With its Security Threatened, Demoracy is Under Pressure in Armenia

, by Antonios Tashejian

With its Security Threatened, Demoracy is Under Pressure in Armenia
Independence day decorations in Republic Square, Yerevan, Armineaghayan, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/license...> , via Wikimedia Commons

This text is written and published as part of the Democracy Under Pressure Campaign of JEF Europe

The Republic of Armenia regained its independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. This beginning of the independence era, however, was bittersweet. On one hand, the end of communism and repression brought hope that Armenians are agents of their own destiny yet from another hand, it showcased the cracks of this fragile Republic in making independence and sovereignty work for all its people. The initial years of independence were therefore dark and gloomy; Armenia was hit with an economic crisis, industrialization came to a halt with many soviet-era factories closing their doors and thousands of Armenian citizens choosing to emigrate abroad and find a better life for themselves and their families elsewhere. The war that ensued with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast brought much destruction and ruin, culminating in a pyrrhic victory for Armenia.

Subsequently, for around 30 years until the Velvet Revolution of 2018, Armenia remained almost entirely under Russia’s sphere of influence. It would be wrong to characterize this period as either a dictatorship or authoritarian, similar to those of other post-soviet republics. However, Armenia was not a full democracy. The new oligarchy that formed after independence allied with with military-minded (read: strongly authoritarian) figures and controlled almost all aspects of Armenian public life.

Up until recently, Armenia appeared like it could not make it on its own as a sovereign state, with many claiming its geographic position in a heated region and the absence of strong state institutions as the reasons as to why it needs Russia’s patronage. Yet, in 2018, under the leadership of a journalist turned political activist, Nikol Pashinyan, thousands of Armenians went to the streets to demand a fair, democratic, egalitarian and prosperous Armenia. Since Pashinyan came to power, Armenia has sought closer relations with the West and the Arab World, maintained friendly relations with Iran, cordial relations with Georgia and did its best not to upset Russia and its allies.

However, since Azerbaijan launched a war to claim the Karabakh region as its own, Armenia sought Russian support but received only minimal help from Russia on its behalf. Some analysts speculate Putin tried to punish Armenia for choosing democracy and freedom by electing Pashinyan, others simply point out to a shift in the geopolitical landscape especially with regards to Turkish-Russian relations (Turkey being a staunch ally of Azerbaijan and historically antagonistic towards Armenia). After months of a politically-orchestrated blockade of what remained of the Republic of Artsakh, with virtually no intervention by Russia side despite the presence of Russian peacekeepers on the ground, Azerbaijan launched a lightning offensive and took over the entire region, resulting in an ethnic cleansing of the 100-120,000 ethnic Armenians of the region. Since then, Azerbaijan has continued to threaten Armenia if certain territorial demands like a “zangezur corridor” are not met. This has been understood by the Armenian side preempting an Azerbaijani invasion of Armenia proper.

That being said, Armenia has been seeking to diversify its military supplies, striking deals with other democracies such as France and India. In fact, the European Parliament itself has, on numerous occasions, voted on resolutions in support of Armenia and the EU donates millions to support Armenian institutions, the rule of law, democracy and the local economy of the country.

With a more polarized geopolitical landscape in our world, Armenia is moving farther from Russia and closer to the EU. This is particularly exemplified by Armenia’s support for both Georgian and Ukrainian territorial integrity and the Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan’s recent remarks about the possibility of applying for EU membership by the end of this year. The European Parliament was quick to put to a vote a resolution supporting Armenia in its bid to become a candidate country.

Armenia is a fragile democracy. As the country’s security remains its main concern, other projects such as infrastructure, healthcare, education, civil liberties and others still lag behind. It could be explained through the notion of “there is no freedom without security.”

With closer ties to the EU and other Western countries, one could only hope and expect that Armenia will subsequently also become freer and more democratic. The current Armenian government is well-intentioned with the population being thirsty for change. Nevertheless, given the current circumstances, security challenges will remain the priority for years to come.

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