Report

Armenia Opts for Pashinyan, Democracy Despite Defeat in War

A surprisingly resounding win for Armenia’s incumbent suggests a focus on domestic policy.

By , a freelance journalist based in Istanbul covering Turkey, Syria, and the wider Middle East.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan gives a speech.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan gives a speech during a campaign rally in central Yerevan on June 17. Karen Minasyan/AFP via Getty Images

Acting Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan defied a disastrous defeat in last year’s war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and months of calls for his resignation to win reelection in a surprising landslide Sunday.

In an election viewed as a test of whether voters would opt for democracy or security, voters went for the former, giving Pashinyan 54 percent of the vote, surpassing pre-election expectations, while an alliance led by his rival, former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan, came second with 21 percent. Both former leaders drew massive crowds in the runup to Sunday’s vote, with polarized debates featuring threats and insults exchanged both by the candidates and on social media. Yet many voters were undecided until the end, describing the poll as a choice between lesser evils, and the result was more decisive than polls had predicted.

Acting Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan defied a disastrous defeat in last year’s war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and months of calls for his resignation to win reelection in a surprising landslide Sunday.

In an election viewed as a test of whether voters would opt for democracy or security, voters went for the former, giving Pashinyan 54 percent of the vote, surpassing pre-election expectations, while an alliance led by his rival, former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan, came second with 21 percent. Both former leaders drew massive crowds in the runup to Sunday’s vote, with polarized debates featuring threats and insults exchanged both by the candidates and on social media. Yet many voters were undecided until the end, describing the poll as a choice between lesser evils, and the result was more decisive than polls had predicted.

Pashinyan came to power following the country’s first free and fair election in 2018, after he spearheaded peaceful protests dubbed the Velvet Revolution. At the time, he promised sweeping reforms to boost the economy and sideline the corrupt oligarchs and monopolies that had dominated previous governments. High, but unfulfilled, public expectations meant his popularity had already begun to wane before war broke out with Azerbaijan in September 2020 over the disputed mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. It sank after he signed a peace deal in November 2020 to end the six-week conflict, which killed at least 6,500 people on both sides, ceding swathes of territory to Azerbaijan in a peace agreement widely seen as favoring Baku. Months of protests broke out calling for his resignation before he officially stepped down in April, although he stayed on in a caretaker role.

Armenia has to get its house in order to deal with its neighbors.

Pashinyan’s win, though, might be less a victory for him than a repudiation of the old guard that was tossed out three years ago. During the campaign, Kocharyan accused Pashinyan of inaction over the war and pledged negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders if he came to power. But to many, Kocharyan was too much a symbol of the past. He was accused of presiding over a heavy crackdown on protests after a disputed election in 2008, when at least 10 people were killed, and has also faced investigation over bribery allegations.

Pashinyan’s victory suggests a preference among voters for the continuation of his internal policies, such as anti-corruption reforms, despite what was seen as a mishandling of the war rather than the foreign-policy- and security-focused concerns of Kocharyan. The choice is likely to define post-war Armenia and its international relations going forward. Armenia has to get its house in order to deal with its neighbors.

“Only deepening democracy will allow Armenia to engage with Turkey and Azerbaijan, in addition to Georgia, in advocating for regional integration that is not coercive or imposed but negotiated,” said Anna Ohanyan, a nonresident senior scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia program.

The specter of a return of the old guard galvanized Pashinyan despite the disastrous war. 

“Kocharyan’s return to the political scene had a mobilizing effect in favor of Pashinyan,” she said. “Large segments of the undecided voters at the end voted for Pashinyan, signaling their continued support for the velvet trajectory of open and participatory political system despite their frustration with Pashinyan and his government.”

A record four electoral blocs and 21 parties ran for election on Sunday. Besides Kocharyan, who is from Karabakh and was president between 1998 and 2008, two other former leaders of post-Soviet Armenia were involved with parties on the ballot.

In a deal brokered by the United States and the European Union, 15 prisoners were recently released by Azerbaijan in return for land mine maps for the lost territories. Mediation by Charles Michel, the president of the European Council and former Belgian prime minister, suggests the West could be taking a renewed interest in the region after being marginalized by Russia’s and Turkey’s participation on opposing sides during the conflict.

There has been little indication so far as to how Pashinyan intends to rule.

However, the growing influence of Russia, which brokered the cease-fire deal last year and has peacekeeping troops stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh, is the key question for many. Although Kocharyan is a friend and supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pashinyan has had cooler relations with the Kremlin. Yet in one of the few congratulations for the incumbent on Monday, Moscow called Pashinyan’s victory “convincing.” Experts say he could be the rare democratically elected leader among Putin’s de facto allies. 

Post-war, Russia now holds more cards relative to Armenia, but Armenia’s continuous reliance on participatory politics affords it leverage with the Kremlin,” Ohanyan said. “As it continues down a democratic path, Armenia will have the credibility to continue and engage with Western powers on the Karabakh conflict and to advocate for the rights of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

There has been little indication so far as to how Pashinyan intends to rule, but during the campaign, he pledged to punish public officials who use their office to undermine him. He urged voters to replace the velvet mandate “with a steel one,” in reference to the nonviolent movement that brought him to power, displaying a hardened rhetoric toward his opponents. Various government ministries have previously expressed concern over the prime minister’s tendency to make decisions without consulting them; Armenian Foreign Minister Ara Ayvazyan and other top staff stepped down last month.

On Monday morning as the results were confirmed, Pashinyan visited a military cemetery, kneeling and laying flowers at the graves of soldiers lost in the recent war. He was expected to give a victory speech to supporters later Monday in Yerevan’s Republic Square.

Liz Cookman is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul covering Turkey, Syria, and the wider Middle East.

More from Foreign Policy

An aerial display of J-10 fighter jets of China’s People’s Liberation.

The World Doesn’t Want Beijing’s Fighter Jets

Snazzy weapons mean a lot less if you don’t have friends.

German infantrymen folllow a tank toward Moscow in the snow in, 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. The image was published in. Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Panzers, Beans, and Bullets

This wargame explains how Russia really stopped Hitler.

19th-century Chinese rebel Hong Xiuquan and social media influencer Addison Rae.

America’s Collapsing Meritocracy Is a Recipe for Revolt

Chinese history shows what happens when an old system loses its force.

Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces.

‘It Will Not Be Just a Civil War’

Afghanistan’s foreign minister on what may await his country after the U.S. withdrawal.