated, respectively, with deposed former president Serzh Sargsyan and billionaire Gagik Tsarukyan.

Both men had been under investigation for corruption by Pashinyan's government, which accused them of stealing their way to wealth and power.

The protests put the rift between Armenia's old and new regimes on public display. The former leaders accused Pashinyan of incompetence in managing the war and demanded their own return to power.

Pashinyan, in response, accused them of opportunism and sowing division, after decades of stealing state funds that should have been used for weapons and defence.

On Thursday, with the country under martial law, Pashinyan's government arrested Tsarukyan and other party heads for organising unlawful protests.

Vulnerable moment

With the partisan showdown underway, proponents of democracy in Armenia worry they will see a tightening crackdown on dissent.

But far more than that, they feel betrayed by the silence of European powers at their most vulnerable moment.

"Nascent democratic institutions are at risk. People are losing hope in democracy and transparency, because they have been abandoned by the very world that has talked about democracy and human rights," said Irina Ghaplanyan, the deputy minister of environment in Pashinyan's government.

Ghaplanyan, 37, is part of a generation that feels the future of their democracy is at stake in the aftermath of war.

They are calling for Europe to invest heavily in Armenia's recovery and its democratic institutions, so that they can outlast the unfolding political power plays. Otherwise, they say, Europe's rhetoric about democracy and development is a myth.

"Europe abandoned us big time," said Raffi Elliot, a 30-year old political analyst in Yerevan. "They need to engage as much as possible. They are losing this whole region to Turkey and Russia," he said.

But if Europe largely sat out the war, in terms of military or diplomatic engagement, the post-conflict period calls for some of the skills it knows best.

Elliot and others want to see capacity building in governance in public administration, training of magistrates, economic stimulus support that is aligned with European values, such as a green bond for sustainable reconstruction, and support for European companies investing in Armenia.

Young Armenia

And above all, they want to see more engagement with Armenia's youth.

"It's not about the past or present government. It's about the future," said Kristine Sargsyan (no relation to the former president), a civil society leader best known for founding TedxYerevan.

Armenia's post-war period is a test of Europe's commitment to democratic development.

The EU reaps dividends if democracies thrive in its backyard: Less migration. More places for people of the region to settle down. A mindset change and atmosphere of hope for a new generation. A moderating presence in the region. Stronger advocates for European culture and values. 

In short, precisely what Europe says it wants: a flourishing democracy in an increasingly autocratic world.

If it can help Armenia stay on course, the mutual benefits will be manifold. If not, there will be a continued erosion of European security and interests in the South Caucuses.

Author bio

Lara Setrakian is an Armenian-American journalist and social entrepreneur, who previously served as the Middle East correspondent for ABC News and Bloomberg Television. She is on Twitter as @lara.

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