The recent protests in Armenia that led to Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan stepping down and being replaced by opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan don’t really correspond to the categories that many people—both in the West and in Russia—are used to employing to describe what happens in former Soviet states. 

Nor does the image of Pashinyan himself. It’s hard to call the new prime minister left- or right-wing, pro-Western or pro-Russian. He has two images: one of a charismatic revolutionary, capable of getting people on the streets to rally behind him, and the other as a pragmatic politician ready to make compromises and form tactical unions. 

The forty-two-year-old Pashinyan has nothing in common with the political elites that dominate most former Soviet states: they are the successors of either Soviet nomenclature, or the democratic movements that came to power in the early 1990s. 

Pashinyan is the former editor of the popular opposition newspaper Haykakan Zhamanak (The Armenian Times) and was one of the most high-profile activists in the opposition movement led by former president Levon Ter-Petrosyan. He later served nearly two years in prison over those protests, and was amnestied in 2011. 

Pashinyan and his circle are generally perceived in Armenia as representatives of the liberal-democratic wing. However, it’s hard to clearly define his place in the country’s political spectrum. This isn’t so much because Pashinyan has been accused by his political rivals of opportunism (for recognizing the results of a contested vote in 2017 that saw him elected to parliament), but because Armenian politics in general is hard to describe in terms of traditional ideological categories. 

For decades, the main conflict in Armenia’s political life has not been between the left and the right, or between liberals and conservatives, but between the authorities and the opposition. All this time, the extremely diverse Armenian opposition has been united by one agenda: fighting corruption, ensuring honest elections, and dismantling monopolies. Pashinyan stands out for his impressive constancy, since these are issues he has focused on right from starting out as a journalist. 

The new prime minister and his supporters are in no hurry to outline concrete plans for reform. They talk about fighting corruption, the oligarchy, and monopolies; and about how rule of law will preside in the “new Armenia”; and that businesses of all sizes will be able to develop without fear of pressure from the state organs. But how exactly they plan to achieve all of this is so far unclear. 

This ambiguity is seemingly caused by the fact that Pashinyan doesn’t want to lose any of his supporters. He needs a broad coalition to complete the process of removing members of the previous ruling party, the Republican Party of Armenia, from power. This is why he is working together with two different parliamentary parties, even though until recently one of them—Prosperous Armenia—was part of the systemic opposition, while the other, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (also known as Dashnaktsutyun), was a partner in the republican coalition.  

Furthermore, Pashinyan has made it clear that there will be no personnel purges, and that he is prepared to cooperate with specialists and technocrats who worked with the previous authorities. This is a necessity, because he doesn’t have his own team, and will have to look for new people beyond his own small party, Civil Contract. 

Of course, many representatives of civil society took part in the protest movement that brought Pashinyan to power, but not all of them are ready to assume positions of authority, or indeed have the necessary management skills to do so. But the new leader has one more talent pool on which he can draw: the large Armenian diaspora, which has greeted the recent events in Armenia with great enthusiasm. 

Naturally, the main questions for the revolution’s victors right now in both Russia and the West concern Armenia’s foreign policy. The republicans tried hard, especially between Sargsyan resigning on April 23 and Pashinyan being elected on May 8, to present Pashinyan as fervently pro-Western, in order to secure the Kremlin’s support in their internal political battle. Pashinyan himself, however, did everything to ensure that, in Moscow, he was not considered a pro-Western politician. 

He insisted that the protest movement had a purely internal agenda, and even read out at a protest meeting a statement by Russia’s Foreign Ministry as testimony that Moscow understood that. During his campaign for the post of prime minister, Pashinyan constantly emphasized that Armenia would not leave the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) or Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and that Russian border guards and a Russian military base would remain in Armenia. At the same time, he said that Armenia would continue to develop its relationship with neighbors Georgia and Iran, as well as with the EU and the United States. 

Pashinyan’s overall message was that Armenia would stick to its multi-vector foreign policy. This prompted accusations of opportunism and lack of principles from his opponents, who cited old speeches and articles in which Pashinyan had criticized the authorities’ foreign policy. 

To some extent, it’s true that there has been an adjustment in Pashinyan’s foreign policy views. But the portrayal of him as a pro-Western activist who transformed into a Russophile to adapt to changing circumstances is not correct. When Pashinyan was in opposition, he criticized the state of Armenian-Russian relations not so much from a pro-Western point of view, but as a state-minded person whose priority is not geopolitical orientation but Armenia’s sovereignty.  

Russian-Armenian relations will in future, therefore, likely develop not along the lines of Georgia, as some Russian analysts fear, but along those of Belarus or Kazakhstan. In other words, while underlining the importance of relations with Russia, the EEU, and the CSTO, Pashinyan—unlike Sargsyan—will probably not be afraid to publicly ask tough questions on issues such as the delivery of weapons to neighboring Azerbaijan by CSTO member countries.

One other factor urging Pashinyan to keep a multi-vector foreign policy is Armenia’s problems in relations with two of its direct neighbors: Turkey and Azerbaijan. In Armenia there are fears that Azerbaijan could seize the moment to use force to end the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, in which the two countries have been locked for decades. The temptation for Baku is all the greater since authorities there understand perfectly that the success of the Armenian protests could serve as impetus for the demoralized Azeri opposition. So far, complications in the conflict zone have been avoided during the dramatic events in Armenia, in part thanks to Moscow, which has apparently made it clear to the Azeri authorities that escalation of the conflict is undesirable. 

Pashinyan himself qualifies his position on Nagorny Karabakh as follows: the conflict should be solved by reaching a compromise, but as long as Baku continues to employ aggressive rhetoric, it’s impossible to speak of a compromise. Sargsyan used to say something similar, but it sounds somewhat different coming from Pashinyan. In the long term, the emergence in one of the countries involved in the conflict of a new leader who enjoys the trust of his people gives hope that the peace process can be revived. But it’s too early to count on a fundamental breakthrough in Nagorny Karabakh: for now, the priority for both Armenian society and the new authorities is not foreign policy or frozen conflicts, but the country’s internal transformation. 

  • Mikael Zolyan