Karabakh’s Golden Fleece: Armenia’s politcal peril following conflict

By | Rachel Brooks

February 4, 2021 


Image credit: “File:Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held informal meeting in Davos.jpg” by The Presidential Press and Information Office’s of Azerbaijan is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Seen above, Pashinyan’s deal for peace signaled a wave of hostile protest in Armenia. 

Since the eve of the defeat in Karabakh, Armenia has erupted in domestic turmoil. Newscasts rolled out a highlight reel of mass arrests as Armenia descended into post-war pandemonium. Protest rallies were held in Yerevan at the close of the second major episode of the Karabakh conflict. Agence France Presse documented heated exchanges with the Armenian police on November 11, 2020, as protestors forced their way forward, anger surmounting over the controversial peace deal reached with Russian brokerage. 

 The war was a rallying point, a unifier that pulled in the diaspora along with the denizen of Armenia. The war came with the promises of the politically fragile Pashinyan and ended ultimately in his shaking hands with Azerbaijani President Aliyev. Immediately following the outcome of the Karabakh conflict 2020, Armenian citizens stormed the Parliament, in a fashion that would be echoed mere months later in the United States Capitol, in the riots of January 6.

Armenia is a nation of historical corruption, and of leaders who weaponize corruption accusations, whether they are true or false. The Armenian News of the Massis Post noted that Armenia’s government would hire a new series of judges to preside over the corruption trials to ensue, in the wake of the Karabakh conflict’s politically negative outcome for the nation. This was reported on January 14. That week, Armenia drafted a bill petitioning the Ministry of Justice for up to 21 judges delegated to corruption cases, with at least three new judges specializing in corruption-related cases of the Court of Appeals. Whether Armenia is reforming its approach to government or is initiating a witchhunt, is not certain. Heated battles in the government over anti-corruption have been reported in recent years, see Eurasianet in April 2020 for an example.

 The Armenian Mirror likewise posted that four leaders were arrested in November over an attempted plot to assassinate Pashinyan over the ceasefire terms. One of these plotters was released the next day. Pashinyan likewise took to social media to condemn the actions of his cabinet, which resulted in several resignations. 

The Armenian Mirror had also stated that the group of would-be assassins was narrowed down to four people by November 14, but preliminary arrests were made by November 12. The arrests involved a group of political opposition leaders. At least nine people were lined up in the preliminary arrests. The most prominent of these figures was Artur Vanetsyan, the former director of Armenia’s National Security Service, and the current leader of the Fatherland opposition party. Among them, Gagik Tsarukyan of the Prosperous Armenia Party, and Ishkhan Saghatelyan, the leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. 

Even though the Karabakh conflict escalated the situation, it didn’t start there. The domestic political discourse shows that Armenia’s political infighting had been escalating for a while before the violent turn it took with the heavy blow of the Karabakh defeat. The Armenian Mirror-Spectator posted another article on June 11, 2020, a little over three months before the official start of the Second Karabakh conflict episode, which highlighted some of the same problems. The Armenian Mirror-Spectator is an English-language Armenian political weekly that launched in 1932. The June post noted that Pashinyan’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was creating a serious stir within the Armenian Republic: 

“Armenia initially faced the coronavirus pandemic successfully, but now it seems that the situation is getting out of hand. Even Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his family members have been infected with the virus, leaving the country in survival mode,” wrote Edmond Y. Azadian

Azadian also went on to note how the first Armenian president, a rare commentator on current affairs, issued stark warnings for the modern cabinet: 

“In view of the critical situation, the first president of the republic, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who seldom comments on political developments, has issued a stern warning on ilur.am under the title of “Simple Syllogism.” In it, he says, “1. Coronavirus has declared war on Armenia. 2. The burden of conducting the war falls on the shoulders of the leaders. 3. Whoever is fighting against the leadership, willingly or unwillingly, betrays the nation. The domestic political infighting during the war is madness, which has no justification.”

Ter-Petrosyan believes he has the moral responsibility to sound the alarm at moments of crisis. He did so also during the four-day war in April 2016, advising people to rally around the government of President Serzh Sargsyan, whom he did not like,” wrote Azadian. 

From Azadian’s analysis, one might conclude that Levon Ter-Petrosyan only speaks out when Armenia reaches the boiling point. That boiling point tends to incite aggression against neighboring Azerbaijan and Eastern Turkey. As Armenia has long desired to expand its borders and continues to consider itself as a national whole mortal enemy of all Turkic peoples, the attempt to seize Karabakh has been a political golden fleece of the people. The quest for the golden fleece of Karabakh, and all of the opportunity it would provide, has been a fragile unifier. Armenia has been at war within itself for longer than the nation may be willing to admit. 

Another piece was submitted to The Armenian Mirror-Spectator, this time to the op-ed column, on February 4. The piece was written by Adrienne G. Alexanian and bemoans Armenia’s descent into chaos. The piece discusses the “heart-wrenching losses” of “one chaos after another” highlighting that Armenia faced a “genocide” which was capitalized in the text of the piece, as well as the loss of “historical sites” in the Karabakh. 

This is even though Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan, and that the region has always exhibited cultural diversity, including the location of many Udi Christian relics. The op-ed highlights an undercurrent of political victimization, a sense of national revivalism born from the trauma of Soviet propaganda, that Armenia’s political elite continued to cling to as talking points to suit their agendas. Alexanian’s argument asks if the Armenian Diaspora and people should continue to “throw money” at the cause of reclaiming what Armenia considers its right to. She calls for twenty-year and fifty-year plans, highlighting the inconsistency of this “politics of convenience” within the Armenian elite, that had snowed in the understanding of foreign-born Armenians, and continues to snowball into conflicts with Armenia’s Turkic neighbors. 

In truth, the Karabakh conflict of 2020 for the time truly revealed the level of dysfunction within Armenia, as the narrative was no longer completely controlled by the post-Soviet socialism biased press. 

For the first time, the narrative of the Karabakh issue was reported and argued by a jury of its peers, as both Armenians and Azerbaijanis took to platforms such as Twitter to argue the facts of their national pain over the continued territory conflict. 

Unlike any other time in the history of the drawn-out saga of Armenia’s quest for the Golden Fleece of Greater Armenia, the conflict was exposed. Raw images, footage of war crimes, proof of the use of banned weapons against civilian settlements outside the fighting line, portrayed Armenia for what it was. 

It was, and is, politically desperate, needing the expansion and the unifying vision of what it is owed to keep the people from focusing on the mass corruption and repeat infighting that has plagued the Armenian republic since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

An example of this was observed in February 2004 when Armenia was also on the verge of a “governmental crisis.”

 EurasiaNet’s Emil Danielyan reported then on the renewed coalition infighting of Armenia, which surged post the 2003-era parliamentary elections. 

“Coalition controversy was sparked by an emotional speech February 6 by Hrant Markarian, a leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), or Dashnaktsutiun. Speaking during a party general assembly, Markarian assailed his party’s nominal coalition allies for engaging in massive vote fraud to maintain power in the May 2003 parliamentary vote. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive],” wrote Danielyan. 

“Though now in the governing coalition, Markarian characterized the ARF as a victim of vote-rigging. He charged that his party was “stabbed in the back” by other pro-Kocharian forces who resorted to vote-buying and demagoguery to win a parliamentary majority. “Our indignation was great because we lost another unique opportunity to bring the country to its senses,” he said. “The vote irregularities were severe indeed.”

Danielyan’s report highlights a crisis of total disenfranchisement within Armenia, even highly evident within the last roughly 17 years. With almost two decades to devolve in this situation, any reform, rebirth, or radical movement might have appeared welcome. 

Onto the stage of this repeated political conflict stepped Nikol Pashinyan with his Velvet Revolution. The revolution was highlighted by Harvard International Review, which noted that revolutions had “wracked” the former Soviet Union ever since its demise. Comparing it to its peer nations, Harvard lauded the movement of Pashinyan, a journalist and former political prisoner, for “evoking” the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution of 1989. Harvard referred to Pashinyan’s revolution as a lesson in “a peaceful transition to democracy for other authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states for now…” but noted how fragile the transformation was. 

“A poor economy and high levels of corruption had already generated significant discontent in Armenia, but a constitutional change that the ruling Republican Party passed in 2015 also provoked intense reactions against the administration,” wrote Harvard International Review.  

There was a pinnacle hope applied to Pashinyan, high expectations rested with him, for his revolution and its success. Yet the problems in Armenia proved to remain solidified. The reignition of conflict with Azerbaijan in 2016 was still fresh in the Armenian political aspiration’s mind.

Pashinyan, standing on the pillar of these hopes, toppled himself with enormous failure, stronger than his legacy, by failing to take said Golden Fleece of Karabakh. Above failure, he had not only failed to seize back “Artsakh” for Armenia, but he had also given up lands Armenia occupied for peace, as was reported by The Guardian. This was the result of a Vladimir Putin brokered cease-fire, and the de facto occupation of the region by Russian peacekeepers. Pashinyan insisted that his actions were strategy, but Armenia responded with the same disenfranchised ire that Pashinyan’s predecessor governments were also met with.