Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently paid their first visits to Armenia since the 2018 “Velvet Revolution.” Shoigu visited Armenia on October 29, just before traveling to Baku to participate in a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) defense ministerial. While in Armenia, Shoigu first met with the commanders of the 102nd Russian military base in Gyumri, where it was announced that the base would receive new types of weapons. Afterward, Shoigu and Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan met in Yerevan and signed a plan for cooperation during 2020, which, in particular, will mostly include increased intensity of bilateral military drills. Armenian officials also stated that Russia would supply Su-30SM fighter planes in late 2019 or early 2020 (Azatutyun.am, October 29).
Lavrov’s two-day working visit to Yerevan was widely expected to address another aspect of bilateral cooperation (or depending on one’s interpretation, Armenia’s deepening dependence on Russia): according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, the two sides were preparing to sign a memorandum on cooperation in biomedicine, which would allow Russian military experts to access a biological research laboratory built in Armenia with assistance from the United States (see EDM, November 4). Later media accounts, however, reported that the signing of the biomedicine cooperation memorandum had been postponed, as it “was not ready yet” (RBC, November 11). Still, Lavrov said that it would hopefully be concluded in the near future (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, November 11).
Shortly before Lavrov’s arrival, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a statement that his planned meetings with Armenia’s President Armen Sargsyan, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and other officials would focus mainly on the Karabakh conflict resolution process as well as bilateral and multilateral cooperation within the Eurasian Economic Union, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the CIS (Azatutyun.am, November 9). Probably the most important outcome of Lavrov’s visit for the Armenian government was the top Russian diplomat’s remark that representatives of the de facto Karabakh authorities had initially participated in the negotiations on conflict resolution until “one of the former Armenian presidents” decided he would represent Karabakh (Azatutyun.am, November 11). The president in question was apparently Robert Kocharyan (in office 1998–2008), who is currently on trial for violating the constitutional order and is trying to mobilize possible supporters in his defense (see EDM, September 19).
Kocharyan and other representatives of the former administration have been continuously trying to win the Russian leadership’s sympathy, and some previous events, such as Russian ambassador Sergei Kopirkin’s meeting with Kocharyan (Sputnik Armenia, June 13) or President Vladimir Putin’s letter of congratulations (Kremlin.ru, August 31) could be interpreted as subtle expressions of support for the former regime in its standoff against Pashinyan. Kocharyan’s hope of securing Russian backing was also quite blatantly stated in his interview with Sputnik Armenia, shortly before Lavrov’s visit (Sputnik Armenia, November 8). In that interview, Kocharyan further developed the argument—continuously repeated by members of the former administration—that Pashinyan’s policies are irreversibly damaging Armenia’s relations with Russia (Sputnik Armenia, December 6, 2018; 168.am, September 5, 2019). The embattled former head of state also reiterated his ambition to lead the Armenian opposition and expressed loyalty toward Moscow. A massive propaganda campaign backed (and apparently lavishly financed) by Kocharyan and the son-in-law of another former president (Serzh Sargsyan), Mikayel Minasyan (see EDM, September 19), will likely further intensify after establishing an umbrella network that unites Pashinyan’s opponents (Azatutyun.am, November 15).
Prime Minister Pashinyan’s primary concern appears to be to not antagonize the Kremlin even as his government must deal with hostile propaganda against him. As such, the outcomes of Shoigu’s and Lavrov’s recent visits to Armenia were probably satisfactory for him. However, in the longer run, cementing the outcomes of the “Velvet Revolution” will largely depend on overcoming obstacles posed by the domestic political system, in which the Constitutional Court and some other institutions remain controlled by appointees of the previous administration and continue blocking some of Pashinyan’s reform attempts. It is not quite clear whether the Armenian prime minister’s cautious approach toward Russia feeds his preference for slow reforms and reluctance to quickly implement several radical measures, such as requesting the National Assembly to adopt a declaration condemning the previous state capture, implementing transitional justice, constitutional and judiciary reforms, adopting a law stipulating transparency of media ownership, and so forth. Alternatively, it may be that even cautious sectoral reform attempts are fueling fervent propaganda and character assassination attempts backed by the numerous media outlets controlled by Robert Kocharyan, Mikayel Minasyan, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), or their proxies.
In any case, the current situation, in which many decisions are tactical in nature and lack long-term planning, likely cannot be sustained for long. While Pashinyan’s popular support remains high, it might have been easier to carry out radical reforms immediately after last year’s parliamentary elections. His “window of opportunity” for change will not last indefinitely, and extending it may prove impossible as there are no preconditions for a short-term substantial improvement in the socio-economic situation—especially since the looming full implementation of Eurasian Union customs tariffs will result in increased living costs starting in January 2020.