In post-revolutionary Armenia, the old ruling elite has had to come to terms with new realities. Chief among these is the power of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, whose electoral bloc and allies now control parliament. Those who deny or challenge Pashinyan’s dominance risk having their companies audited and their homes searched, and even being arrested; not even former presidents are safe. Hence the decision of many Republican Party figures to acquiesce to or join Pashinyan, whose measured approach has so far allowed him to avoid conflict with either the public or the old ruling elite.
Earlier this year, Armenia became the latest post-Soviet state to experience regime change when protests brought down the government of Serzh Sargsyan. However, unlike the deposed leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and Ukraine, Sargsyan has not fled his country. In fact, on December 9, Sargsyan calmly visited his polling place to cast his ballot in Armenia’s first post-revolutionary parliamentary elections, an unthinkable act for Kyrgyzstan’s Askar Akayev or Kurmanbek Bakiyev, or Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who led last spring’s demonstrations and whose electoral bloc now holds nearly 70 percent of seats in parliament, has treated the old ruling elite with caution and reserve. The last few months have seen numerous members of the hitherto governing Republican Party arrested and their homes searched; yet plenty of Republican Party alumni have gone to work for the new government. Thanks to this approach, Pashinyan has managed to keep the peace and avoid alienating either the public or the old ruling elite.
At first, Pashinyan acted forcefully and decisively. Within weeks of his confirmation as prime minister, he assaulted the reputation and economic interests of his predecessor, Karen Karapetyan, though he reserved his fiercest attacks for Lt. Gen. Manvel Grigoryan. Grigoryan, a former deputy defense minister and Republican Party parliamentarian and the head of a veterans’ union, had long been considered untouchable by previous presidents. In addition to his formal title, Grigoryan was widely viewed as the de facto ruler of Etchmiadzin, one of Armenia’s largest cities.
Pashinyan moved against Grigoryan anyway, ordering a search of his mansion that recalled the storming of Yanukovych’s Mezhyhirya Residence in 2014. Grigoryan’s subsequent arrest served as a clear message to the old ruling elite: do not stand in Pashinyan’s way.
Unsurprisingly, the Republican Party has shed members in large numbers since the revolution. Businessmen representing the party in parliament saw their companies audited and their offices visited by Tax Service and National Security Service officials, after which they not only defected from the Republican Party but also came to consistently vote with the new government on its various initiatives. Others began to donate to My Step Alliance.
This exodus persisted through the fall, costing the party its parliamentary majority. In December, 58,947 people—representing 41 percent of the party’s 143,000 registered members—voted for the Republican Party. For some observers, the Republican Party’s collapse has much to do with its erstwhile role as a protector of business interests and a means of rising in society for Armenian youth, who no longer have anything to gain from association with the party.
Armenian businessmen, whose participation in parliamentary politics Pashinyan has derided as a vestige of the ancien régime, have also had to adjust to new realities. Gagik Tsarukyan, one of Armenia’s richest people and the head of the Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP), initially joined the Republican Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation in trying to prevent snap parliamentary elections from being held this year. However, he quickly understood that there would be a price to pay for fighting Pashinyan, and he capitulated, signing with Pashinyan a joint memorandum declaring that PAP would not contest the prime minister’s seat.
Tsarukyan is one of many major businessmen compromised by close ties to the ancien régime who have managed to shield their companies from investigation and prosecution. Meanwhile, many of those facing criminal charges have opted for plea bargains that function as payoffs. Pashinyan has no scruples about using this approach, describing it as a transitional justice effort aimed at “returning stolen money, not filling up jails.”
Yet Pashinyan has stressed that this option is reserved for the corrupt. “Bloody crimes cannot be pardoned under any condition. We cannot bring back a man who was killed,” he said, adding that “if money was stolen, then this money can be returned—maybe even with interest.” Already, the former president’s brother, Aleksandr Sargsyan, has expressed willingness to donate $30 million to the state; the former head of the Tax Service is reportedly prepared to hand over a Tsaghkadzor hotel that is worth $15–20 million dollars; and Grigoryan plans to part with more than $10 million in real estate assets.
By contrast, Pashinyan has relentlessly pursued ex-president Robert Kocharyan, who is accused of deploying the military against peaceful protesters in March 2008—an unforgiveable “bloody crime” that resulted in the killing of ten people. Pashinyan, who organized and participated in the protests, was sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in the unrest; he spent a year in hiding and two years in prison before being released as part of a general amnesty.
Pashinyan has a personal vendetta against Kocharyan, which may explain why he has violated the unspoken Armenian tradition of not targeting one’s predecessors. Prosecuting Kocharyan has not been easy. Leaked audio showed that the presiding judge was afraid to issue the warrant for Kocharyan’s arrest. Kocharyan, who was released in August and re-arrested in December, has made it clear that he does not plan to give up. The former president is calculating that although Pashinyan is highly popular at the moment, things could change.
Sargsyan, for his part, has not been charged with any crime, but his relatives have not fared as well. On the eve of the parliamentary elections, Czech special forces stormed the Prague apartment of Sargsyan’s nephew, Narek, at Yerevan’s request; Narek is accused of drug dealing and illegal possession of arms. The Armenian authorities have expressed interest in prosecuting other Sargsyans, mostly for economic crimes.
Arrests, however, will not suffice to maintain Pashinyan’s popularity. Moreover, they risk undermining effective governance, since there simply are not enough experts in Pashinyan’s circle who can head important ministries. Hence Pashinyan’s appointment of David Tonoyan—an experienced Defense Ministry official—as defense minister. The appointment of former UN envoy Zohrab Mnatsakanyan as foreign minister has also been well received.
As for the heads of the National Security Service and the police—Artur Vanetsyan and Valery Osipyan, respectively—their professional qualifications were never in doubt, though their integrity was heavily questioned. Vanetsyan did business with the Sargsyans, while Osipyan was involved in dispersing protesters under the ancien régime. Today, they eagerly serve Pashinyan’s government, assisting it in arresting Republican Party figures and searching their homes.
Armenian civil society was especially rattled by the appointment of former deputy chief of police Unan Pogosyan as governor of Syunik Province, a controversial decision that touched off protests. More unpopular appointments await Armenians. Pashinyan’s reputation among ardent revolutionaries will suffer, while relations between Armenia’s old and new elites will improve.
Pashinyan is a hostage of his extreme popularity and the public’s inflated expectations. For now, the crowd that worships him protects him from the vestiges of what he calls “old Armenia.” However, if Pashinyan fails to realize his vision of the “Armenia of the future”—one with no corruption, a thriving middle class, and good relations with both Russia and the West—he risks being left at the mercy of none other than the old ruling elite.
Next issue 4 January