A color revolution in the Caucasus puts Russia in a dilemma
Nikol Pashinyan's rise to power in Armenia may be a game changer in the Caucasus and alter the balance of power in the once Moscow-dominated region
After a gap of three years since the regime changed in Ukraine in February 2015, another color revolution is unfolding in yet another former Soviet republic in the Caucasus – in Armenia.
A popular uprising demanding democratic change and economic opportunities is rising to a crescendo in Armenia.
The western media has tentatively named it a “Velvet Revolution.” All the classic features of a color revolution are already visible in the political upheaval. A middle-aged man named Nikol Pashinyan appeared from nowhere to lead the campaign for regime change. He has promised to protect human rights and crack down on the rampant corruption and cronyism.
The western media enthusiastically began building up Pashinyan as a cult figure. He started growing a salt-and-pepper beard three weeks ago. Wearing a camouflage T-shirt and cargo pants, his photogenic face under a military-style cap instantly draws a comparison with Che Guerra on the billboards in Yerevan.
The wildly ecstatic youth – with a fair percentage of chic middle-class young women – adore his manly looks and are joining sit-ins in the city square in Yerevan against the backdrop of rock music, with a live performance by the lead singer of the US metal band System of a Down. The protests already wear the look of a carnival. The authorities do not know how to handle the young revolutionaries.
Only one week ago, Pashinyan failed to get elected as prime minister and the Armenian parliament, which elects the head of government, went to another vote on Tuesday. This time around, Pashinyan won.
Pashinyan is now poised to take over as Armenia’s new ruler, replacing the decade-long rule by Moscow-backed Serzh Sargsyan. Curiously, he succeeded in persuading Sargsyan’s party, which enjoys a majority in the parliament, to switch sides and support him.
Compared with Gandhi and Mandela
Thousands of his supporters are cheering in the Republic Square in Yerevan. The color revolution is on the cusp of victory and it won without violence. Pashinyan is being compared with Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
Armenia, a remote land-locked country of 2.9 million people in the Southern Caucasus, has surged overnight as a frontline state in big-power politics. Its larger-than-life importance today is largely due to the country being a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union – and, of course, as the location of a Russian military base.
The Caucasus is Russia’s ‘soft underbelly’ and a color revolution in Armenia resulting in the establishment of an unfriendly regime will affect the security of Russia’s North Caucasus regions. A color revolution brought about regime change in Georgia following a similar disputed election in 2003 and Georgian-Russian relations never quite recovered.
However, Moscow took a neutral stance in the current political turmoil and Pashinyan has been on the record saying he intends to prioritize Armenia’s ties with Russia, particularly military cooperation. Russian President Vladimir Putin lost no time in congratulating Pashinyan as soon as the parliamentary vote endorsed him as Armenia’s next ruler. Putin said he looked forward to “friendly relations” with the new government.
But the equations are delicately balanced. The big question is what happens when Pashinyan calls for a snap poll and succeeds in getting a popular mandate of his own, carving out a solid power base of his own. Clearly, he enjoys western support. Moscow cannot risk another confrontation with the West in Eurasia. Putin will prefer to avoid it.
On the other hand, the US strategy is to encircle Russia in the Eurasian landmass with an arc running from the Baltics through Central Europe, which is now poised to encompass the highly strategic Caucasus region. Further to the east lies Central Asia where the US is already entrenched in Afghanistan.
But that is not the whole story. There is an added reason why the US can be expected to make a determined effort to consolidate its influence over Armenia. The point is, Armenia also happens to border Turkey and Iran and the endgame in the conflict in Syria is nearing.
Armenia had a troubled history with Ottoman Turkey and barely gets along with Ankara. The large-scale killing of ethnic Armenians in 1915 remains a huge controversy in Turkish foreign policy. US President Donald Trump issued a statement recently on the anniversary of the Armenian massacre, which annoyed Turkey. The Armenian émigré community in the US wields a lot of clout in American politics.
Suffice to say, if the US gets entrenched in Armenia, it will pose headaches for both Turkey and Iran, which are presently in Washington’s crosshairs. The US already enjoys strong ties with the Kurds inhabiting the region.
Equally, at some point, the regime-change project in Armenia is bound to spill over to next-door Azerbaijan, which is also under authoritarian rule. There is already a heightened level of western attention regarding the geopolitics of Azerbaijan. Of course, Azerbaijan would be a prize catch for the US in the great game in the Caucasus. It is oil-rich and, interestingly, there is an ethnic Azeri minority living within Iran.
Above all, if Azerbaijan is brought into the US orbit, Uncle Sam gets to wet his toes in the Caspian Sea, which until now has been a de facto Russian-Iranian lake. Indeed, fateful times lie ahead in the geopolitics of the Caucasus, which has been a hotly contested region all through history as surrounding empires competed for control – Persian, Turkish and Russian.
In the backdrop of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the gathering storms in the US’ relations with Turkey and Iran and in the current New Cold War conditions, the Russian-Turkish-Iranian convergence on preserving Armenia’s current status of ‘positive neutrality’ in the region should not be underestimated.
On the other hand, it is improbable that Washington will let Armenia slip through its fingers, after having invested so much in the regime change agenda and propelled the carefully choreographed “Velvet Revolution” towards victory.