In a new paper, Arman Grigoryan, international relations faculty at Lehigh University, ascribes post-Soviet Armenia’s failure to transition to democracy, despite early promise, to the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabagh and the political processes it set in motion .
As the world awaits the next steps after Armenia’s recent pro-democracy revolution—which toppled its authoritarian leader Serzh Sarksyan leading to an upcoming parliamentary election May 1st—it seems an opportune time to ask: why did Armenia fail in its transition to democracy after achieving independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s?
In a paper published online in Nationalities Papers earlier this month, Arman Grigoryan, assistant professor of international relations at Lehigh University, argues that the main driver of Armenia’s failed transition after independence was its war with Azerbaijan and the continued state of belligerence after the ceasefire was signed in 1994.
He writes: “Despite its early promise, Armenia’s transition to democracy has stalled. The literature on post-Communist transitions ascribes this outcome to the autocratic preferences of its first generation of leaders, and particularly the country’s first president Levon TerPetrossian.”
However, he says in the article—called “The Karabakh conflict and Armenia’s failed transition”—the dominant narrative “…depicts a profoundly distorted picture of the Armenian politics of the 1990s. The failure of Armenia’s transition was primarily due to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and the political processes it set in motion.”
The Karabakh conflict and Armenia’s failed transition
“In the first half of the nineties, Armenia was often referred to in the Western media as an ‘island of democracy,’” says Grigoryan “It had a government that had been elected in free and fair elections and had embarked on a fertile period of legislative reforms.”
In the years immediately preceding Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, a conflict had erupted between Armenia and its neighbor, Azerbaijan, over a region known as Nagorno-Karabagh, which was recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but was inhabited by Armenians. By 1992, the conflict had escalated into a full-blown war.
According to Grigoryan, the Western scholarship regarding Armenia’s failure to become a democracy completely misses the forces at work in the early days of the country’s independence.
He writes: “One would never guess reading that literature that authoritarian nationalism and liberalism were, in fact, pitted against each other in a sophisticated debate and intense political contestation, and that it was the liberals who won initially.”
In his paper’s conclusion, he writes: “For decades, Armenians had been told by their nationalist intelligentsia and Communist apparatchiks that the nation was surrounded by enemies who were looking for an opportunity to finish what was left unfinished in 1915, and that the Soviet army was the only thing standing in their path.”
“Despite its early promise, Armenia’s transition to democracy has stalled. The literature on post-Communist transitions ascribes this outcome to the autocratic preferences of its first generation of leaders, and particularly the country’s first president Levon TerPetrossian.”