The quick congratulations offered to Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko by Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian on his re-election—blatantly stolen from under the noses of the electorate—must have come as a kick in the teeth to the people of Belarus, while it can only have been a big disappointment to many of the Armenians who in the spring of 2018 were victorious with the velvet revolution that put the former newspaper editor and political prisoner in power.
However, as bne IntelliNews has reported, the lack of stated international support from governments around the world for the brave would-be revolutionaries of Belarus has been conspicuous by its absence, and no doubt Pashinian—hardened by the realities of realpolitik since he arrived in office in a world that has even seen the selfish and abject Trumpification of the so-called land of the free—questioned why small and impoverished Armenia should go first in riling Lukashenko and acting against its own interests.
“Dear Alexander Grigoryevich, Congratulations on your being re-elected as President of the Republic of Belarus,” Pashinian wrote, in a letter published on his website. “I avail myself of this opportunity to wish you robust health, as well as peace and prosperity.”
Only so much straining at the leash
Russia, of course, has given no indication that it is prepared to back those who contend that Lukashenko and his henchmen rode roughshod over what was a clear victory in the weekend presidential election by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and, if there is one thing that Pashinian has likely taken on board during his two and a half years as Armenia’s leader, it is that there is only so much straining at the leash that the Kremlin will tolerate when it comes to the Armenians’ strategic partnership with Moscow, vital to their economic and defence interests.
And this is no time to rock the boat—the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has come as a huge setback to the Armenian economy, which was previously picking up steam nicely, and the situation on the border with Azerbaijan is fraught following the recent military skirmishes. Russia sells arms to both Yerevan and Baku and officially takes a neutral standpoint over their dispute, but it is generally seen as slightly more on Armenia’s side. Pashinian would certainly not like to see a reversal in that situation.
Harsh realities aside, some of the response inside Armenia to the post-revolution government’s decision not to openly back Tikhanovskaya and her massed ranks of supporters has been scathing. The move “totally validates all of the people who say that the Velvet Revolution changed nothing in Armenia and that Armenia is Russia's backyard,” digital media analyst Zarine Kharazyan tweeted, as cited by eurasianet.
Pashinian’s political opponents relished the sight of their nemesis doffing his cap to the Belarusian dictator. "It is interesting. Will the West forgive Nikol Pashinyan for congratulating Lukashenko? The characters ‘embodying’ them in Armenia no longer hide dissatisfaction. I believe that under the pressure of the facts being exposed, historians will come to the conclusion in the future that in April 2018, a foreign political sabotage—what has not been achieved in Belarus yet—took place towards Armenia," Artak Zakaryan, a former deputy defence minister of Armenia, wrote in a Facebook post.
Armenia, like Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—suffice to say none of Central Asia’s ‘Stans’ are expected to utter a word of opposition to the Lukashenko ‘victory’ given their own various shades of despotism and habitual authoritarianism handed down from Soviet days of old—is a member of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and, with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, along with Russia, makes up the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) bloc for trade. Nevertheless, bilateral relations between Armenia and Belarus have not been smooth since Pashinian took power. The two nations have continued bickering over the latter’s supplies of weapons to Azerbaijan—which lately has been happy to oblige the Belarusians with hiked oil sales in the face of disagreements over Russian supplies to Minsk—and got into a small row over who should become the next leader of the CSTO.
Hemmed in by foes
Armenia is a tiny nation, hemmed in by foes. Apart from the invective hurled by Azerbaijan, it is now under sustained verbal attacks from Baku’s big ally in the neighbourhood, Turkey, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, beset by economic embarrassments, looking for any opportunities to burnish his nationalist and “neo-Ottoman” credentials as a distraction. Azerbaijan and Turkey in the past week have held menacing joint war games. Georgia, meanwhile, may, unlike the Azerbaijanis and Turks, have diplomatic relations with Yerevan, but it has thrown in its regional economic lot with Azerbaijan and Turkey, squeezing out Armenia in many respects. At the same time, the economic promise of building trade and investment with Iran, a big economy of 84mn compared to Armenia’s 3mn, has been curtailed by US sanctions on Tehran.
If Armenia wants to make new enemies, there’s almost certainly a better time to do it. It was perhaps always naïve to expect Yerevan to stand by Tikhanovskaya’s side to any meaningful extent. But ‘people’s PM’ Pashinian has a habit of romantically overselling himself and Armenia’s possibilities. In August 2018, he addressed a throng in the Armenian capital’s Republic Square, making the striking claim that his administration had established the kind of “people’s direct rule” that once existed in ancient Greece.
“This means that from now on this government will be accountable to this square, will obey this square, and all key decisions must be made here at this square,” he proclaimed. Did anyone observe him consulting the square before he sent his congratulations to Lukashenko?