Putin Ally Leads Counter-Charge to Armenia's Velvet Revolution

(Bloomberg) -- Five months after a democratic “velvet revolution” that ousted Armenia’s former rulers, an ex-president with close ties to the Kremlin says he’s returning to politics to challenge the new government.

Robert Kocharyan, who’s facing possible imprisonment over the deaths of protesters at the end of his presidency a decade ago, criticized the “revolutionary romanticism” of the authorities under Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the opposition leader swept to power in May by peaceful mass protests.

Pashinyan, who hosted world leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a Francophone summit in Yerevan this week, remains hugely popular with Armenians angered by widespread official corruption and lawlessness under the old regime that left many citizens in poverty. He’s still striving to consolidate his hold on power as parliament is controlled by the party of Kocharyan’s hand-picked successor.

Putin Ally Leads Counter-Charge to Armenia's Velvet Revolution

“I see the shortcomings of the government, they are very much in need of sound and rational criticism,” Kocharyan, 64, said in an interview in the capital, Yerevan, on Tuesday. He didn’t specify what he would change.

The Kremlin is watching events closely in the Caucasus nation of 3 million people that hosts a vital Russian military base and is engaged in a thirty-year conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The arrests of Kocharyan and other senior former officials prompted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to complain in July that Moscow had “brought our concerns to the attention of Armenia’s leaders on several occasions.”

Birthday Greetings

In August, Russian President Vladimir Putin phoned Kocharyan to offer “heartfelt birthday greetings,” according to the Kremlin.

Kocharyan said he and Putin “have been in regular contact all this time and have friendly personal relations.” The concern expressed by Russia over the treatment of former leaders is “quite natural,” he said, declining to say whether he and Putin had discussed the charges against him.

Still, Kocharyan shouldn’t expect Russia to support a comeback, even though it may not trust the new Armenian leadership yet, according to Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center, a think tank in Yerevan. “The stakes are far too high to risk the real instability that will come from any such wager,” he said.

Pashinyan told supporters at a rally in August that he has good relations with Putin and that “the Armenian-Russian strategic friendship will be deepened,” even as he also seeks to strengthen ties with the European Union. Former officials being held accountable for crimes “are making phone calls to Russia to say that we are targeting Russia,” he said.

Kocharyan was president for 10 years before choosing Serzh Sargsyan to succeed him in elections in 2008 that sparked opposition protests against alleged ballot-rigging. He’s facing prosecution now over his decision to order police and troops to disperse protesters, resulting in violence that killed 10 people. Pashinyan, one of the opposition leaders, went into hiding and was later jailed.

Sargsyan’s attempt to extend his rule by switching to the premiership from president in April sparked the rebellion that led to his ouster, ushering in Pashinyan.

Putin Ally Leads Counter-Charge to Armenia's Velvet Revolution

Jail Precedent

Armenia set a precedent in July when Kocharyan became the first former head of an ex-Soviet republic to be jailed after a court ordered his detention on charges of subverting constitutional order. He was later released on appeal. Kocharyan said he acted within his authority and that the case was driven by Pashinyan’s “personal hatred” of him.

Pashinyan is moving to secure his revolution by demanding snap parliamentary elections in December, arguing the legislature no longer reflects Armenia’s political reality after his supporters won 81 percent in voting for Yerevan’s city council last month. He’s threatened to resign as premier as early as next week to trigger the process of requiring parliament to call elections that are opposed by the Republicans.

While Kocharyan is wading into the political scene with criticism of the current government, he said he hasn’t set himself a goal of returning to the top role for now.

“Even if the revolutionary government fails, Kocharyan’s return is still unlikely,” said Lilit Gevorgyan, senior analyst at IHS Markit in London. “He offers no vision of change but rather a return to the oligarchy that enriched a handful and drove every third Armenian into poverty.”

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