Armenia’s political upheaval puts Moscow in wary mode

Russia fears Pashinyan pro-democracy move may reignite Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

When huge popular protests in Armenia forced prime minister Serzh Sargsyan to resign early this week, Russia said it would not interfere in the domestic affairs of the impoverished former Soviet nation. But as Armenia's political crisis deepened over the past few days, Moscow was taking steps to ensure its security and economic interests in the South Caucasus country were protected.

Sargsyan's resignation was a victory for Armenia's pro-democracy opposition movement led by Nikol Pashinyan, a former newspaper editor and Armenian member of parliament, who has led two weeks of peaceful anti-government protests in the capital Yerevan. But with Pashinyan now squaring off against the ruling Republican Party to demand an end to almost two decades of corrupt, oligarchic rule, the revolution is not yet won.

With a large majority in Armenia’s National Assembly, or parliament, the Republicans will have the whip hand when the legislature votes for a new prime minister on May 1st. Pashinyan wants to head the new government himself and has pledged to lead fresh protests if a candidate from the Republican Party, which has dominated Armenian politics since 1999, gets the job. “There won’t be any political trade-offs,” he wrote on Facebook on Thursday. “The revolution goes on.”

Domestic matter

The sight of a popular pro-democracy uprising forcing Armenia's leader to step down must have rung alarm bells in Russia, where Vladimir Putin has overseen a crackdown on public assembly to sideline opposition to his 18-year rule. Yet the Kremlin has been repeating the mantra all week that the political upheaval in Armenia is a domestic matter that its close ally must resolve. Behind the scenes, Russian officials have engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity to ensure that the fallout from the momentous events in Armenia is contained.


Among Moscow's biggest concerns is that the political crisis in Yerevan could reignite the suspended conflict over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been controlled by Armenia since a war in the 1990s, to the fury of neighbouring Azerbaijan.

As Armenians rejoiced over Sargysan's resignation on Tuesday, Sergei Naryshkin, the head of the Russian foreign intelligence agency, jetted to Baku for talks with Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev about regional security. Little information was released about the meeting, but local media reports that Azerbaijan was responding to the Armenian revolution by bolstering forces on the Nagorno-Karabakh border have ceased appearing.

As the demonstrations in Yerevan continued unabated this week, Russia stepped up its diplomatic engagement, inviting Armenian government officials, including the foreign minister, to Moscow for talks.

Kremlin stance

Putin set out terms in a telephone conversation on Thursday night with Karen Karapetyan, who was named interim prime minister after his ally Sargysan resigned. Armenia's political crisis should be resolved with respect for the country's existing constitution and the results of the April 2017 election that formed the current parliament, Putin said, according to the Kremlin website.

It's safe to assume the Kremlin would prefer to see Karapetyan – who served in the past as an executive of Gazprom – as prime minister of Armenia than Pashinyan, who has complained that Russian energy monopolies bleed the Armenian economy.

But the opposition leader has been careful to avoid antagonising Russia, saying that if he comes to power there will be no major changes in Armenia's foreign policy, whether in relation to Russia, the US or the European Union.

Speaking to reporters in Yerevan before leaving the capital to drum up support for the protests in regional towns on Friday, Pashinyan pledged not to lead a vendetta against officials of the former regime. “The page of hate and enmity in Armenia is closed and will never open again,” he said according to a report by the news agency.