Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) walks with Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan (L) before a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Sochi on May 14, 2018. Photo: Mikhail Klimentiev / SPUTNIK / AFP

This month marks the first anniversary of Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution,” which ushered in a sweeping change in leadership and heralded the onset of a more democratic and accountable government. More concerning for Moscow, the Velvet Revolution stands out as an unacceptable challenge to the Russian preference for subservient states and co-opted elites.

As important as this peaceful transition was for Armenia, such a rare victory for non-violent people power has much broader significance, serving as a model to undermine the grip of authoritarian governments throughout much of the post-Soviet landscape, namely in Russia.

In early 2018, the pathway to power for the Armenian opposition force – led by then opposition deputy Nikol Pashinyan – consisted of a sophisticated strategy of harnessing widespread popular discontent and transforming it into political dissent. Tactically, this was bolstered by the power of the street, leveraging the synergy of mounting demonstrations and protests to expose the weakness of the incumbent government and exploit the unpopularity of the ruling elite.

Serzh Sarkisian, Armenia’s two-term president, first agreed to become prime minister, allowing himself to only continue in power as the head of the country’s new parliamentary system of government. Bolstered by this concession, the opposition was able to mobilize support and maintain momentum. In what became the tipping point, a core group of youth emerged as the agents of change in Armenia, able to rapidly galvanize thousands of demonstrators – disrupting traffic, closing offices, and facing down the police.

In what emerged as the turning point, this mass movement was able to quickly force the resignation of the incumbent president-turned-premier.  Sarkisian’s resignation was offered both much more quickly and much easier than expected, rejecting any reliance on force. Backed by popular support and the power of the street, Pashinyan was able to force the parliament – still controlled by Sarkisian’s ruling Republican Party – to concede the post of prime minister.

Yet until an extraordinary election was held, Prime Minister Pashinyan faced a hostile and obstructionist parliament, dominated by an entrenched elite. But with a free and fair election in December 2018 – an unusual accomplishment for Armenia – power shifted to Pashinyan, whose “My Step” political party emerged as the dominant bloc in the new parliament, allowing him to be appointed as premier a second time. 

It was only at this point that Armenia moved from resignation to revolution, with systemic and substantive changes that defined a self-proclaimed “New Armenia.”

Return of geopolitics

The success of Armenia’s “people power” was also due to a disciplined focus on a strategy of domestic concerns that avoided any external geopolitical context, backed by a tactical reliance on purely non-violent resistance. 

Armenia’s prime minister (then opposition leader) Nikol Pashinyan waves to supporters at a rally in Yerevan on April 30, 2018, during the ‘Velvet Revolution’. Photo: Vano Shlamov / AFP

The conscious and concerted focus on a solely domestic agenda was also based on the recognition that for Armenia, any move to mimic the earlier revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine would only provoke a Russian reaction. And while the demonstrators were eagerly committed to ousting the generally corrupt entrenched elite, any desire to directly challenge Russia was prudently rejected.

This was due to the reality of Armenia’s “strategic alliance” with Russia. But more startlingly, although neither the demonstrators nor embattled government officials sought to inject any context of international geopolitics, the fact that a loyal and submissive leader of a small country firmly locked within the Russian orbit was neither defended by Moscow nor driven to appeal for Russian support was a significant surprise. 

Thus, unlike Ukraine or Georgia, the Armenian model of regime change did not imply any challenge to Russia. 

Yet while the demonstrations were driven and defined by a local, rather than a geopolitical agenda, geopolitical considerations will undoubtedly exert pressure and influence over any new leadership in Armenia.  This inescapable fact stems from several factors. After all, regardless of its leadership, Armenia remains deeply dependent on Russia, for guns, gas and goods. 

As the only host of a Russian military base and the only member of the Moscow-based Collective Security Treaty Organization in the region, the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict necessitates Armenian reliance on discounted weapons from Russia, especially as Yerevan is compelled to keep pace with years of massive defense spending and an arms buildup by Azerbaijan. 

Equally important, Armenia is structurally dependent on subsidized Russian natural gas and for remittances from workers in Russia, as well as the more recent impediment of membership in the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union.

Against that backdrop of limited options and little room to maneuver, the outlook for Armenia’s tenuous position within the Russian orbit seems to be defined as a delicate and difficult balancing act.  

To date, the Pashinyan administration has clearly and consistently sought to reassure Moscow that there should be no dramatic shift in strategic orientation or U-turn in foreign policy.  This message was particularly important to not only reassure Russia but to also rebalance the opposition’s past statements criticizing Armenian membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.

Russia uncharacteristically passive 

Russia’s response to the political shift in Armenia was uncharacteristically passive and permissive, but not without reason. Moscow has been especially wary over the past year of how it dealt with Yerevan, stemming from a belated recognition of the need to address what has become a deepening crisis in relations.

That crisis peaked after a major flare-up in fighting in April 2016 over the Armenian-held territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which neighboring Azerbaijan claims as its own. These were the heaviest clashes between Armenian and Azeri forces since the war in the 1990s, and this time, Azerbaijan benefited from the use of modern offensive weapons sold to it by Russia – ostensibly an ally of Armenia. 

A second serious driver for a softer Russian policy was rooted in the Russian recognition of a dynamic and unpredictable situation on the ground in Armenia, where demonstrators posed a combustible situation that Moscow was ill-equipped to understand, let alone to counter. At the same time, with no demonstrable role of either the United States or the European Union on the ground, there seemed to be a related decision by Moscow to not unnecessarily prompt or provoke a Western response by adopting a more direct policy of engagement on the Armenian street.

Nevertheless, by virtue of the very success of the Velvet Revolution, Armenia stands out as a still vulnerable exception to the traditional Russian preference for compliant partners. As a dangerous model of potential inspiration for other opposition forces in other countries, Moscow is closely watching developments in Armenia and waiting for any dangerous signs of discord in its other authoritarian post-Soviet partners and client states. 

Armenia’s people power threatens the security of other authoritarian states, and especially undermines the family-based Azerbaijani leadership next door. Wider geopolitical considerations will undoubtedly exert pressure and influence over the new government in Armenia. A combination of inexperience and the inherent challenges of governance will be complicated by the burden of managing Russia – an inescapable factor in Armenia’s political calculus.

Richard Giragosian is the director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia. 

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