Rise To Power
When opposition figure Nikol Pashinyan marched against the possible third term of Serzh Sargsyan’s rule in the spring of 2018, it seemed unlikely that he would achieve his goal. But, in a matter of weeks, the march of several dozen people turned into a nationwide movement, which ended with Pashinyan becoming Prime Minister.
Nikol Pashinyan was born on June 1, 1975, in Ijevan, the regional capital of Tavush in northeastern Armenia. After graduating from Ijevan’s Secondary School No. 1, he entered Yerevan State University (YSU) but was expelled in his fifth and final year, according to him, for political reasons.
Pashinyan has been a journalist since 1992, working for a number of newspapers that typically had an opposition bent. He was the Editor-in-Chief of “The Armenian Times” [Haykakan Zhamanak] daily from 1999 to 2012.
Pashinyan’s political career dates back to 2007, when he became a founding member of the Alternative [Aylentrank] social-political union. During the 2007 parliamentary election, he topped the proportional list of the Impeachment bloc, which did not meet the 5% threshold. During the 2008 presidential election, he worked on Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s campaign.
After the March 1, 2008 protest crackdown, Pashinyan, who was one of the organizers of the protests, was declared a wanted person. After spending a year and four months in hiding, on July 1, 2009, Pashinyan voluntarily handed himself in to the General Prosecutor’s Office, where he was arrested. In January 2010, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for organizing riots on March 1, 2008. He was widely recognized as a political prisoner. On May 27, 2011, he was set free under a general amnesty.
During the 2012 parliamentary election, Pashinyan was elected as an MP off the Armenian National Congress bloc’s proportional list. In 2013, he founded the Civil Contract socio-political union, which in 2015 became the Civil Contract Party.
He was re-elected as an MP in 2017, but this time with the Way Out electoral alliance, which his Civil Contract Party joined along with the Bright Armenia Party and Republic Party.
In a bid to protest against Serzh Sargsyan’s third term in office as Armenia moved from a presidential to a parliamentary system in 2018, Pashinyan launched the My Step initiative. On March 31, 2018, he started a march from Gyumri to Yerevan with his supporters. The movement started off quite small but over the days and weeks was able to gain momentum. Various protests, strikes and acts of civil disobedience voiced public dissatisfaction with Serzh Sargsyan’s rule and the scheme he had used to circumvent the two-term presidential limit.
On April 23, when the crowds could no longer be ignored, Serzh Sargsyan resigned, as a result of a nationwide movement that was unsurpassed in the history of Armenia.
On May 1, Pashinyan, as one of the leaders of the movement, was nominated as a candidate for the post of Prime Minister, but the Parliament, which was still controlled by Sargsyan’s Republican Party of Armenia, did not vote him in. A second attempt took place on May 8; this time, enough Republican Party MPs voted for Pashinyan to ward off an immediate snap election. Thus, Pashinyan became Armenia’s Prime Minister, gaining the heavily centralized powers concentrated in the position by the 2015 constitutional referendum.
First Major Challenge
Although Pashinyan’s government, which had inherited many problems, faced a number of challenges in its first year and a half, the COVID-19 pandemic which struck the world in 2020, destabilized things in a new way.
The first case of the new coronavirus in Armenia was registered on February 28; it was a citizen who had arrived from Iran, which had already become a hotspot. Nikol Pashinyan took to Facebook to urge citizens to observe good personal hygiene: “Dear people, keep your spirits high. We have overcome worse situations. Who does coronavirus think it is to cause problems in our lives?”
The virus had already spread all over the world. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic.
Similar to most of the world, Armenia imposed a number of restrictions to prevent the spread of the disease. A State of Emergency was declared, suspending some constitutional rights including the freedom of movement as a nationwide lockdown was announced. Unable to go to work, many people lost their incomes and a number of sectors of the economy suffered. In order to mitigate the impact, a number of social assistance programs were rolled out to minimize the economic and social consequences. While other countries continued such programs for longer, Armenia eventually lifted the lockdown in May 2020.
Demonstrations and Protests
Pashinyan’s government, which came to power on the wave of protests, also faced numerous protests itself—both those “inherited” from previous governments, as well as those demanding solutions to newly-arisen issues.
Parents who had been demanding a fair trial for years for their sons who had died in non-combat deaths in the army organized demonstrations to try to inform this government too about the problem. Pashinyan met with them several times, assuring them that the problem will be solved.
A number of different protests took place in different communities, from demands for the resignation of a local mayor to water issues, crop sales, the closure of medical centers, preserving monuments and other concerns.
Active protests took place in November 2019, demanding the resignation of Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sports Arayik Harutyunyan, when the Ministry proposed that Armenian language, literature and history courses in universities would no longer be mandatory for all students. The demand for Harutyunyan’s resignation gained momentum after a performance entitled “HuZank u Zang” in front of the Republic Square metro station entrance caused controversy, some labeling it as a “satanic” performace; the cost was pegged at 2.7 million AMD ($5400). In addition, the removal of the subject “History of the Armenian Church” from the K-12 curriculum also drew criticism. The protests were led by the youth wing of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation opposition party.
However, the 2020 Artsakh War reset priorities. On the night of November 9, after Pashinyan’s announcement about the painful ceasefire agreement, masses of people took to the streets in Republic Square in front of the government building, demanding a meeting with Pashinyan. Some of them broke down doors and windows, and burst inside, trashing the place. From there, they relocated to the parliament building, where protesters beat National Assembly Speaker Ararat Mirzoyan, while similarly trashing the building until morning.
The defeat in the war brought together the former authorities and their supporters. An initial group of 16 political parties formed an initiative called the “Homeland Salvation Movement” and began calling for Pashinyan’s resignation and that power be transferred over to them. Baghramyan Avenue remained closed for weeks as protesters set up tents and a stage on the street. There were numerous clashes with the police. The movement was headed by former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukyan and led mostly by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and Republican Party of Armenia. Only after an early parliamentary election was called did the streets clear out.
Parallel to the political demonstrations, relatives of soldiers who were captured during the war or still missing held their own demonstrations calling for the return of their loved ones. The issue has still not been solved.
Currently, protests are being held in the residential neighborhood known as “Fizgorodok” next to the Alikhanyan Physics Institute in the Ajapnyak district of Yerevan. A decision has been made to build a 12-storey building on what used to be local greenspace. Residents and activists against the construction say that the high-rise will ruin the architectural appearance of the neighborhood, which consists mostly of 3- and 4-storey buildings. They also bring up the environmental angle that mature trees are being cut down, damaging the habitat for local birds and hedgehogs.
High-Profile Arrests, Trials and Murders
Days after Pashinyan became Prime Minister, it was reported that police began cracking down on organized criminal groups. On May 18, 2018, around a dozen “thieves in law” [akin to mafia figures] and over 30 of their associates were detained by police.
On June 16, 2018, Arthur Asatryan (also known as “Don Pipo”) and four Russian citizens were arrested. The National Security Service issued a statement that they were investigating the possible kidnapping by Asatryan of persons who had been preparing to murder him. Illegal weapons and ammunition were found in Asatryan’s house after a search.
On June 21 and 22, following a raid by the Ararat Regional Police Department, 23 people were detained on various charges and the homes of approximately 30 people living in the region known as criminal “authorities” were inspected.
Eventually, the National Assembly made amendments to the Criminal Code to crack down on “thieves in law” and Armenia’s criminal subculture by criminalizing the granting, receiving or maintaining high status in the criminal hierarchy.
On June 17, 2018, the NSS released a video from their search of property belonging to former MP, lieutenant general and chairman of the Union of Yerkrapah Volunteers Manvel Grigoryan, showing hoarded food marked as “Soldier’s ration”, boxes of hygienic supplies, medicine and military uniforms that were allegedly supposed to be sent to the front line during the 2016 Four Day April War. Many of the packages still contained letters by schoolchildren addressed to the soldiers. This public disclosure raised a public outcry and consolidated public opinion on the importance of ending the corrupt practices of the past.
Grigoryan was charged with illegal possession of weapons, misappropriation of property worth more than 100 million AMD ($200,000), tax evasion and embezzlement. Grigoryan did not accept the accusations, and his lawyers labeled his arrest an act of political persecution. Grigoryan died in November 2020, shortly after the end of the 2020 Artsakh War, at the age of 64. His wife, Nazik Amiryan, still has her own case pending.
A personal priority of Nikol Pashinyan was to re-open investigations into the March 1, 2008 incident, as he was directly involved in the protests and had served time in jail for it. In June 2018, while appointing Sasun Khachatryan as the Head of the Special Investigation Service (SIS), Pashinyan announced, “One of the most important things that the SIS should do is to expose the crime and murders of March 1.”
On July 26, 2018, second president Robert Kocharyan was charged with overthrowing the constitutional order in the criminal case on the events of March 1, 2008. He was arrested the following day but released on appeal. In the months and years that followed, Kocharyan was arrested and released twice more. Intervention by Artsakh President Bako Sahakyan and former President Arkady Ghukasyan to request Kocharyan’s release while the case was ongoing served to create a rift between Pashinyan’s and Sahakyan’s administrations. Others involved in the case as defendants included Minister of Defense in 2008, Mikael Harutyunyan, the head of the Yerevan garrison, Yuri Khachaturov, and the Secretary of the National Security Council, Armen Gevorgyan.
On August 17, 2018, at a rally dedicated to the 100th day of his tenure, Pashinyan announced that the criminal case of March 1 has, essentially, been exposed, and that all those responsible for this case will be punished by law. The case only went to trial on March 23, 2021, however, Armenia’s Constitutional Court declared that Article 300.1 of the Criminal Code (Usurpation of State Power), under which Kocharyan was being tried, was in contradiction with Articles 78 and 79 of the Constitution and thus unconstitutional. All four former high-ranking officials, including Kocharyan, were acquitted and cleared of all charges in relation to March 1.
Kocharyan was also mentioned in the case of Poghos Poghosyan, who was killed in the Aragast Cafe in Yerevan in 2001, after addressing then-president Kocharyan with the phrase “Privet Rob”. The murder case that took place almost two decades ago was reopened in 2020 to consider the testimony of Steven John Newton, a British citizen who was working in Armenia at time and was at the cafe that evening.
After studying Newton’s statement and conducting a number of other investigations, the Prosecutor General’s Office concluded that Poghosyan was deprived of his life not as a result of careless beating (manslaughter), but a more serious crime was committed – murder, with the participation of a group of people.
The accused in this case, just like 20 years ago, is Kocharyan’s bodyguard Aghamal Harutyunyan (known as “Kuku”), who was sentenced to two years of conditional imprisonment in 2002. In February 2021, Harutyunyan was charged again with manslaughter.
On June 14, 2020, deputies of the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP) announced that the NSS is conducting a search of the private house of party leader and then-MP Gagik Tsarukyan.
On June 16, by secret ballot, Parliament agreed to suspend Tsarukyan’s immunity from prosecution to initiate criminal proceedings. The move came after an announcement by Tsarukyan that the Armenian government needed to be replaced. “We believe that Nikol Pashinyan’s government has not been able to confront all these situations and problems, and yes, the whole government must change,” Tsarukyan had said.
Tsarukyan was arrested on September 25 on charges of organizing electoral bribery during the 2017 parliamentary election. However, on October 22, in the midst of the 2020 Artsakh War, he was released on a 100 million AMD ($200,000) bail. Tsarukyan’s party members and supporters were holding protests during that time, demanding his release.
On September 7, 2021, the Special Investigation Service reported the arrest of former Prosecutor General and former Chairman of the Investigative Committee Aghvan Hovsepyan. Hovsepyan is charged with illegal participation in business activities, receiving bribes, fraud and money laundering.
During Pashinyan’s tenure, the deaths of a number of influential people gave rise to controversies. The most scandalous of them was the death of former head of the National Security Service Georgi Kutoyan. Kutoyan held the position of Assistant to the President of the Republic of Armenia in 2011-2016. In 2011-2014, he was the Chairman of the Anti-Corruption Strategy Implementation Monitoring Commission, subordinate to the Anti-Corruption Council established by the Decree of the President. On February 12, 2016, he was appointed Head of the National Security Service and held office until 2018. On January 17, 2020, Kutoyan’s body was found in an apartment on Paruyr Sevak Street in Yerevan; a criminal case has been filed under the article of the Criminal Code that covers “incitement to suicide.”
Taking into account the high positions Kutoyan held, there was widespread speculation into the circumstances of his death. It was said that he knew a lot and that eliminating him would have been beneficial to many powerful people. However, in the end, his death was not deemed a political assassination but suicide.
On September 24, 2019, the body of Hayk Harutyunyan, who had served as the Chief of Police of Armenia in 2003-2008, was found with a gunshot wound to the head. The incident was initially described by police as suicide; however, speculation on the matter did not subside. Harutyunyan was a witness in the March 1 case, and there was talk that he was being pressured.
On November 28, 2019, Ashot Karapetyan, the former head of the Yerevan City Police Department, died in Russia after a gas explosion at a private brewery in Pyatigorsk. Karapetyan, who had been in the police system since the 1990s, served as the head of Yerevan city police department during the March 1, 2008 events. In 2009, he was awarded the Medal for Excellent Public Order. He was also a witness in the March 1 criminal case.
Karapetyan’s name is connected with several other sensational cases. In 2016, after the Sasna Tsrer takeover of a police station, Karapetyan was subjected to a disciplinary penalty, then dismissed from the post of Yerevan Police Chief. During the standoff, police had used force against protesters and journalists, as a result of which dozens of people were taken to hospital with injuries.
On July 9, 2018, police found the body of Nikolay Gabrielyan (better known as “Gazi Kolya”), the director of Transgaz LLC, in his apartment with a gunshot wound to the head. In his hand was his pistol, which he had received as an award. The killing was labeled a suicide.
Gabrielyan, who is considered a close associate of former Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan, is the father-in-law of Ara Vardanyan (alias Chvchv Aro). Vardanyan’s son, Sargis Vardanyan, is connected with the tragic car accident that took place on the night of January 8, 2018 at the intersection of Sayat Nova and Abovyan streets in Yerevan.
On May 31, 2021, the brother of Arthur Asatryan (alias Don Pipo) was killed in the city of Etchmiadzin. On May 5, shots were heard in Etchmiadzin, as a result of which one of Don Pipo’s bodyguards was killed.
After the Velvet Revolution and the 2018 parliamentary election, the executive and legislative authorities decided to also bring change to the judicial branch.
After the Constitutional Court had released Robert Kocharyan on bail pending the March 1 trial, on May 19, 2019, Pashinyan announced, “Neither I, nor the government, nor the people need puppet courts.” And he called on citizens to block the entrances of all the courthouses in the country the following morning, so as not to allow anyone to enter. Some citizens did heed the call, blocking the entrances of the Supreme Judicial Council and the Constitutional Court, as well as a number of other courthouses. However, it was a rainy morning in Yerevan, and there were more journalists than protesters present. The move was viewed negatively. The opposition often points to the episode to cast doubt on Pashinyan’s commitment to the rule of law.
The Pashinyan government took the fight from the streets to the parliament and made attempts to obtain the resignation of the Chair of the Constitutional Court, Hrayr Tovmasyan. On December 11, 2019, the National Assembly adopted the bill that provided an early pension to Constitutional Court judges that retired voluntarily before the end of their term. If the judges of the Constitutional Court resigned within the following two months, they would still be eligible to receive their full salary (about 600,000 AMD/month, $1200/month). None of the judges took the option.
In order to change the makeup of the Constitutional Court, on February 6, 2020, the My Step Caucus of the National Assembly called a referendum to amend the constitution so as to remove the Constitutional Court judges appointed before 2018. Bright Armenia voted against, while the PAP abstained. The referendum kicked off and was set for April 5, 2020. However, when a State of Emergency was declared due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was postponed and ultimately never took place. Instead, on June 22, 2020, the National Assembly amended the constitution without a referendum. They passed a milder change that only dismissed three of the nine Constitutional Court judges and unseated Hrayr Tovmasyan from his position as Chair.
The first election after the Velvet Revolution took place in the capital city of Yerevan. Yerevan Mayor Taron Margaryan resigned on July 9, 2018. The City Council did not elect anyone to replace him, triggering an early municipal election that took place on September 23, 2018.
The Civil Contract Party, together with the Mission Party, formed the My Step Alliance, and actor and producer Hayk Marutyan was nominated as their candidate for Mayor. Nikol Pashinyan actively supported him, announcing during the final rally that, by electing the My Step alliance, the people would be voting for a snap parliamentary election. My Step won with an 81% landslide and the early parliamentary election was subsequently put into motion.
But before that, on October 21, 2018, municipal elections were held in four major cities: Armavir, Vagharshapat (Etchmiadzin), Hrazdan and Kapan. Civil Contract won in the first three but lost in Kapan. At the time, Pashinyan announced that their loss in Kapan was evidence that democracy had been restored in Armenia; that is, the old days where it was inconceivable that the government’s candidate might lose an election were over.
In October 2018, the Republican Party of Armenia, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the Tsarukyan Alliance had held talks on how to stop a snap parliamentary election from taking place. The ARF and PAP were removed from the governing coalition and Pashinyan once again called on his supporters to gather in front of the National Assembly building and show that “there will be no counter-revolution.” Due to the quirks of Armenia’s Constitution, an early parliamentary election can only be called after a Prime Minister resigns and is not able to be replaced. That process of Pashinyan’s formal resignation went through without the opposition parties, which still controlled the Parliament, nominating an alternate Prime Minister to avoid an early election.
Thus, on December 9, 2018, a snap parliamentary election was held with the participation of nine political parties. Nikol Pashinyan headed the My Step Alliance, which received 70% of the vote and 88 mandates. Pashinyan was re-appointed Prime Minister, now with a two-thirds legislative supermajority.
Another early parliamentary election came in the wake of the 2020 Artsakh War and the political crisis that followed it. It was held on June 20, 2021, with 25 political forces taking part.
Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party won again, though their support was reduced to 54% of the votes. The Armenia Alliance and I’m Honored Alliance came in second and third place, respectively, returning the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and Republican Party of Armenia to the National Assembly as the parliamentary opposition.
Changes to the way municipal elections will be run were passed in June 2020. Going forward most large cities in Armenia will elect their city councils using a proportional party list system. The first election to use this system is scheduled for October 17, 2021.
Major Structural Changes in Government
One of the pre-election promises of Pashinyan’s team during the 2018 parliamentary election was to change the structure of the cabinet and reduce the number of ministries. By March 2019, the number of ministries was reduced from 17 to 12 and the position of First Deputy Prime Minister was also axed.
The very next day after being elected to office, Nikol Pashinyan paid his first visit to Artsakh in his role as Prime Minister. At a press conference in Stepanakert on May 9, he announced, “We need to clearly answer the question as to whether or not we want to resolve the issue. If the international community, including Azerbaijan, wants to resolve the Karabakh issue, it is illogical that it is being discussed in a format which cannot tackle the problem. How can this format solve the question when one of the key stakeholders is not even at the negotiation table? … The most important component of the problem is the right format of negotiations. … One of the parties to the conflict, the Republic of Artsakh, should be a full-fledged negotiator.”
Pashinyan added that, although he is ready to fully negotiate on behalf of the Republic of Armenia, the Artsakh authorities should negotiate on behalf of the Republic of Artsakh. “Only the authorities of Artsakh can speak on behalf of the Republic of Artsakh, much like the authorities of Armenia can speak on behalf of the Republic of Armenia. Armenia is a party to the conflict and will speak for itself on its behalf. The government of the Artsakh should speak on behalf of the Republic of Artsakh.”
However, Pashinyan’s aspirations to return Artsakh to the negotiating table remained unfulfilled. Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev held four informal, short meetings, the first of which was on June 14, 2018, during the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Moscow, where they were introduced by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The second meeting took place on September 28, 2018, during the CIS summit in Dushanbe. The leaders had a short conversation, during which it was decided to establish operative communications and, seemingly, an agreement had been reached to reduce the tension at the border and prevent incidents. It is noteworthy that, perhaps as a result of the verbal agreement reached during this meeting, the number of shootings and casualties on the Artsakh-Azerbaijan Line of Contact was significantly reduced. The number of Armenian servicemen killed by the enemy fire reduced from 26 in 2017, to 9 in 2018, and only 4 in 2019, which was the lowest number of military losses for the previous decade.
The third informal meeting between Pashinyan and Aliyev took place on December 7, 2018, in St. Petersburg. They spoke within the framework of the informal summit of CIS leaders.
The fourth informal meeting took place on January 22, 2019, in Davos, during the World Economic Forum.
The first official meeting between Pashinyan and Aliyev took place on March 29, 2019 at the Hotel Bristol, in Vienna. The meeting was held in an expanded format, with the participation of the Foreign Ministers of the two countries Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Elmar Mammadyarov, as well as the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs Igor Popov (Russia), Andrew Schofer (USA), Stephane Visconti (France) and the personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Andrzej Kasprzyk. Then, the leaders of the two countries were given the opportunity to continue the talks in the format of a private conversation before the co-chairs and foreign ministers rejoined the discussion. In total, the meeting lasted about 3 hours. After the meeting, the Minsk Group Co-Chairs assessed the talks as productive, noting that it was a rich and interesting discussion, which gave an opportunity to clarify the positions of the leaders.
The next day, at a meeting with the Armenian community in the United States, the Minister of Defense of the Republic of Armenia, David Tonoyan, announced that the “territories for peace” doctrine had been reformulated to “new war – new territories”.
The last pre-war meeting between Pashinyan and Aliyev took place months later, on February 15 , 2020, in Munich. After the meeting, a 45-minute discussion on Nagorno-Karabakh took place within the framework of the Munich Security Conference, moderated by U.S. defense specialist Celeste Wallander. During the public talk, Pashinyan stated, “There is a very specific contribution that the international community can make, namely, to make it clear, to stress that there can be no military solution to the Karabakh conflict.” Aliyev countered, stating, “The international community should first explain that Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijan and, secondly, put serious pressure on the aggressor.”
Azerbaijan’s plans to pursue the military option became clear as it unleashed a new war on September 27, 2020. Armenia suffered several thousand losses, POWs, missing persons and about 75% of the territory of Artsakh fell under Azerbaijani control; a deployment of Russian peacekeepers were in charge of protecting the rest for at least five years in accordance with the November 9, 2020 ceasefire agreement.
Looking back on November 29, 2020, Nikol Pashinyan posted on his Facebook Page that, as of 2018, “the Karabakh issue was in a deadlock, with only one possible way out- unconditional handover of territories, moreover, without a guarantee that Azerbaijan will not make new demands.”
On January 11, 2021, three months after the ceasefire agreement that ended the war, a second joint statement was adopted on establishing a working group on the unblocking of borders.
Escalations Along the Border
On July 12, 2020, fighting erupted on the Tavush-Tovuz section of the Armenian-Azerbaijani state border.
The clashes lasted until July 16, leaving the Armenian side with 4 dead and 10 wounded. Civilian areas of the border villages of Nerkin Karmiraghbyur, Aygepar, Movses and Chinari, along with the city of Berd were targeted by artillery and UAVs. Nevertheless, the Armenian side reported that the clashes had ended in their victory, as they had gained the “Anvakh” military position. By decrees of President Armen Sarkissian, the four servicemen killed were posthumously awarded: Garush Hambardzumyan (2nd Degree Medal for Services to the Motherland), Smbat Gabrielyan (Medal for Combat service), Grisha Matevosyan (Medal for Combat Service) and Sos Elbakyan (Medal of Courage). On the same day, three servicemen were awarded the military rank of Major General.
Through the mediation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, President Armen Sarkissian also awarded Captain Ruben Sanamyan with the title of National Hero of Armenia and presented him with the Order of the Motherland for the important military role he played in the battles.
The victory was short-lived as Turkey did not tolerate the humiliation of its ally, Azerbaijan. Erdogan announced joint military drills, during which it transferred military equipment to Azerbaijan, including its latest generation of combat drones. It also recruited mercenaries from Syria, which it sent to fight in the planned 2020 Artsakh War. Turkey’s involvement in the latter fighting was a new development, which upset the balance between the two sides.
The 2020 Artsakh War was also characterized by the information warfare that accompanied it. The Armenian side set up an information headquarters, which regularly updated the domestic audience on developments. The hashtag #haghteluenk (We will win) was actively used on Facebook and Twitter. While almost all social networks had been blocked in Azerbaijan, with only Twitter remaining partially functional, in Armenia the situation was different, and alternative information flows also came from social networks, including Telegram.
Many civilians in Artsakh had to temporarily leave their places of residence. Some of them never had the opportunity to return to their homes as they fell behind enemy lines after the November 9 ceasefire. Those who refused to leave Artsakh had to take refuge in shelters.
Several attempts were made during the war to reach a ceasefire agreement, but the first three failed to hold, mostly with Turkey egging on Azerbaijan to continue the fighting. The bitter war that lasted 44 days also had a bitter ending.
On the night of November 9, 2020, when different contradictory information was being received throughout the day about the possible capture of Artsakh’s cultural center, Shushi, Pashinyan announced that a new ceasefire, or as Pashinyan’s opponents say, a capitulation, was signed between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia.
Most of the territory of the Republic of Artsakh came under Azerbaijani control. Parts of the Akna, Karvachar and Kashatagh regions were surrendered in the following weeks without a single shot being fired; the residents of these areas were given days to abandon their homes. Many of them feeling powerless, set fire to their houses, and left their settlements in vehicle convoys.
To date, the total number of losses on the Armenian side is unknown; the approximate number is 4,000, and more than a hundred captives are still being held in Azerbaijan. Ten months after the end of the war, the search for the remains of killed and missing soldiers, volunteers, reservists and civilians is still ongoing in the territories occupied by Azerbaijan. Thousands of the wounded are still recovering.
Demarcation and delimitation issues have not been resolved either, while provocations by Azerbaijan at different sections of the border still continue.
In September 2019, the government decided that Armenia would establish an embassy in Israel, in Tel Aviv, stating that the establishment of the embassy would contribute to the deepening of bilateral relations and create new opportunities for cooperation in many areas. It is noteworthy that, although diplomatic relations between Armenia and Israel had been established back in 1992, and Armenia had had a non-resident ambassador in Israel, it did not, however, have an embassy.
Armenian governments have shown utmost caution and respect toward Iran and the Arab countries on this sensitive issue, given their highly strained relations with Israel. In addition, in recent years, Israel had supplied around $4 billion in weapons to Azerbaijan, which were used during the 2016 Four Day April War․
Nevertheless, the embassy started operating at the end of August 2020. However, Israel continued to supply weapons to Azerbaijan during the 2020 Artsakh War that started just one month later. In response, Armenia decided to recall its ambassador for consultations.
Corruption and Monopolies
After being elected Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan has repeatedly stated that his government will be consistent in the fight against corruption, and that these issues must be eradicated.
Although the law criminalizing illegal enrichment was adopted in Armenia in 2016 and had entered into force in 2017, no one had been arrested or convicted under that law during the previous government. During Pashinyan’s time, a number of former officials have been arrested and criminal cases have been initiated as part of the fight against corruption; millions of dollars have been returned to the state budget.
The most notorious case under this article was the arrest and the indictment of Serzh Sargsyan’s former Security Staff Chief Vachagan Ghazaryan. Although Ghazaryan did not accept the accusation leveled against him, nonetheless he provided compensation for the damage caused by the alleged crime in September 2020; in March 2021, the criminal prosecution against him was terminated on the basis of a general amnesty.
With a June 24, 2019 decree, the government established its Anti-Corruption Policy Council, which is chaired by the Prime Minister.
On October 3, 2019, the Government adopted the Anti-corruption Strategy of the Republic of Armenia and its action plan for 2019-2022, which, however, was criticized by human rights activists and non-governmental organizations. When presenting the program, then-Minister of Justice Rustam Badasyan announced that a single body of jurisdiction for the detection and investigation of corruption offenses will be set up in 2021, referred to as the Corruption Prevention Commission (CPC).
The 6-year-old Ethics Committee was replaced in November 2019 by the newly-formed CPC with much broader powers. Haykuhi Harutyunyan, who was the candidate nominated by the opposition Bright Armenia Party, was elected as the commission’s chair.
The annual Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International began to record some improvement for Armenia as the country rose from 107th in the world in 2017 to 60th in 2020.
In the realm of monopolies, different oligarchs had secured privileged access to imports on a number of products under the previous government. Immediately after becoming Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan announced that there would be no more monopolies in Armenia and that everyone would be able to import whatever they wanted. At a rally marking his first 100 days in office, he announced that 40 minutes was all it took for him to eliminate the banana and sugar monopolies. However, the press continues to publish reports on the restoration of monopolies and various examples of corruption.
State of Emergency and Curfew
The novel coronavirus disease (later named COVID-19) which spilled onto the world stage in early 2020, forced many countries to declare a state of emergency and impose a number of severe restrictions. Armenia was no exception. The legal regime, which had not been triggered since March 1, 2008, was announced on March 16, 2020, initially for only a month but continually renewed until September, when it was replaced with a new quarantine law.
From March 24 to April 12, freedom of movement was restricted throughout the country and mandatory self-isolation (quarantine) was imposed, preventing many from going to work. Some restrictions on leaving the home and operating non-essential businesses remained until mid-May.
While the pandemic was still simmering, the 2020 Artsakh War began, as a result of which martial law and a general mobilization were declared on September 27, 2020. Male citizens were not allowed to leave the country. Most restrictions were lifted on December 2, and the martial law regime was completely lifted on March 24, 2021.
After registering 5.2% economic growth in 2018, on February 8, 2019, during the adoption of the government’s five-year program, Prime Minister Pashinyan announced that the new program heralded the start of an economic revolution.
One of the eight separate chapters of the 70-page program was about a competitive, participatory and inclusive economy, where the establishment of real opportunities to start a business from scratch would be emphasized. It was envisaged that the economy would grow at a rapid rate, with average GDP growth of at least 5% per year during the program period. The government also aimed to eradicate extreme poverty by 2023 and continue to raise the minimum wage.
Armenia closed 2019 with 7.6% economic growth, the highest rate in the previous twelve years. “I am convinced that as a result of our joint efforts we will record a higher index in 2020,” Pashinyan stated prematurely. However, 2020 brought many unexpected challenges.
World financial markets registered sharp declines in March 2020 as a result of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. The World Bank would state, “the COVID-19 recession has seen the fastest, steepest downgrades in consensus growth projections among all global recessions since 1990.”
However, this was not the only challenge for the Armenian economy; as a result of the large-scale war in the fall, the economy also suffered great losses. Thus, instead of the planned economic growth of at least 5%, the country saw a decline of 7-6%. Neighboring Georgia experienced a 6.2% decline and Azerbaijan was down 4.3%.
Nevertheless, World Bank experts predict that the country’s economy will grow by 3-4% in 2021. Pashinyan himself announced on July 1 that the economy will close the year with 6% economic growth.
During the 2018 parliamentary election, most of the participating 11 political forces had published policy stances on the environment, mining, energy development and water resources.
Although the My Step government’s election platform emphasized transparency in the mining sector and ensuring a high level of accountability to the public, the biggest mining issue that arose during the previous government—the exploitation of Amulsar—has become the touchstone case.
The Amulsar mine is located about 15 km from the city of Jermuk—an important touristic center in the region of Vayots Dzor. Lydian Armenia CJSC had received a license to mine at Amulsar. However, the residents of the area and environmentalists maintain that the mine poses great risks to the local mineral water springs that Jermuk is known for. As of June 22, 2018, they have been blocking the road leading to the mountain, preventing the startup of operations at the mine. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has repeatedly stated that he is in favor of opening the mine and has called for unblocking the roads.
Speaking about the importance of opening the mine, in one of his interviews, Pashinyan said, “If a war starts, the flow of tourists would discontinue, and we might face currency shortages. Meanwhile, the mining industry guarantees currency flows for the country.”
As an opposition MP, Pashinyan always raised the issue of water outflow from Lake Sevan. That is why it was surprising when, on August 29, 2021, the National Assembly passed a bill that envisages additional water outflow of 40 million cubic meters from the Lake.
Ratification of International Conventions
One of the first areas of resistance to the Pashinyan government started when reports began to circulate in the press that the Istanbul Convention (Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence) would be ratified by the end of 2019.
Although the previous government had approved the signing of the Convention in its December 28, 2017 session, those same figures actively seized the moment to organize protests against Pashinyan’s government carrying it out.Ultimately, the campaign has worked as the convention remains unratified by Armenia.