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Come December, Could Armenia Get Away with Democracy?

Article by Dr Kevork Oskanian

November 30, 2018

Come December, Could Armenia Get Away with Democracy?

One perennial question confronting students of the former Soviet Union has been to what extent democratisation and geopolitical orientation can be separated from each other in their region of interest. Conventional wisdom holds that Russia will be opposed to democratising movements within its claimed periphery: in states like Ukraine and Georgia, many pro-Western politicians have long assumed that a pro-Russian orientation would preclude the thorough-going democratisation aspired to by their electorates.  Numerous scholars have also pointed to Russian opposition to democratisation, particularly in light of the pro-Western colour revolutions of previous decades.[1]

Several explanations can account for this. Firstly, the fact that (at least declaratory) adherence to democratic norms and geopolitical orientation have become intermingled for most of the past 25 years: the European Union and NATO have (however imperfectly) included democratic conditionalities in various policy instruments – including the ENP and EaP – and a state’s liberal-democratic aspirations have therefore become closely associated with a pro-European orientation, both for the participants in these programmes, and Moscow itself. Secondly, a truly democratic political culture would provide an awkward fit with the unaccountable clientelistic methods employed in Russian politics, domestic and foreign: with so much of its interaction in the region based on back-room diplomacy, Moscow would be at a loss how to deal with former Soviet republics if they somehow opened up to the scrutiny of an assertive electorate and dynamic civil society. Thirdly, democratisation in societies displaying a strong cultural affinity with Russia – Ukraine, for example – would discredit one of the central planks of the Kremlin’s argument in favour of ‘sovereign democracy’: namely, that Russia in particular, and Eurasia in general, has a different interpretation of ‘democracy’ than the West by virtue of its particular history and culture.

These assumptions will soon be put to the test in Armenia, where, earlier this year, an entrenched pro-Russian old guard was swept away in a pro-democratic revolution that simultaneously avoided any challenges to the geopolitical status-quo. The ‘velvet revolution’, as it came to be known, was led by a new generation of politicians, whose ‘My Step’ alliance is widely predicted to win the upcoming parliamentary elections on 9 December by a landslide.  From the very beginning, its leadership – fronted by incumbent Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – made clear its intention to separate their democratising aspirations from Armenia’s geopolitical orientation: the emphasis was on revolutionary domestic change, combined with continuity in the country’s heavily (but not exclusively) pro-Russian foreign and security policies.[2] In the coming months and years, Armenia might provide observers with valuable insights as to how far such a separation is at all possible in the former Soviet Space, depending on whether or not the country is able to meet several considerable challenges that will likely flow from its democratising push.

First and foremost, there is the question of whether Armenia’s recent revolution will indeed result in the kind of ‘deep democratisation’ aspired to by much of its population (something on which this whole thought exercise will remain contingent). Eurasia is littered with the broken promises of failed, or half-baked revolutions that, have, over time, resulted in disillusionment in a new, unsatisfactory status-quo. Both the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan failed to deliver on initially sky-high expectations in an increasingly disillusioned Ukraine[3]; Georgia’s recent – and quite acrimonious – elections also exhibited a worrying return to questionable methods before and during the poll.[4] Pashinyan’s alliance will not only have to surmount considerable internal resistance and potential disruption from the ‘darker’ side of Armenia’s political economy; it will also have to fight the multiple structural temptations that could come from the expected landslide, and the absence of a credible, constructive opposition to its rule – something not conducive to the emergence of a healthy political culture based on the effective management of contestation and debate. The ultimate test of Armenia’s nascent democracy will lie in the Pashinyan bloc’s ability to avoid a descent towards a typical, post-Soviet ‘party of power’, as evidenced by a peaceful transfer of authority at some point in the future.

But even if Armenia’s internal dynamics were to allow for democracy to successfully take root in coming years, a clear separation between the international and the domestic might prove difficult to uphold. While the leaders of the revolutionary movement have taken great care to stress the absence of geopolitical motives in their push for accountable government, whether Russia will be able or willing to separate these two phenomena over the longer term very much remains to be seen.[5]

Because, in spite of the ritual assurances of state sovereignty proclaimed by Lavrov, even if Armenia did not move towards ‘deep integration’ with the EU at the expense of Moscow’s own regional projects, accountable government would require Moscow to possibly accept a higher level of scrutiny than it would be used to in other allies. It may, for instance, have to accept an impartial and wide-ranging investigation into possible crimes committed by the closely allied ancien régime; its thinly veiled displeasure this summer’s post-revolutionary proceedings against former president Kocharyan looks ominous in that regard.[6] It might also have to swallow increased scrutiny of the activities of Russian multinationals in Armenia, as demonstrated, for instance, in recent investigations into possible tax evasion by Gazprom’s local subsidiary.[7] Moreover, would Moscow be willing to separate geopolitics from the economic sphere so as to allow for the transparent management of the economy, and, for instance, the outbidding of Russian companies on a level playing field in investment projects or procurements? Openness and transparency do not lend themselves to the back-room deals the Kremlin so often employs in the region.

Even if the above challenges are met, one would have to take care not to generalise towards the other states of the former USSR: paradoxically, because of Armenia’s dependence, size and cultural specificity. In the still unlikely event that democratisation succeeds and is tolerated by Russia, the question still remains whether this is simply because the Kremlin feels confident enough in its strategic dominance over Armenia, both in the military and economic spheres: Armenia’s dependence might make Moscow sufficiently self-assured to put up with the emergence of democratic government, where it might be seen as a geopolitical threat in other, less reliably dependent neighbours. The fact that Armenia is a small state, and culturally distinct from Russia might also allow it to get away with rather more democratisation than, say, a more sizeable and culturally proximate Ukraine: it would not provide quite the liberal-democratic counter-example to Russia’s ‘sovereign democracy’, allegedly feared by the Kremlin.

The dangers of Russia becoming a ‘spoiler’ in Armenia’s move towards democratisation without geopolitical reorientation remain. Moscow might simply be waiting for Armenia’s democratic experiment to go awry for purely internal reasons; failing that, it may find itself confronted with any number of situations that would prompt it to subvert accountable government in Yerevan. Only time will tell if democratisation and geopolitics can be separated in the former Soviet space, but a measure of a priori scepticism is definitely in order.  And even if Armenia could pull off the improbable and successfully disassociate the foreign and the domestic, it would not mean that its experiences can be applied elsewhere.  And that is regrettable, considering the potential advantages – for all involved – of such a separation.

[1] See, for instance: Ambrosio, T. (2007) Insulating Russia from a Colour Revolution: How the Kremlin Resists Regional Democratic Trends, Democratization, 14:2, 232-252, DOI: 10.1080/13510340701245736; Delcour, L. & Wolczuk, K. (2015) Spoiler or facilitator of democratization?: Russia’s role in Georgia and Ukraine, Democratization, 22:3, 459-478, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2014.996135; Risse, T. & Babayan, N. (2015) Democracy promotion and the challenges of illiberal regional powers: introduction to the special issue, Democratization, 22:3, 381-399, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2014.997716. For a dissenting view, see: Sontag, R. (2014, 8 May) Compromise With Russia, Compromise on Democracy?, The National Interest, available at https://nationalinterest.org/feature/compromise-russia-compromise-democracy-10395

[2] Thomas De Waal, Sometimes Armenian Protests Are Just Armenian Protests, Foreign Policy, April 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/23/sometimes-armenian-protests-are-just-armenian-protests/

[3] Christopher Miller, Ukrainians Reflect Bitterly On ‘Betrayed Hopes’ Of Euromaidan, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, December 2016, https://www.rferl.org/a/ukrainians-reflect-bitterly-on-betrayed-hopes-euromaidan/28203245.html

[4] Civil Georgia, NDI: Georgia Risks “Squandering” Democratic Asset, November 2018,

https://civil.ge/archives/268633

[5] Tert, No geopolitical context behind Armenia’s ‘velvet revolution’, Prime Minister tells Russia Today, July 2018, https://www.tert.am/en/news/2018/06/16/Nikol-Pashinyan/2715673

[6] AFP, Moscow warns Armenia against ‘political’ crackdown on old elite, July 2018,  https://www.expatica.com/ru/news/country-news/Russia-Armenia-politics-corruption_2012306.html

[7] Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCPR), Armenia’s Gazprom Operator Accused of Tax Evasion, November 2018, https://www.occrp.org/en/27-ccwatch/cc-watch-briefs/8944-armenia-s-gazprom-operator-accused-of-tax-evasion

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