Armenia pushes out Moscow-led military bloc chief ahead of general election

Armenia pushes out Moscow-led military bloc chief ahead of general election
No cross words have been exchanged by Armenia’s Pashinian (left) and Russia’s Putin, but Russian foreign minister Lavrov has made it plain that the Kremlin is watching developments in Yerevan carefully.
By Will Conroy in Prague November 2, 2018

The head of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) intergovernmental military alliance is leaving his post early at the request of the Armenian government and in advance of a snap general election that will take place on December 9.

The departure of Yuri Khachaturov from his post, as well as the approach taken to other ‘old Armenian establishment’ figures by the Pashinian administration that came to power following Armenia’s “people power” revolution in the spring—not to mention the wider issue of how much disgruntlement there may be in the Kremlin over the pursuit of figures such as Khachaturov and ex-president Robert Kocharyan, who lately received a rather public ‘happy birthday’ phone call from Vladimir Putin—could become a significant issue in the election campaign.

The small, impoverished nation of Armenia traditionally depends on Russia as its strategic ally. It has no diplomatic relations with neighbours Azerbaijan or Turkey, given the hostility over the Nagorno-Karabakh breakaway territory, and hosts Russian military bases. It cannot afford to fall out badly with Moscow, but some of Pashinian’s crackdowns on cronyism, corruption, monopolies and former officials he says are guilty of human rights offences might not sit well with the Russians.

“Marti mek” charges
Both Khachaturov and Kocharyan were officially charged in late July with involvement in the "overthrowing of Armenia's constitutional order" in relation to the bloody “Marti mek” (March 1) crackdown that followed the disputed 2008 presidential election. After the charges were announced, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by saying: "The events of the last few days... contradict the recent declarations of the new Armenian leadership that it was not planning to pursue its predecessors on political grounds. Moscow, as an ally of Yerevan, has always had an interest in the stability of the Armenian state, and therefore what is happening there must be of concern to us."

A statement posted on the CSTO website on November 2 said that 66-year-old Khachaturov—who was a deputy defence minister at the time of Marti mek and was chief of the General Staff of the Armenian armed forces from 2008 to 2016—was leaving his post early following a request made by Armenia's government.

The CSTO is a Russia-led regional security grouping that includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Kocharyan—who denies accusations that he ordered the violent repression of the election protests a decade ago in which eight demonstrators and two police officers were killed—in late September filed a defamation lawsuit against then prime minister and ex-activist Nikol Pashinian (now acting PM in advance of the general election).

While on a November 1 visit to Belarus, Armenian President Armen Sarkisian told journalists that "a certain judicial process is going on" to relieve Khachaturov of his CSTO post, according to RFE/RL.

“Armenia has a right”
“Taking into account the fact that he [Khachaturov] represents the Republic of Armenia, Armenia has a right, in principle, to decide if its representative can or cannot stay on as the [CSTO] secretary-general. It looks like Armenia will recall him,” Sarkisian reportedly said.

Following, Lavrov’s remarks after charges were pressed against Khachaturov and Kocharyan, Pashinian in early September met Putin in Moscow, no doubt to help smooth things over, but Russia has said little since on its current feelings towards the post-revolution administration.

Pashinian has some big ideas on the direction he wants to take Armenia. On August 17, the date that marked his first 100 days in office, he told a crowd of tens of thousands gathered in Yerevan’s Republic Square that the world was yet to grasp the significance of Armenia’s revolution and made the striking claim that his government had established the kind of “people’s direct rule” that once existed in ancient Greece.

Wary of West muscling in
Russia, meanwhile, is in geopolitical terms wary of the West muscling in on Armenia. On October 29 Russia accused the US of making a barely disguised attempt at persuading Armenia to shift its allegiances away from traditional ally Moscow. In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry said that White House National Security Advisor John Bolton's comments during his visit to Yerevan the previous week amounted to him "demanding openly that Armenia renounce historical patterns in its international relations and [he] hardly bothered to conceal the fact that this implied Armenia’s traditional friendship with Russia".

"Naturally, he did not forget to advertise US weapons that Armenia should buy instead of Russian weapons," the statement went on.

Looking ahead to the early general election, it is widely anticipated that the liberal Yelk Alliance (Way Out Alliance) led by Pashinian and his Civil Contract party will win the contest by a landslide. Although Pashinian became Armenia’s PM after the tumultuous but non-violent events of April and May, the right-wing Republican Party (HHK) that formed the previous government has remained dominant in parliament. Though the HHK has been largely cowed, that’s something Pashinian is determined to change.

Pashinian will continue to perform his prime-ministerial duties until a new parliament and prime minister are elected.

The Yelk Alliance only held nine seats in the just-dissolved parliament. Yelk and members of the second-largest parliamentary faction, controlled by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, triggered the requirement for a snap election with a technical manoeuvre in parliament that saw Pashinian stand down and MPs fail to vote for a replacement within the constitutionally required period.