Similarities that are more than superficial
In Budapest and Yerevan, recent days have seen the streets filled with so-called “anti-government protesters” in spite of the fact that in terms of seats in the respective unicameral national assemblies of both Hungary and Armenia, the ruling party led by a familiar incumbent have comfortable majorities by both national and international standards of parliamentary democracy.
In Armenia, a National Assembly whose current composition was formed in an election from April of 2017 has just received a new Prime Minister in the former of former President Serzh Sargsyan. Thus, while Armenia has legally transitioned from a presidential system to a strong parliamentary system, the incumbent head of government remains in charge, this time at the head of a parliament where his Republican Party has a comfortable majority. In Hungary, a recent election has seen the Fidesz–KDNP alliance of Prime Minister Viktor Orban maintain its majority while it increased its percentage of total votes. Among the leading opposition parties, the second most popular Jobbik party is in many ways more similar to Orban’s own party than to the opposition parties on the liberal spectrum of the opposition vote, where such parties tended to do very poorly.
Based on such circumstances, one would think that both Armenia and Hungary would be witnessing uneventful political settlements in light of the former’s switch to a strong parliamentary system and the latter’s experience of an election with a clear winner where in both cases there was no compelling evidence of any major electoral irregularities.
External influences stirring trouble in what should be functional democracies
Instead, protests in the streets of both countries have taken place, but with slightly different origins. In Hungary, much of the commotion is due to a personal and ideological feud between Viktor Orban and the US based Hungarian born oligarch George Soros who for decades based his infamously hostile European operations in Hungary. Orban has vowed to drive Soros and his various organisations out of the country and thus far it appears that he has been successful insofar as many such Soros funded bodies are now officially relocating to Germany.
Nevertheless, Soros who is known to pay for protests, riots and so-called “colour revolutions” across the world is still the obvious hand behind the protests in Budapest where a vocal minority mobilised by Soros and his ilk are protesting a highly popular Prime Minister.
Ultimately, Hungary is not a nation of great strategic value to the US and while Soros certainly has his allies in the US deep state, Donald Trump and Viktor Orban are often compared to one another due to their so-called ‘nationalism’, their Euroscepticism, their opposition to an influx of refugees, their rhetoric which tends to ‘go easy’ on Russia vis-a-vis the leadership of the US Democratic party or the EU elites, as well as a general attitude of defiance against all critics, foreign and domestic.
Because of this, while Orban’s re-election may cause some minor friction between Brussels and Budapest, it will likely not amount to a great deal and Orban will likely continue pursuing the policies he has pursued in the past.
Armenia’s poor economy makes things more tense than in comfortable Hungary
Like Hungary, Armenia is also a small landlocked country with few internationally desirable resources. However, where Hungary’s neighbourhood is quite safe geopolitically (even in spite of the refugee crisis that Hungary has largely walled itself off from), Armenia’s neighbourhood is anything but safe. Armenia borders Iran and continues to have excellent relations with Tehran, much to the chagrin of Washington. While Armenian Christians remain one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world, neighbourly Iran’s population of Armenian Christians lead a peaceful and healthy existence and the leadership in the churches and political halls of Yerevan are all too aware of this. Likewise, Armenia sits next to the North-South Transport Corridor, a global trading belt and road that goes from India to Iran’s Chabahar Port on the Gulf of Oman, up through Azerbaijan and north into Russia. Armenia continues to be at odds with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory known internationally as Nagorno-Karabakh and in Armenia as the Republic of Artsakh. The long running dispute flared up in 2016 and continues to be a tense region for all parties involved, including Russia which has long been the de-facto peace keeper between the warring sides.
It is not difficult to see why Armenia is therefore a ‘prize’ to be won or otherwise a fulcrum around which to cause problems by those who seek to de-stabilise Eurasian integration with a specific focus on causing harm to both Russia and Iran. Thus, the US has been actively trying to woo Armenia away from its Russian and Iranian partners in order to destabilise the wider region.
Armenia – where uncharismatic leadership is opposed by a corrupt and useless pro-western ‘opposition’
Because of this, long-time (some would say small-time) Armenian Oligarch Nikol Pashinyan whose opposition party only has 9 seats in a 105 member National Assembly, has taken it upon himself to lead protests in Yerevan. Unlike Hungary whose central European economy is doing generally well, Armenia has serious economic issues that have caused genuine frustration among many citizens. However, the central point of Pashinyan is a political one and a personal one. He is offering no alterantive economic plan for Armenia other than to be more pro-EU and pro-US. Pashinyan asserts that it is wrong for former President Sargsyan to ‘remain in power’ even though his transition from President to Premier is fully legal. Indeed Russia’s incumbent President served as Premier between 2008 and 2012 while current Premier Dmitry Medvedev served as President between 2008 and 2012. Likewise, The Philippines is strongly considering switching from a US style presidential system to a strong parliamentary system where it could be foreseeable that the incredibly popular President Rodrigo Duterte could end up becoming a Lee Kuan Yew style Premier in the coming years. Thus, there is nothing odd about a developing country switching between presidential and parliamentary systems, while retaining the same or similar individual leaders.
But rather than acknowledge this reality, Pashinyan is intent in taking Sargsyan out of office by forcing a resignation. Thus far, Sargsyan has taken a confused approach to dealing with Pashinyan. While he offered a meeting with Pashinyan, the offer was withdrawn when Pashinyan said he would only meet under the condition that Sargsyan hand over his resignation notice during the meeting. However, on the 22nd of April, the two met in a televised meeting where Pashinyan, who dressed down for the occasion in order to shake his oligarch image, stormed out of the meeting. Later he was arrested on a public order related offence during a post-meeting protest.
Strong leadership is the only way to avoid ‘colour revolutions’
Unlike Orban who is a strong character with strong policies with a Duterte like manner of standing firm in the face of opposition, Sargsyan cuts something of an indecisive figure. On the one hand he is trying to balance Yerevan’s fraternal relations with Russia and membership of the Eurasian Economic Union with an attitude of also embracing EU trade agreements and pro-US moves designed to counter-balance Russia’s good relations with Azerbaijan, something which many Armenians have reacted to in a manner that can only be classified as an overreaction, seeing as Russia continues to maintain a moderating rather than a partisan role in the disputes between Baku and Yerevan.
In this sense, Sargsyan is behaving in a similar way to former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze or former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in the sense that he is a political veteran of a former Soviet republic trying his best to balance ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ influences, while failing to convince both camps of sincerity. Interestingly, both Shevardnadze and Yanukovych were forced from power by a US backed and Soros backed “colour revolution”, which in the case of Ukraine manifested itself as a violent coup. Clearly, Orban has learned that to please all sides isn’t the best way to avoid the ‘Soros treatment’, while Sargsyan may not have yet learnt that lesson.
Hope for Armenia
However, there are important differences between Armenia today and Georgia in 2003 or Ukraine in 2014. Unlike Ukraine which is comprised of Russians in the south and eastern parts of the country and self-identifying European Ukrainians in the north west, with a minority of Hungarians and Romanians in the south west, Armenia is an ethnically, linguistically and religiously homogeneous nation. It is in fact one of the most homogeneous nations in the world. Likewise, Armenians are generally more embracing of a Eurasian, pro-Russian and pro-‘eastern’ identity than many Georgians who, ever since the 1990s have tended to get far more carried away with dreams of Europeanising themselves in a political and cultural sense. Taken as a whole, the political culture in Armenia is generally less capacious than that in Georgia.
Serzh Sargsyan does not have the charisma of Viktor Orban, nor do any of the so-called opposition figures in Armenia have any real charisma. The more people like Nikol Pashinyan attempt to act as ‘men of the people’, the less convincing they appear. Thus, there is a chance that Pashinyan’s would-be colour revolution could fizzle out based on the fact that its ‘colour’ is as grey as the hairs on Pashinyan’s relatively recently grown beard.
Finally and most importantly, the fact that the North-South Transport Corridor has been presented by India as an ‘alternative’ to One Belt–One Road (something that Iran and Russia have never brought into), means that for China, the south Caucasus are if anything becoming more important than ever as China, like Pakistan would ultimately like to see the North-South Transport Corridor be integrated into One Belt–One Road, something that Russia and Iran would likely support as India is currently the odd man out when it comes to seeking an ‘alternative’ to One Belt–One Road.
All considered, the most realistic way for Armenia to improve its economic fortunes is through Chinese investment in the region. However, China requires political stability in order to make decisive moves towards greater investment in any region.
Ultimately, if the protests in Armenia die out as the 2015 electricity bill protests did, chances are that China can provide the real solutions for Armenia’s future that the government is not creative enough to articulate and that the feckless opposition appears to be too stupid and too bewitched by western benefactors to openly acknowledge.