On April 23, Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan resigned following a series of large opposition protests in the country’s capital of Yerevan. On the same day police released the opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan, whom was detained on April 22.
“Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong. The situation has several solutions, but I will not take any of them. That is not mine. I am leaving office of the country’s leader, of Prime Minister”, Sargsyan stated. “The street movement is against my tenure. I am fulfilling your demand.”
The protests in Armenia began on April 13 the country’s ruling Republican Party had nominated former President Serzh Sargsyan for the prime minister’s post. By April 22, the police had detained three opposition leaders, including Nikol Pashinyan, and nearly 200 protesters in Yerevan, who had been demanding to take the euro-integration course. By April 24, police had released almost all the detained people.
The current political crisis reveals a polarization of the Armenian society. Over the last decades, the Sargsyan’s government posed as an ally of Russia. Yerevan was formally supporting Moscow, but on the same time was attempting to keep working relations with the EU and the US.
The country’s opposition has another vision. It vows to defend the nation’s freedom from the alleged external threats, which could jeopardize Armenia’s interests. In the framework of this concept, Armenia has to limit its relations with Russia and develop the European integration course.
Opposition supporters say that the partnership with the EU and the USA will contribute to a balanced economic performance of Armenia. At the same time, they accuse Russia of restricting rights and freedoms in its sphere of influence.
The political instability increases risks that Armenia faces at the international scene, including a risk of military escalation in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Azerbaijan, a long-standing Armenian rival, may exploit the current situation to a new attempt to capture Nagorno-Karabakh region, which it sees as own territory, by force. Such situation was observed in 2008 when an unrest in Armenia [8 people were killed and over 250 were injured during riots on March 2, 2018] led to a military escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh. On March 4, 2008 fierce clashes erupted between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces on the contact line causing casualties among the both sides.
Turkey, a powerful ally of Azerbaijan, will likely provide political, media and other assistance to the Azerbaijani side in case of the escalations. In turn, Russia, which is currently the key Armenian ally in Southern Caucasus, seems to keep a neutral stance.
On April 23, Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said that the ongoing political conflict in Armenia is “exclusively an internal affair” and any Russian action would be “absolutely inappropriate”.
It is interesting to note that one the same day, media reports appeared that Azerbaijan had concentrated manpower and military equipment along the contact line with the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which is de-facto controlled by Armenia.
The landlocked mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh is the subject of an unresolved territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but most of the region is governed by the Republic of Artsakh (formerly named the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic), a self-proclaimed state with deep links to Armenia.
If Armenia chooses the European integration instead of the alliance with Russia, Moscow may lost its military base in the country. Russian forces deployed in the 102nd military base in Gyumri allow Moscow to oversee and control the situation in Caucasus.
However, the breach in the Russia-Armenian relations will likely impact the Armenian foreign policy course and thus lead to the Russian troops withdrawal from the country.
Here comes the risk.
Russian troops deployed at the 102nd military base also provide security at the Armenian border with Iran and Turkey. If Armenia shifts its foreign policy and aligns with the US-led bloc, it will have to deal with security threat using own capabilities or to ask new allies in Washington to defend it.
The only problem is that if the US occupies a place of the key security partner of Armenia, it will little care about the national interests of its junior partner.
Considering all these risks and the deepening political crisis, the capability of the new Armenian government to provide an independent and successful foreign and internal policy remains the main question.