Pashinyan: visionary or street populist?

Mikhail Belyaev, exclusively for Vestnik Kavkaza
Pashinyan: visionary or street populist?

As expected, Nikol Pashinyan’s My Step bloc has won a convincing victory in Armenia's snap parliamentary election. "Mighty, mighty, mighty people!" the acting prime minister wrote, being encouraged by the 70% result of his bloc. Pashinyan also could not but be pleased by the fact that his sworn political opponents from the Republican Party of Armenia could not overcome the 5% barrier, and such politicians as Eduard Sharmazanov and Armen Ashotyan would no longer annoy him within the walls of the National Assembly.

The political death of the former ruling party, which had a majority in parliament a few months ago, was officially recorded in the last election. Undoubtedly, the RPA members will start blaming the current authorities for putting pressure on the opposition, using administrative resources, recall scandalous wiretapping and sculpt the first political prisoner of Pashinian’s regime from newly arrested ex-president Robert Kocharyan. They kind of have a point, but it does not negate the fact that the Armenians voted against the old government, which has lost its legitimacy over the years of incompetent governance of the country and the mass impoverishment of the population. Moreover, the RPA has been unable or unwilling to adapt to new realities. The party did not draw any conclusions from the 'velvet revolution', did not start the process of renewal, being still led by discredited Serzh Sargsyan, who personally admitted he was 'wrong' towards Pashinyan.

There is an interesting situation, when Nikol Pashinyan, who positions himself as a democrat, receives full authority in the country - a rubber-stamping parliament, which, among others, includes his relatives, supervised courts and a government team of members appointed on the principle of personal loyalty to the 'people's PM'. Moreover, Pashinyan's  only potential opponent on the entire Armenian political scene, ex-president Robert Kocharyan, is arrested on Pashinyan's direct order, as evidenced by the wire-tap recording of the heads of the National Security Service and the Special Investigation Service, published in September.

Despite the dubious methods of eliminating political opponents, aggressive rhetoric and a pronounced tendency toward populism, Pashinyan has become a non-alternative politician in the country. He has a high level of legitimacy and control over all the arms of governance. It gives him the opportunity to conduct serious internal reforms and make compromises in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which would provide Armenia with the necessary potential for making an economic breakthrough under an open-border policy with Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Nikol Pashinyan will have to make a principled decision soon on how to use his solid political capital in domestic and foreign policy. Will he follow the path of economic liberalization, the fight against corruption and monopolies, or will he turn into a part of this vicious system? There is no definite answer to this question yet, however, Pashinyan’s loud statements that there are no oligarchs left in Armenia, against the background of his close alliance with Gagik Tsarukyan, cast doubts on the sincerity of his words.

Transforming the high level of domestic support into foreign policy dividends (for example, affirming Armenia’s tough stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue on the international agenda) will be extremely difficult for Pashnyan, since Armenia simply does not have the necessary geopolitical weight. Moreover, Pashinyan, who met with President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev twice, realizes that the current pause on the Karabakh front, where calm has prevailed in recent months, cannot last forever - and in the absence of real progress at the talks, the situation in Karabakh will be inevitably escalated again. Continuing the negotiation tactics of dragging out the negotiations and maintaining the status quo means repeating the policy of Kocharyan and Sargsyan. However, unlike his two predecessors, who rose through the ranks due to the Karabakh war, Pashinyan does not owe his success to the war, therefore, he should not represent the party of war.

The compromise solution based on the Madrid principles, that is, returning a certain part of the occupied areas around Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange for opening borders and joining regional economic cooperation at the first stage is the only way to ensure sustainable economic growth and minimize the risk of renewed hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh. The next year will show whether Pashinyan shows himself to be a political visionary or remains a street populist.