The harsh rhetoric and actions of the Pashinyan government/movement is straying Armenia from the very democratic principles that they were vowing to achieve.
In 2018 during the month of April and May an approximately one-month long series of civil unrest led by the charismatic opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan made the incumbent Serzh Sargsyan government resign. Pashinyan was elected the new prime minister as he declared the movement as a “Velvet Revolution” highlighting the non-violent transition of power due to mass protests. The movement was backed by a majority populace that demanded steps towards democratic principles (Terzyan, 2020).
Four years later in 2022 the start of May the Republic of Armenia is showing signs of significant political polarization and harsh rhetoric from the main political parties and leaders including Pashinyan as many protesters are detained by the police with the same accusations towards the opposition and the protesters that were made towards the leaders and the participators of the Velvet Revolution (Kıyak, 2019). The hails and the celebratory comments of the west to Pashinyan and his movement have turned to concerned expressions and warnings of democratic backsliding from the principles and advancements that were made during the Velvet Revolution.
The protests of May 2022 were instigated by collaborated opposition voices on the rumor of Pashinyan preparing to sign a deal with Azerbaijan seceding more ground in Nagorno-Karabakh due to “international pressures”. The conflict was also one of the first instances of Pashinyan using hostile rhetoric as he was reportedly for negotiation for the conflict before he came to office where he increasingly used more provocative language for both the Armenian people and to the Azeri side, arguably fueling the ramping border clashes during that timeframe (Terzyan, 2020). This switch to a harsher language on the matter can be attributed to an effort at gaining more supporters in the country in a populist move as most of the Armenians are militant on the matter. His rhetoric on the conflict both made it easier for escalation into another war and for the opposition to blame his government for the losses of the war, since he carried the status quo of the Armenian position with his changed stance but failed to protect that status quo resulting in a war that resulted in major losses for the Armenian people. Not only did the losses of the war striped some credibility for ideas and the principles of the Pashinyan government in the eyes of some Armenians but the nationalistic rhetoric by Pashinyan that preceded the conflict also laid the groundwork for the increase of mobilization for autocracy after the war.
After the loss the opposition summoned masses to the streets blaming the situation to the Pashinyan government, Pashinyan blamed the loss to a portion of the Armenian military command and the response from the army was further destabilizing with quotes such as “The army has always been with the people and the people with the army.”, Pashinyan subsequently accused the military of implying a possible coup. No matter how unstable or risky a situation might be Pashinyan rarely backed down from his remarks that escalated the situations mentioned before. Political etiquette and mannerisms are a big part of the democratic process as it signifies the will to negotiate and political speech as fake as it might seem to the public is the balancing voice needed for discourse on volatile topics such as an international conflict or a popular uprising backed with the word of the national military.
One of those rare times that Pashinyan used his position to deescalate and stabilize the nation was when he stepped down as the prime minister to constitutionally start the process of an early election for June 2021. However, this move can also be attributed to the further pressures by the public and the military following his firing of many military officers that signed their names on letters of condemnation rather than his political sensibilities. This point is further backed by the polarizing period of election preparations.
Pashinyan reportedly carried a hammer at his rallies referring to the elements of the government and bureaucrats of the opposition as “rust nails” promising political vendettas and using hostile rhetoric towards a democratically existent opposition telling his supporters that he will “not only put them on the asphalt but throw them against the wall.”. The biggest voice of the opposition ex-prime minister Robert Kocharyan had matched his posture inviting Pashinyan to a duel with any type of weapon, boasting to his supporters that he should “put a sack on (Pashinyan’s) head and lose him before he destroys Armenia.”. No doubt that these statements by the most prominent 2 political figures of Armenia talk for themselves on their potential at polarizing a society which is considered to be a major contributor to possible democratic backsliding. OSCE’s report on the election concluded that the elections as a procedure was up to OSCE standards and there was no major breach in its legitimacy. However there is a significant section of the report detailing the polarizing propaganda period before the elections highlighting the absence of diplomatic mannerisms and the harsh rhetoric of Pashinyan that is possibly giving signs of democratic backsliding with quotes such as “Go to polling stations and replace our velvet mandate with a steel one, and you will see political vendettas, and you will see civil vendettas, and you will see staff purges,”.
Perhaps the most recent protests of May 2022 and Pashinyan accusing the opposition of trying to instigate a coup and arresting dozens of peaceful protesters is the start of the messages of the velvet revolution diluting into an iron majority, since Pashinyan won the recent elections with a landslide 54% vote despite his seemingly contradictory rhetoric. But the democratic principles that the Velvet Revolution claimed to represent does not approve of a tyranny of the majority despite free and fair elections, 54% or 84% “civil vendettas” and “staff purges” polarizes the public by antagonizing the remaining population leading to democratic backsliding (Kıyak, 2019).
In conclusion, personally I think that the fast democratic changes that came with the Velvet Revolution might be in danger because of the polarizing rhetoric of the predominant political leaders/parties. The Nagorno-Karabakh war has been a critical topic in Armenian politics since the seperation of Armenia from the USSR and it seems like it will continue to be that way judging by the reactions to the losses of the war of 2020. Pashinyan’s ambitions to stay in power is proving to be a bigger priority to him than the democratic principles he wanted to bring to Armenia as he reserved himself to crack down on protests and political opposition in similar ways to the political elite he once criticised.
- Terzyan, A. (2020). Post-Soviet Revolutions and Post Revolution Discourses: Explaining the Construction of Political Identities in Post-Rose Revolution Georgia and Post Velvet Revolution Armenia. Slovak Journal of Political Sciences / Slovenska Politologicka Revue, 20(1). https://doi.org/10.34135/sjps.200107
- Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Armenian Election Reports, https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/armenia
- Karine Ghazaryan (2021), “Armenian election rhetoric grows violent”, eurasianet, https://eurasianet.org/armenian-election-rhetoric-grows-violent
- Avet Demourian & Mstyslav Chernov (2021), “Polarized by war, Armenia votes Sunday in an early election”, AP News, https://apnews.com/article/armenia-europe-elections-government-and-politics-335fe7ab6eb0641447850fb26585bdd3
- Figen Kıyak, December 2019, “Problems of Democratization in Armenia”, masters thesis, Middle East Technical University, Ankara.
- Avet Demourian (2022), “Tens of thousands rally to demand Armenian PM’s resignation”, AP News, https://apnews.com/article/europe-armenia-yerevan-22b9e362a69915a37644995f58ae73ed
- Ani Mejlumyan (2021), “Armed forces call on Armenian PM to step down”, eurasianet, https://eurasianet.org/armed-forces-call-on-armenian-pm-to-step-down
- Varieties of Democracy Institute, University of Gothenburg, “Democracy Reports” (2017-2022), https://www.v-dem.net/democracy_reports.html
- Illustration by Lightspring, “Political divide and voter division…” (shutterstock), Creative Commons Zero license.”