Who will Russia back in Armenia’s upcoming election?

Kirill Krivosheev

Russia will likely watch how the Armenian election campaign unfolds, helping first one side and then the other. It has many levers of influence there, but not enough to assume complete control.
Having been plunged into political crisis since its crushing defeat in the Karabakh war last fall, Armenia is trying to move forward by holding early parliamentary elections on June 20. For most Armenians, however, it’s a choice between bad and worse. Recent polls showed that 32 percent of voters are prepared to vote for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance, while 6 percent support his main opponent, former president Robert Kocharyan. Nearly half of those polled either had not yet decided whom to vote for, or have made a conscious decision not to vote for any candidate.
The election campaign got off to an informal start this month with visits by both main candidates to Russia, which included meetings with Putin. The first to visit was Putin’s old friend Kocharyan, followed a few days later by Pashinyan. Neither man went home empty-handed. Kocharyan gave an hour-long interview to Russian TV, in which he effectively laid out his manifesto. Pashinyan took home with him the first lot of Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccines: 15,000 doses to start with.
This apparent even-han-dedness in the Kremlin’s approach to the candidates gives lie to the popular opinion that Moscow is tired of the “too pro-Western” Pashinyan and is waiting for the chance to restore the tried and tested Kocharyan. Russia clearly doesn’t want to ruin its reputation in Armenian society without good reason by appearing to impose its favored candidate like a colonial master. And it certainly has everything to lose in this respect: 63 percent of Armenians believe their country should stren-gthen its ties with Moscow, compared with 16 percent and 5 percent, respectively, in favor of growing closer to the United States and European Union.
Pashinyan may not be as devoted to Moscow as Kocharyan, but in his three years in power, he has shown Russia that he can be a convenient partner to work with. It’s likely, therefore, that Russia will watch how the election campaign unfolds, helping first one side and then the other, in a role akin to that of a football referee. It has many levers of influence in Armenia, but not enough to assume complete control. It has no direct control, for example, over the key issue for Armenian voters of the return of all prisoners of war from Azerbaijan.
One of the most discussed topics in Armenia following the war is Pashinyan’s comments about the use of Russian Iskander missiles in the recent Karabakh war. In a dig at his predecessor Serzh Sargsyan—and with him, all the old elites—Pashinyan said that the Armenian army had fired Iskander missiles bought under Sargsyan, but that they “either didn’t explode at all or only by 10 percent.” His comments enraged both the Armenian military and Moscow, which took them as an insult to Russian weaponry. A Russian defense ministry spokesman denied that any Iskander missiles had been used in the Karabakh conflict.
Pashinyan was widely slammed for making unfounded accusations and needlessly ruining relations with Armenia’s main ally—until Azerbaijan intervened. Late last month, Baku announced that fragments of an unexploded warhead from an Iskander had been discovered near the city of Shusha. The missile, it was added, was not an E type (i.e., the export modification that Russia legally supplied to Armenia), but the M type, which only the Russian army has at its disposal. The Azeri authorities demanded to know how the deadly weapon had come into the Armenian army’s hands.
The Kremlin now says that the Russian military is in close contact with the Azeri military, which is a significant departure from its original position of “no Iskanders were used.” The confusion has prompted various versions and rumors. The most popular version in Armenia is that the fragments of the Iskander-M were given to the Azeri military by their Turkish allies, who had brought them back from Idlib in Syria, where their use by the Russian army is not contested. Azeri propaganda, meanwhile, insists that the Iskander-M missiles could have been illegally supplied to Armenia with the help of the all-powerful Armenian diaspora.
Both of these versions are contradicted by an article in Kommersant newspaper written in 2018 by the journalist Ivan Safronov, who has since been arrested on controversial treason charges. Safronov cited a source as saying that Moscow had supplied Yerevan with Iskander-M missiles, which the source admitted “violates the Missile Technology Control Regime, since their target range exceeds 300 kilometers.” Moscow was apparently in a rush to rectify an imbalance of power that was in Azerbaijan’s favor, and did not have time to produce the shorter-range Iskander-E version.
This may have solved the mystery, but it hasn’t made the situation in Armenia any less unstable. There is another popular theory that the reason the missiles didn’t explode was because only Russian military personnel are capable of releasing the warhead, and they hadn’t approved the missile launch. If that’s true, that doesn’t bode well for Kocharyan and the old elites: why buy weapons that Armenian troops cannot even use at their own discretion?
Another important political factor in Armenia is the Russian peacekeeping mission deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh. In the first few months of its work, it has already elicited the ire of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Armenians are unhappy that the peacekeepers effectively control entry to the Karabakh region from the Armenian side, and that they are refusing entry to many journalists, NGO workers, and public figures, for unclear reasons. Blocking representatives of the Armenian diaspora is a particular bone of contention. The peacekeepers apparently view such travelers with suspicion on account of their Western passports. To Armenia, this looks like a conspiracy between Moscow and Baku, especially since Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev did request that no foreigners be allowed into the region.
On the other hand, Armenian voters also have reasons to be grateful to Moscow. Much to Baku’s displeasure, Armenian troops remain in Karabakh, even though under the November 9 agreement, they were supposed to have left long ago. Russian peacekeepers have chosen to ignore their presence. The West also has a role to play in this complex situation, of course, but it is not a major one. Both Yerevan and Baku have already appealed to the United States, the EU, and NATO over issues that concern them. But it isn’t within the West’s power to get Armenian troops to withdraw from Karabakh, or to return Armenian prisoners from Azerbaijan.
“Russia needs to decide what kind of Armenia it wants to see,” Armenian President Armen Sarkissian said in a recent interview, as though inviting Moscow to act as an internal moderator. “The first option is a weakened and highly dependent country where there is a constant battle among insular influence groups… the second is a strong Armenia that makes use of all of the resources and potential at its disposal to strengthen its authority and its ally, and to promote its interests,” said Sarkissian. As long as Armenia, Russia, and Azerbaijan are enmeshed in a triangle in resolving the Karabakh war, however, the Armenian elections could be influenced not only by Yerevan’s old ally, but also by its bitter enemy.