How does the Armenian-Azerbaijani border crisis affect opinion polls in pre-election Armenia?

Thursday 10 June 2021

George Meneshian is a postgraduate student at the University of St Andrews (MLitt Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia Security Studies)

Armenia is approaching snap elections on June 20. In 2018, former prime minister Nikol Pashinyan’s ‘My Step’ electoral coalition received 70,4% of the total vote. Pashinyan’s high popularity was greatly damaged following Armenia’s defeat in the war with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno Karabakh region and the signing of the November 10 Agreement. However, the ruling party was the most dominant political power in the country, until last April. During May, Pashinyan lost his grip to former president Kocharyan, and now, Armenians have been called to the polls to decide between the two. What went wrong for Pashinyan?

Armenia’s defeat and concessions in November 2020 ignited political and social unrest in Armenia. During the night of the signing of the Agreement, members of the opposition stormed the parliament and injured its Speaker. Riots and protests continued for the next months and seventeen parties forged an anti-Pashinyan coalition demanding the resignation of the prime minister. In December, several opposition parties, supported by former presidents Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan, forged the ‘Homeland Salvation Movement’, a political alliance against Pashinyan, led by Armenia’s first prime minister, Vazgen Manukyan.  However, the alliance was later parted into various separate electoral coalitions. Furthermore, in February 2021, the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Armenia asked for the resignation of Pashinyan while the latter accused the Army of orchestrating a coup against his democratically elected government. On 25 April, Pashinyan stepped down thus triggering snap elections for June 20, 2021. The political turmoil gave the opportunity to former president Robert Kocharyan to return to the political life of the country despite the fact that he was in custody for two years for “overthrowing constitutional order of Armenia”. 

Despite Armenia’s defeat in the Nagorno Karabakh war, Pashinyan remained the major political actor in Armenia. According to a survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and Breavis last February, Pashinyan’s ‘My Step’ coalition received 33% of the vote, while the rest of the parties (including the 17 parties, Robert Kocharyan etc.) received just 11% of the total vote. 

In late March, the ‘Gallup International in Armenia’ represented by MPG conducted a new survey, according to which the ‘My Step’ alliance received 31.7% of the vote, while 5.9% of the respondents would vote for Robert Kocharyan. In the next survey conducted by the IRI/Breavis – from the 8th of April to the 4th of May – the percentage of Armenians that will or would vote for Pashinyan was declined to 26% (-7% in comparison to February’s survey). The problem with this particular survey is that it does not have Robert Kocharyan as a possible answer. Another problem is that 55% of the respondents of the survey refused to answer the question “Which political party if any, would you vote for in the June 20th parliamentary elections?”. 

On 9 May 2021, the creation of the ‘Armenia Alliance’ coalition was announced by former president Robert Kocharyan. ‘Armenia Alliance’ is a group formed by Kocharyan, the right-wing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and the ‘Reborn Armenia party’. Three days earlier, Pashinyan’s ‘Civil Contract’ party announced that it will not form an electoral alliance with any other party for the upcoming snap elections [12], thus dissolving the ‘My Step Alliance’ three years after its formation.

On 12 May, Azerbaijani troops crossed the border and penetrated the Armenian territory, and more particularly the Syunik and Gegharkunik provinces. The decision of Pashinyan not to answer by force, given that Armenia could not handle a new war with Azerbaijan, further damaged his image. The violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Armenia, alongside the government’s failure to repatriate the Armenian Prisoners of War (POWs) held captive in Baku, seem to have given more electoral power to Kocharyan’s coalition. In a survey conducted by MPG from the 18th to the 21st of May, Pashinyan’s party received 24.8% while Kocharyan’s coalition 14.3% . Despite Russian meditation, the border crisis did not end, and Azerbaijani troops continued to be present in Armenia. In the next survey of MPG – from 24 to 28 May – Kocharyan’s ‘Armenia Alliance’ received 17.5% of the total vote while Pashinyan’s ‘Civil Contact’ 22.9%. The last survey was conducted from MPG, from 31 May to 4 June. According to this survey, ‘Civil Contract’ wins 22.4% of the vote while the ‘Armenia Alliance’ 20.6%.

In late March, Pashinyan and Kocharyan had a 25.8% difference. Two months later, this number has declined to 1.8%. One factor explaining this turning of events was the formation of the ‘Armenia Alliance’ by Kocharyan in early May. However, it was the Armenian-Azerbaijani border crisis that bolstered Kocharyan. Former president Kocharyan did not enjoy the sympathy of the majority of the Armenians; his rule was considered to be semi-authoritarian and kleptocratic. In the 2008 presidential elections protests, Kocharyan violently oppressed the protesters. In those days, eight protesters were killed, 200 were injured and an additional number of 106 were arrested. Moreover, many Armenians believe that Kocharyan was behind the 1999 Armenian parliament shooting and the assassination of prime minister and war hero Vazgen Sargsyan.

Kocharyan is a close friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin. The majority of Armenians believe that Russia is the only guarantor of the security of the Armenian Republic and that Armenia’s defeat in Karabakh was a result of Pashinyan’s incapability and alleged pro-Western orientation. The ongoing crisis between Armenia and Azerbaijan convinced many Armenians that their country should be as close as it can to Russia. Kocharyan is the most prominent pro-Russian politician, and his supporters believe that his election could ensure Armenia’s security and the de-facto independence of the breakaway ‘Republic of Artsakh’ (Nagorno Karabakh). Besides, Kocharyan is an Armenian from Karabakh who has served as the president and prime minister of the breakaway Nagorno Karabakh Republic.

The current political turmoil and the ongoing border crisis with Azerbaijan, has bolstered the pro-Russian political forces of Armenia. The pro-Russian faction is nationalist and strongly anti-Pashinyan, and it accuses the Armenian premier of being accountable for the defeat in Karabakh. Democracy, the rule of law, and human rights are not a priority for this coalition. Its agenda is more about national security and the self-determination and independence of the Armenians of Karabakh. It is consisted of the former ruling ‘Republican Party’ and its partner the ‘Homeland Party’, the conservative ‘Prosperous Armenia’ party led by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukyan, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, other minor parties and individuals and, of course, Robert Kocharyan who seems to be the de-facto leader of the pro-Russian forces. 

On the other hand, Russia’s stance during the second Karabakh war led to the emergence of a pro-Western faction which is however less popular. According to the last survey of MPG, pro-Western and pro-European parties receive 6.5% of the vote. However, there is not one single pro-Western coalition. Most of the pro-Western parties compete each other in order to get elected.

This de-facto pro-Western faction is considered to be more liberal and anti-corruption. However, its main representative, the ‘National Democratic Pole’ (NDP) is nationalist, and it had a radical militant past. Regarding the other non-radical pro-European parties, which are indeed more liberal, the ‘Bright Armenia’ party – which is the third biggest party in the current parliament session – and the ‘Armenian National Congress’ – which is the party of Armenia’s first president and moderate politician Levon Ter-Petrosyan – have come to terms with realism and accept the need for a stronger Russian military presence in Armenia.

According to MPG, 63% of Armenians believe their country should strengthen its ties with Russia, while 21% are in favor of upgrading relations with the United States or the European Union.

Pashinyan’s Civil Contract is also considered to be pro-Western. It is not accidental that Pashinyan decided to visit France and Belgium and meet the President of the European Council before the elections. However, after becoming a ruling party, the ‘Civil Contract’ became more pragmatic and stopped being rhetorically anti-Russian. Under the Pashinyan administration, Armenia sent non-combat troops in Syria in order to assist the Russian military operations, acquired Su-30SM jet fighters and allowed Russian troops to install new military posts in Southern Armenia. Still, Pashinyan’s so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’ led to the fall of the pro-Russian political elite represented by the ‘Republican Party’ and imprisoned Robert Kocharyan, a friend of Vladimir Putin’s.

To conclude, opinion polls show that for the last few months, Pashinyan’s popularity has been declined while Kocharyan’s coalition receives more and more votes according to the various surveys. The turning point was the recent escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, after the Azerbaijani troops crossed the border and violated Armenia’s territorial integrity. Armenia’s dependence on the Russian military presence in the country has increased following the defeat in Karabakh and the ongoing border crisis with Azerbaijan. This is why Armenia agreed to the construction of Russian military posts in Southern Armenia. Another important factor is that it is the Russian peacekeeping mission that guarantees the connection between Armenia and Stepanakert, the capital and largest city of Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia is a landlocked country, blockaded by Turkey and Azerbaijan and has an active conflict with the latter. More and more people seem to start forgetting about Kocharyan’s “dark” past and are ready to vote for a candidate that can guarantee the protection of Armenia by Russia. For many Armenians, the fall of the pro-Russian elite resulted the loss of Nagorno Karabakh, although they ignore the fact that the former ruling elite refused to compromise. However, opinion polls indicate that Pashinyan’s ‘Civil Contract’ will probably remain the first political power in Armenia following the elections.

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