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The results of Armenia’s parliamentary elections surprised observers both at home and abroad. Despite Yerevan’s devastating defeat in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war under his leadership, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan secured a decisive electoral victory. His Civil Contract party won more than half of the votes (54 percent), compared to only 21 percent for Armenia Alliance, led by his main rival, former president Robert Kocharyan.
Armenian pollsters had predicted a tight race, or even a Kocharyan win. Instead, Pashinyan will remain prime minister, form a single-party government, and have a constitutional majority in parliament. Of course, this also means that he will take sole responsibility for continuing the difficult negotiations with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, and for crafting a new Armenian foreign policy.
Voting patterns in different regions of Armenia shed light on the reasons for Pashinyan’s success. Civil Contract enjoyed particularly high support (65 percent) in Shirak Province, the home region of the Armenian soldiers taken prisoner by Azerbaijan in December 2020. This shows that the locals aren’t craving revenge, which is associated with Kocharyan; rather, they want peace.
It’s been clear for months that the Armenian public doesn’t want war and doesn’t support a military operation to seize back lost territory. During the election campaign, Kocharyan said that no one in their right mind would call for immediate revenge, but Armenians understand that Kocharyan is a far more toxic figure for Baku than Pashinyan, and that renewed clashes would be more likely under Kocharyan. Last year’s hostilities demonstrated that the Armenian army could not win a war. Thus, it would be better to avoid one.
Just before the elections, Azerbaijan sent Armenia a clear signal that it was ready for either negotiations or more confrontation, that dialogue was possible: Baku pointedly sentenced some Armenian prisoners, while swapping others for maps of Armenian minefields in Agdam Region. And over the course of the election campaign, Baku had hinted that it would prefer to deal with Pashinyan, though it did so very carefully, so that its hints wouldn’t backfire. This may seem unpatriotic to some, but the Armenian voters accepted these rules of the game.
Pashinyan’s victory in Syunik Province, where Azerbaijan will build a railroad and highway connecting Azerbaijan proper to the exclave of Nakhchivan, was equally telling. Just recently, locals blocked roads when Pashinyan tried to visit the region, and pelted his motorcade with eggs. Now, Civil Contract has won 54 percent of the votes there.
Pashinyan has also benefited from the general atmosphere of disillusionment in Armenia, which resulted in a turnout of 49 percent, low for the country. In these conditions, Pashinyan’s core supporters (about 25 percent of the population) were enough for victory.
Of course, Kocharyan also has loyal supporters, including the patriotic intelligentsia, who say that the country needs a strong hand and not “mob rule.” But they are fewer in number. Kocharyan’s team has announced that it does not recognize the election results; the opposition has even threatened to appeal the results in the Constitutional Court. However, this resistance is unlikely to last. The election results appear to reflect real public sentiments.
Despite the Kremlin’s old ties to Kocharyan, Moscow seems satisfied with the outcome. “If Kocharyan’s alliance had won a majority in parliament, this would have created additional political turbulence,” said Leonid Kalashnikov, who chairs the Russian State Duma’s committee on the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). This also suggests that Kocharyan wouldn’t be able to mount a real protest. The Kremlin wouldn’t have risked its reputation with the Armenian public by pushing through an unpopular candidate. Neither Pashinyan nor Kocharyan threatens Russian interests, but Pashinyan is preferable for Moscow when it comes to negotiations with Azerbaijan, because he is more predictable.
The election will bring some changes. Although Pashinyan has preserved a constitutional majority, the makeup of the parliament is very different. The new government will face legislative clashes with the united opposition around Kocharyan. Perhaps Kocharyan will not want to finish his career as a rank-and-file deputy, but his supporters will certainly not give the government an easy ride.
Pashinyan will therefore need to be as loyal as possible in relations with Moscow. He has already promised to expand cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), two Moscow-led projects that he had recently criticized for dillydallying over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The most difficult—and unavoidable—task for Pashinyan will be negotiations with Azerbaijan. Aware of his new reputation as “Baku’s candidate,” Pashinyan will likely try to negotiate small victories, such as getting more prisoners of war released, and pass these off as the results of his firm position. Building on that, he will promise bigger victories soon to come, such as the transit of goods to Russia via Azerbaijan.
The real minefield for Pashinyan will be Nagorno-Karabakh. His chest-thumping statements (such as, “Karabakh is Armenian, full stop”) and public dancing in the town of Shusha sparked Azerbaijan’s attack last year. He will now have to forgo trips to the Armenia-controlled areas of Nagorno-Karabakh, and to refer to them only as “the zone controlled by Russian peacekeepers.” At the same time, Pashinyan will want to emphasize Nagorno-Karabakh’s “undefined status” so that Armenians don’t fear that the entire region could end up under Baku’s control.
Armenia will not drift toward the West, as Russian spin doctors insinuate: Pashinyan has learned from experience that it’s not worth aggravating Moscow. However, he will redouble efforts to persuade the West that it’s essential for Armenia to retain the few areas of Nagorno-Karabakh it still controls. As Armenia’s main European ally, France will likely play a special role in this.
If Armenia’s new parliament avoids snap elections, then the last six months of its five-year term will coincide with the end of the Russian peacekeeping mandate in Nagorno-Karabakh. And if the Russian mandate is extended, this will be a convenient victory for Pashinyan to show off in his next election campaign. It looks like Pashinyan will remain at the top in Armenian politics for much longer than he was expected to just six months ago.
This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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