Dr. Nadja Douglas: Pashinyan has to cooperate with the old elites
Dr. Nadja Douglas is a researcher at the Center for East European and International Studies in Berlin. She works on security issues and state-society relations in the post-Soviet space. In an interview with "Caucasus Watch", the political scientist focused on the domestic and foreign policy problems that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is facing. Whether reforms, relations with Russia or the Nagorno-Karabakh question: the conflict between the old elites and the new head of government is omnipresent. "All in all, these are pinpricks against the government and not a coordinated counterproject to Pashinyan." says Douglas. The expert sees Nikol Pashinyan's renewed emotional attack on the country's judicial system critically: "These actions resemble those of a revolutionary leader, but they are rather atypical for an incumbent Prime Minister."
Over the recent months we have observed how the momentum built for Pashinyan's actions against the followers of the old regime. Do you think that the old elites will now gather around Kocharyan after his release from provisional prison detention?
I think that the old elites are not as united as they seem at first sight. So when it comes to opposing Pashinyan, then they are united, but beyond that, there is no common political agenda, especially since the opposition parties in parliament have not turned decidedly against Pashinyan.
The old elites around the Republicans are so weakened that in the event of a possible return of Kocharyan to politics, as he had planned at the time of his arrest, he would not be able to mobilize a sufficient support base. The only possible exception to this might be Dashnaktsutyun, which, however, also seems at odds on this issue. I think that the old Nagorno-Karabakh loyalties play a role. There are, above all, the current President Bako Sahakyan and his predecessor, who strongly supported Kocharyan during his trial. This was a political-tactical move to weaken Pashinyan. Though, the release was only temporary and not final. The two leaders from Nagorno-Karabakh have only vouched for Kocharyan. The trial is now handed to the Constitutional Court.
The problem is probably that there is a kind of communication offensive against Pashinyan in some conservative media outlets. In part, this is resembled in the Russian media. All in all, these are pinpricks against the government and do not constitute a coordinated counterproject to Pashinyan.
Is the current conflict between Pashinyan and the elites in Nagorno-Karabakh about to escalate?
That is hard to predict. Pashinyan is openly accused by the Nagorno-Karabakh elites of being willing to "sell out Nagorno-Karabakh". At first, he himself boldly said that the conflict could be resolved in the shortest possible time under him, even though he has domestic politics to contend with and faces completely different obstacles at home. Therefore, he basically has not the capacity to commit the ressources neccesary to sufficiently deal with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Therefore, he was accused of making premature concessions. That there is mistrust between Pashinyan and the Nagorno-Karabakh elites can also be derived from the very fact that Pashinyan expressed doubts about the background and the course of the four-day war in 2016. For this reason, he has announced a parliamentary committee of inquiry to convene the matter, which constitutes an affront to the leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Pashinyan has publicly identified red lines for the conflict resolution and has reminded Nagorno-Karabakh's leadership not to interfere in Armenia's internal affairs. At the same time he has repeatedly made it clear that he is not a representative of Nagorno-Karabakh and that he can only speak on behalf of Armenia. He also repeatedly calls for the Minsk Group to ask the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians to be a party at the negotiating table, as it was the case in the 1990s.
The scheduled meeting between Putin and Pashinyan in Kazakhstan has been canceled at short notice, with Yerevan having previously assumed that the meeting would take place. Apparently the appointment was canceled by Moscow. In this context, how do you assess the relationship between Putin and Pashinyan, and what role does the Kocharyan affair play?
I would strongly doubt that the two like each other on a personal level. Nevertheless, I believe that there is a desire on both sides to work together productively, and that Russia and Armenia will continue to do so in the future. Now, the Armenian-Russian relationship is not only strained since the reign of Pashinyan began, but has been tarnished for some time, mainly due to the Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan. It is well known that the Russian leadership and Putin himself did not approve of the Velvet Revolution. I have already mentioned in the ZOIS expert discussion that Pashinyan, with the aim not to baffle Russia as a security and cooperation partner, insisted that the Velvet Revolution was not a color revolution.
Of course, Pashinyan has realized that Russia - although not openly and assertively - but subtly supports Kocharyan's case and his followers. Moscow is probably not aiming for a government overthrow, as this would not necessarily be in Russia's interest, but Moscow tries to keep him in check through domestic politics. Nevertheless, as I said, I believe that Putin has an interest in continuing to work with Pashinyan. But it is quite good for him if Paschinjan does not feel too secure in his role. If the revolution project gets a few scratches from the Kocharyan affair, that is probably seen as a positive by the Russian leadership. Why the meeting in Kazakhstan has been canceled is difficult to say. This could have different reasons and, in my opinion, should not be overstated.
How do you see Pashinyan's recent attacks on the judicial system and the following accusations of populism? What are the possible consequences for Armenia?
The development is very problematic. The fact that Pashinyan called for the dismissal of unwanted judges was initially very irritating, because this does not fit into the idea of a new liberal regime, which respects the rule of law. This undermines the credibility of the government. If the government and the parliament are democratically elected then there must also be an attempt to implement reform efforts in a democratic way. It also makes no sense to further divide the already polarized elite. If Pashinyan wants to claim to be the Prime Minister of all Armenians, then he has to work with these old elites.
It is of course difficult for him to work with judges and prosecutors, of whom most were appointed by Sarksyan and Kocharyan. These cannot be dismissed easily. Without a constitutional amendment, the judges either have to resign on their own initiative or decease, as they have been appointed for life. Pashinyan initiated the judicial reforms too late and now tries to compensate for it. The attempt to force it through has backfired, especially because this has naturally caused international criticism. Pashinyan has probably set his early priorities primarily on an "economic revolution", as he repeatedly mentioned. The justice sector has been neglected.
I do not think that was what he intended, but at the moment it looks as if the comments on the judiciary reform after Kocharyan's release were made on personal political grounds. Such emotional reactions could be made by a revolutionary leader, but are rather untypical of a reigning Prime Minister. As far as the future developments are concerned, one must now continue to observe where the so-called transitional justice is leading. However, the government basically has the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament to bring about constitutional changes in this sector.
The Eastern Partnership recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. Has Armenia already achieved its maximum cooperation with the EU with CEPA? Where do you still see opportunities to develop closer relations under Armenia's "neutral" orientation?
In fact, there is overwhelming support for CEPA in the Armenian population - and public opinion polls show that. However, there is also a large majority who approve of cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union. Thus, the government is trying to maintain good relations with both the East and the West. However, the component of a possible participation in the EU free trade area would not necessarily be compatible with this orientation. An interesting example of where this was implemented anyway is Transnistria. Transnistria joined the DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area) in 2016, but remained involved in the free trade of the Eurasian Economic Union. There, this overlap seems to work. However, to my knowledge, such a scenario has been ruled out for Armenia, and the EU has also accepted that. The EU has no interest in being responsible for a conflict between Armenia and Russia. That is why I believe that there can be more cooperation in the form of a strengthened and deepened partnership, with the exception of the free trade area. However, I would imagine that in the near future there could be visa liberalization with the EU in Armenia, as in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
It is also important that the EU recognizes how poor Armenia really is. About one third of the Armenian population lives below the poverty line. Therefore one should not make the same mistakes here as in other partner countries of the EaP. In the past, it has been observed in terms of economic development that the integration of these countries into the European market, naturally attracts investors and increases export volumes. Unfortunately, less attention was paid to the fact that the local population also benefits from it. At this point, the results are rather mixed, as the local socio-economic situation has hardly improved.
What do you expect from the new round of negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments?
There was still some cautious optimism earlier this year after a series of meetings. In particular, the foreign ministers meeting in Paris in January was very productive and there was also a direct meeting between Pashinyan and Aliyev in Vienna in April. Fatalities at the contact line have also declined steadily over the last two years and a hotline has been set up between the parties to the conflict as part of the new negotiations.
Nevertheless, there has recently been an incident in which an Azerbaijani soldier was killed. Azerbaijan also held various unannounced military exercises, which were criticized by Armenia. This is straining the mood again. There have also been renewed calls to promote public diplomacy, that is, human contacts between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. All in all, however, I believe that there was a great deal of initial enthusiasm on the part of Pashinyan, which in turn was thwarted by the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. These probably do not closely cooperate for domestic political reasons.
One should therefore not have too optimisitc expectations for these negotiations. So far there has always been some issue in times of rapprochement. In 2015, for example, there was new momentum building through the Lavrov Plan within the Minsk Group. However, it was not possible to agree on the content at the time and there are even claims that these disputes contributed to the escalation causing the four-day war.
However, I have read that Azerbaijan is currently quite motivated and has now appointed a senior civil servant to head the Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh Commission, and strongly advocates that the Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh community also takes a seat at the future negotiating table.
Nevertheless, this is a vision of the future and Azerbaijan, as well as Armenia, each have their own ideas of what a peace agreement should look like and they are not in harmony with each other. That has always been that way.