(Bloomberg) -- Three months after sweeping to power in Armenia’s peaceful “velvet revolution,” Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is waging an unprecedented campaign against corruption that’s unnerved Russia and got political opponents crying foul.
Arrests have reached people previously considered untouchable in Armenia including ex-President Robert Kocharyan, who’s accused of subverting constitutional order during deadly clashes a decade ago, and relatives of Serzh Sargsyan, the prime minister ousted by the revolution. The probe’s also snared senior defense officials including the Armenian head of a Russian-led military alliance.
Russia’s “brought our concerns to the attention of Armenia’s leaders on several occasions,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said July 31. Pashinyan fired back on Friday, saying Armenia’s in a “new situation and everyone, including our Russian partners, must adapt to this new reality,” according to the Aysor.am website.
The premier’s supporters say the arrests are a long overdue reckoning for a regime in which officials and well-connected businessmen grew rich on kickbacks and corrupt monopolies while a third of the Caucasus nation’s 3 million people lived in poverty. His critics argue he’s taking revenge on Kocharyan for ordering the army to break up opposition protests against alleged ballot-rigging in the 2008 presidential election that brought Sargsyan to power.
Ten people died in the clashes and Pashinyan, who helped lead the protests, was later jailed. While he enjoys huge public popularity for inspiring mass demonstrations that forced Sargsyan’s resignation in April, the investigation’s stirring political divisions and claims that Armenia’s security is at risk in the conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Kocharyan’s prosecution has “profound repercussions well beyond Armenia and may set an important new precedent” in the region, said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center, a think tank in the capital, Yerevan. Moves “against the formerly entrenched elite are now triggering a robust Russian reaction,” he said.
Armenia can ill afford to alienate Russian President Vladimir Putin since it relies on Moscow for protection under a mutual-defense pact amid political tensions with neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan. Kocharyan, who ruled for a decade to 2008, and Sargsyan both kept close ties with Russia, which has a vital military base in Armenia and is the country’s main arms supplier. Sargsyan took Armenia into the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union in 2015.
The head of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, Yuri Khachaturov, who was deputy defense minister in 2008, is among those charged. He returned to Moscow after being freed on bail. A former Armenian defense minister has also been declared wanted.
Kocharyan, a former Karabakh war leader, called the case “fabricated, politically motivated,” in an interview before his detention to YerkirMedia, adding that the prosecutions would please Azerbaijan. “We are a country at war, what are we doing?” he said.
A petition signed by 45 of the Armenian parliament’s 105 members, mostly from the former ruling Republican party, was presented to prosecutors this week, calling for Kocharyan’s release from pre-trial detention. Members of a party in Pashinyan’s coalition government also added their names.
Pashinyan denies any political motives, telling reporters last month that it’s “a matter for investigators” whether there are grounds for charges.
He’s rallying support by urging Armenians to join an August 17 demonstration in Yerevan to mark his first 100 days in office. Pashinyan became prime minister in May after the revolt against Sargsyan’s attempt to keep power by switching to the premiership following two terms as president.
Since then, prosecutors have brought criminal charges against two of Sargsyan’s nephews, and accused his brother, Levon, of failing to declare nearly $7 million. Sargsyan’s former head of security was arrested while carrying more than $1 million in cash.
While the Kremlin was hostile to revolutions that ushered in pro-western governments in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, it’s previously refrained from criticizing Armenia after Pashinyan insisted there was no shift in loyalties. He told Putin in May that “nobody has ever questioned the strategic importance of Armenian-Russian relations, or ever will.”
Now, Russia’s “clearly disturbed” by Kocharyan’s imprisonment, while prosecutions that go “deep into the heart of the political system loyal to Russia can be a red line” that stokes tensions in coming months, said Lilit Gevorgyan, senior analyst at IHS Markit in London.
“It is very clear that Russia would like to see the popular revolution fail, and be replaced by the old oligarchic regime led by a fresh-faced politician that Russia will approve,” she said.
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