• USD89.02
  • EUR95.74
  • OIL83.21
  • 346

Balancing on the border: Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan maintains control despite pressure from Moscow, Baku, and domestic opposition

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan's Civil Contract party has turned to humor when dismissing the opposition's threats to impeach him, ruling out early parliamentary elections in the process. Despite the military defeat Armenian forces suffered at the hands of Azerbaijan in Sept. 2023, peace on the victors’ terms still represents a status quo favorable to Pashinyan’s political survival. Moreover, mass protests in Armenia are gradually subsiding, and there is no capable contender among the opposition eager to take the prime minister's seat. The current situation also suits Moscow: rhetoric aside, neither the Kremlin nor Yerevan is ready for a real freeze in relations.


Symbolic maneuvers

Armenian skeptics attributed Nikol Pashinyan's absence from Moscow's Victory Parade on May 9 to his desire to stay closer to home amid ongoing opposition demonstrations. However, just five days later, the Armenian Prime Minister visited Denmark, leaving subordinates to handle the protest marches in Yerevan.

May 9 was merely the culmination of a series of tests Moscow posed to its partners. Pashinyan's non-participation in Putin's inauguration on May 7 was initially perceived as a diplomatic maneuver, as not everyone believed Pashinyan’s explanation about not having received an invitation to the event. It quickly became clear, however, that the Moscow ceremonial format did not require even close allies' attendance. As for the May 9 parade, the Kremlin seemed to sympathize with the dilemma faced by its few remaining partners — to antagonize the West by attending, or to risk harming relations with Russia by staying away — and did not insist on Pashinyan's presence.

If rituals can be seen as an extension of politics, Yerevan’s actions fit well into the recent style of its interactions with Moscow: what appears to be a demarche is actually reconnaissance conducted to determine the current boundaries of appropriate diplomatic behavior. After all, on May 8 Pashinyan himself traveled to Moscow to chair a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council — an event attended by Putin himself. A one-on-one meeting between the two leaders followed.

What appears to be a demarche is actually reconnaissance to determine the current boundaries

In the meantime, protests on a scale not seen since the 2018 revolution that brought Pashinyan to power really were raging back in Yerevan. Since May 9, Armenians have been demonstrating against a border delimitation deal with Azerbaijan under which Yerevan has agreed to transfer control of several villages in the Tavush region to Baku. Protesters are demanding Pashinyan's resignation.

In such cases, the appearance of conspiracy theories is inevitable. Thus, the protests are said to be fueled by Moscow, which hopes to use them to overthrow Pashinyan, and it is no coincidence that many supporters of former President Robert Kocharyan, a known friend of the Kremlin, have taken to the streets.

But while it may be true that Moscow has an interest in seeing Pashinyan removed, this interest does not explain the entire situation. Armenians joke that the same people who supported Pashinyan six years ago are now gathering at Yerevan’s central square in support of Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan’s “Tavush for the Homeland” movement. And this jest might well contain a kernel of truth.

Confrontation on all levels, but not between Putin and Pashinyan

At the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council meeting in Moscow, current chairman Pashinyan spoke as if Yerevan was not the troublemaker in Russian-Armenian relations. He discussed the advantages and problems of Eurasian integration, highlighting the need for improved market mechanisms, especially in the energy sector.

Meanwhile in Yerevan, Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan refuses to travel to Moscow for interdepartmental meetings. He was among the first to articulate the painful issues in Arminia’s relations with Moscow, particularly the desire to withdraw Russian border guards from Zvartnots Airport and Yerevan’s strategic need to reduce its “dependency” on Moscow. Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan also acknowledges strained ties with Russia, refusing to participate in the CIS Foreign Ministers Council. Pashinyan himself does not participate in this confrontation, limiting his criticisms to mundane expressions of dissatisfaction with the CSTO even as Armenian media outlets close to Pashinyan leave no stone unturned in their criticism of the country’s relationship with Russia.

Ministers in Armenia criticize Moscow and refuse to meet with their counterparts, but Pashinyan does not participate in the confrontation

A similar picture emerges in Russia. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova does not mince words when evaluating Yerevan's actions, calling the Armenian government “traitors to their people.” However, Putin himself remains pointedly correct in his comments, as if to indicate that the irritation emanating from his entourage and the Kremlin-controlled airwaves does not pertain to matters of state, and Yerevan appears to agree with this approach.

Yerevan appears to agree with this approach. The widely advertised distancing of Yerevan from Moscow is more about defining the place of the Russian factor within the system of real Armenian priorities, and after the events of Sept. 2023, Russia’s place is no longer paramount. Armenia’s resentment towards Russia for its failure to help in the fight against Azerbaijan is instrumental. Behind this “resentment” lies the desire to establish the kind of real security system that Russia proved incapable of ensuring — one that the West, for its part, certainly will not provide. The establishment of such a system would require Yerevan to stabilize its relationships with Baku and Ankara without once again placing illusory hopes in the idea of Russian support.

The weak link as a guarantee of stability

The difference between the shape of historical Armenia and that of the “real” Armenia taking shape today is extremely relevant for Pashinyan personally. Peace with Azerbaijan, even one largely established on victorious Baku’s terms, not only offers Armenia a chance at tranquility, but also provides its prime minister with a chance at political survival. The person who, to a large extent, was responsible for the country's desperate situation last fall has remained in power, where he is left to choose between bad and very bad options. In order to justify his continued rule, Pashinyan warns that his ouster would mean a renewal of the war.

Peace with Azerbaijan is a form of Pashinyan's political survival

Here Azerbaijan’s rhetoric consistently helps Pashinyan, even if potential disputes over the transfer of four villages in Tavush were unlikely to lead to a major war. Azerbaijan really does appear to have achieved all its goals with the return of Karabakh. Turning from a champion of sacred territorial integrity into an aggressor is too risky even for Aliyev, who speaks to the West in rhetoric that even the Kremlin might envy. Still, a local flare-up somewhere in the “gray zone” on the unmarked border would be a very real possibility in the event that Yerevan turned back to a policy of intransigent stubbornness.

Pashinyan's narrow space for maneuvering is further narrowed by the West. The wider world values stability above all else, and for stability to be attained, pressure must be applied to the one who yields easiest — that is, the weaker party. In this context, it is possible Pashinyan’s Brussels talks with French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen involved topics extending well beyond Armenia’s prospects for future EU membership.

The riddle of the four villages

Even the most adamant opposition members in Armenia understand that the 1991 Alma-Ata Declaration, which declared Soviet inter-republican borders as inter-state borders, granted control over the four notorious Tavush villages to Azerbaijan. Whatever one might recall about pasture disputes in the 1980s or mutual territorial captures during the 1990s war, the Alma-Ata Declaration today represents the limit of Armenia's negotiating expectations.

In Tavush, Baku agreed to the “Alma-Ata” line but did not agree to make this approach universal. This is the only concrete result of the post-war settlement and possibly the first serious example that specific agreements are possible. Notably, when Yerevan faced understandable difficulties due to speeches from domestic political opposition figures, Baku agreed to suspend the alarming Tavush process.

When Yerevan faced understandable difficulties due to opposition speeches, Baku agreed to lend a hand

This step may have helped Pashinyan, but it did not save him from the mounting debts that represent the prime minister’s once robust political capital. Three years ago, while making speeches in the Tavush villages at the heart of the present dispute, he promised that no border would cut off the area. Today, Pashinyan’s call to plant a forest belt in response to villagers' worries of falling under Azerbaijani control has become a meme across Armenia.

But aside from the premier's communication problems, there are quite objective factors preventing local residents — along with dissatisfied Pashinyan supporters throughout the country — from accepting the transfer of villages to Azerbaijan. Over the thirty years of the absence of enforced borders, the villages have expanded, and now several houses of the village of Kirants have ended up on what is objectively sovereign Azerbaijani territory. Sections of Armenian roads will also be on Azerbaijani land — not only local routes, but also the highway leading to Georgia.

The villagers still remember that, not long ago, this area was one of the most fortified sections of a front line that has ceased to exist, falling completely under Azerbaijani control. Perhaps the most serious reproach the Armenian authorities face is that Azerbaijan, while insisting on fairness in the Alma-Ata style, is in no hurry to return Armenian villages similarly occupied in the 1990s.

A shadow of the border guard

The reality of delimitation can also be attributed to inaction from the West, which distanced itself from the process in line with Baku's wishes. Armenia effectively had no choice in the matter, as neither Washington nor Moscow appeared interested in intervening on Yerevan’s behalf. Azerbaijan, which acted as a situational ally of Moscow for all these years, managed to achieve everything without the Kremlin’s direct assistance — its inaction was enough.

Azerbaijan, which acted as an ally of Moscow for all these years, managed to achieve everything without Moscow's help

Both Putin and Pashinyan understand that recent relations between their two states have largely been founded on the myth of strategic alliance. For Pashinyan, there is no point in perpetuating fantasies, but nor is there any need to burn bridges. For its part, the Kremlin understands that a real Armenian turn to the West — rather than a mere rhetorical one — would require internal reforms on a scale that Pashinyan appears incapable of implementing. The prime minister’s political debts resulting from Russia’s refusal to aid Yerevan in its struggle against Baku have essentially rendered reform in Armenia impossible — at least for now.

For Pashinyan, there is no point in perpetuating fantasies, but nor is there any need to burn bridges

Still, Moscow must admit that time is not on its side. The best the Kremlin can hope for is to minimize longer-term losses by putting everything on pause. The current cooling in relations suits Moscow, while chilling the air further would be risky for Yerevan. And despite it all, trade turnover between the countries continues to grow, arousing suspicions of Armenia's involvement in the transshipment to Russia of sanctioned goods.

For Pashinyan personally, the situation also appears to have stabilized. The protests appear to be subsiding, and despite the prime minister’s decline in popularity, most Armenians are not ready to see him replaced — echoing the rhetoric that a change at the top of government could lead to catastrophe. Furthermore, the disarray within the opposition indicates that there is no clear figure who is both willing and able to compete for the prime minister’s chair.

The Kremlin, already known as an unlucky “kingmaker,” likely understands that the situation in Armenia does not offer a promising opportunity to change this reputation for the better. And why bother trying? The current Armenian government suits Moscow perfectly, as it stays within the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable. For now, Yerevan views Moscow's agreement to withdraw border guards from sections of the new effective line of demarcation with Azerbaijan as a diplomatic victory. However, it appears this agreement was made with Azerbaijan first, and with Armenia only after the Kremlin was assured of Baku’s consent.


This piece was originally published in Russian on May 22, 2024. Four days later, on May 26, tens of thousands of protestors held a demonstration in the center of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, calling for Pashinyan's resignation after Armenia agreed to hand over control of several border villages to Azerbaijan. The protests continued the following week, with demonstrators blocking main streets in Yerevan and other parts of the country, sporadically clashing with police. A report by the Associated Press cited Armenian police saying close to 200 people were detained.

Protests have roiled the country for weeks, led by a high-ranking cleric in the Armenian Apostolic Church, Bagrat Galstanyan, archbishop of the Tavush diocese in Armenia's northeast, where the villages are located.

Subscribe to our weekly digest

К сожалению, браузер, которым вы пользуйтесь, устарел и не позволяет корректно отображать сайт. Пожалуйста, установите любой из современных браузеров, например:

Google Chrome Firefox Safari