In 2018, many in the West predicted that the resignation of Armenia’s pro-Moscow autocrat Serzh Sargsyan and election of self-proclaimed reformist Nikol Pashinyan would finally lead to democratic consolidation. Today, however, this hope appears unjustified. Since his election, Pashinyan has employed a plethora of legal mechanisms and compelling rule-of-law rhetoric, to strengthen his hold on power. These developments dispel the wishful notion that authoritarianism in Armenia has been defeated but also suggest its new face: Gone are the dramatic executive coups of years past. Now, Pashinyan, like many would-be authoritarians around the world, has opted instead for the far more subtle — albeit, no less dangerous — practice of executive aggrandizement.
Armenia’s former would-be authoritarians attempted to subvert democracy through auto-coups: presidents and prime ministers, having been elected through legal-democratic institutions, tried to prolong their tenures by illegal and anti-democratic means. For instance, incumbent Levon Ter-Petrosyan engaged in ballot-stuffing and other forms of electoral fraud in 1996 after preliminary polls placed him behind opposition candidate Vazgen Manukyan. When protests gripped Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, Ter-Petrosyan enacted “emergency” measures: Army units marched into the city, ostensibly to restore public order, and did not leave until Ter-Petrosyan purged the civil service of opposition loyalists and forced Manukyan into hiding.
Similarly, after serving the maximum two presidential terms, Sargsyan pushed for a constitutional amendment to transform Armenia from a semi-presidential to parliamentary republic so that he could serve as prime minister. This amendment passed in a 2015 referendum marked by “serious irregularities,” but Sargsyan was forced to resign after just six days as prime minister in the face of large-scale protests.
The auto-coups of 1996 and 2015 were similar in two important ways: both were blatant attempts at eroding democracy and both ended in the chief executive’s disgraced resignation and the election or appointment of a new government, which swiftly removed those who enabled the auto-coups.
Pashinyan has broken from this tradition: Using the constitutional powers vested in the central executive — rather than the extra-legal and amendment strategies of Ter-Petrosyan and Sargsyan — he has systematically weakened his political opposition and, in doing so, denied voters alternatives. This strategy mirrors global trends in democratic erosion. According to legal scholar Ozan Varol, contemporary would-be authoritarians have tended to adopt “stealth-authoritarian” tactics because “direct repression is not a viable option.” Armenians can find similar developments across their borders in Turkey and Azerbaijan or oceans away in Peru and the United States. But what accounts for this shift in the political calculus?
Historically, “robust and active” civil-society organizations in Armenia have refused to remain silent in the face of direct repression. In 1996 and 2015, hundreds of thousands rallied in Republic Square — the administrative center of Yerevan — bringing the entire country to a standstill. In the end, pressure from civil society forced both Ter-Petrosyan and Sargsyan to resign within months of their failed coups. Learning from their predecessors’ miscalculations, Pashinyan and his ilk now understand that civil society is one of the strongest safeguards against democratic erosion. Thus, they attempt to erode democracy in ways that are less visible to civil-society organizations and harder for them to organize against.
Growing international oversight and expectations of democracy have similarly eroded the viability of direct repression. Since gaining independence in 1991, Armenia has relied on foreign assistance due to an ongoing war with Azerbaijan and a closed border with Turkey. However, this assistance often comes with strings. In 2017, Armenia and the European Union signed the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement: a deal that would bolster the Armenian economy but is contingent on its respect for the rule of law and legal-democratic institutions. Thus, for fear of upsetting his foreign Pashinyan has been forced to settle only for those authoritarian practices that are difficult for domestic and foreign actors to detect and eliminate.
Therefore, Pashinyan has focused on rule-of-law rhetoric and the legal and justice system to limit opposition. As he said to his political opponents in 2021: “We are ready to establish the dictatorship of law and justice.” In making claims like this, he draws attention to the rule-of-law that theoretically underlies liberal democracy and tries to draw a connection between his original election in 2018, when he was a symbol of democracy, and his current actions. This façade of “law and justice” can distract those international actors who have come to associate Pashinyan with the institution of democracy itself. Yet, his law-and-order practices are clearly aimed to eliminate competition.
For instance, rather than directly censoring or harassing journalists, the Pashinyan-loyal majority in the National Assembly has enacted harsher penalties for insults and defamation: $5,700 and $11,400 respectively, and government prosecutors have attempted to classify slogans against Pashinyan — many of which accuse him of treason — as a form of “serious insult.” For context, these fines are much higher than a well-paid journalist in Armenia can expect to earn in a month. Prominent journalists decry an “atmosphere of intolerance.” In response, however, Pashinyan and his party have doubled down, arguing that similar laws exist in all liberal democracies, and that in their absence, Armenia would be corrupted by illiberal and anti-democratic elements.
Additionally, Pashinyan has been using the National Security Services — packed with his appointees — to selectively arrest opposition leaders and their donors. While this authoritarian tactic is a bit more noticeable, it is still arguably within the confines of the law. For example, an opposition-linked mayor, Manvel Paramazian, was recently arrested and brought to Yerevan for unknown reasons. Pressed for answers, officials explained that the agency has a 72-hour window to bring formal charges before its detainees. They released and rearrested Paramazian several times for seemingly political reasons. “All this became predictable after the Hayastan bloc [a coalition of opposition parties] won the majority of votes in Kajaran,” his lawyer explained. Similarly, agents raided the headquarters of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation before arresting its leader and political candidate, Ishkhan Saghatelyan, for demanding that Pashinyan resign: a violation of martial law during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2020. While Saghatelyan was also released, such events contribute to a political culture of fear and self-censorship. This practice is consistent with other would-be authoritarians who use surveillance institutions to perpetuate their power.
His supporters argue that Pashinyan has not obviously violated the Armenian constitution or the rule of law — at least not to the same extent as his predecessors. There is truth to this statement, but that is precisely the problem. There is no singular moment of erosion that could have triggered resistance or been a rallying-point for the opposition.