By Michael Burrell
Director, European Centre for Public Affairs-NewEurope
Sometimes it can be hard to prove that a country’s political leaders are ordering arrests and prosecutions, but in the case of Armenia, we now have the evidence in the form of sensationally leaked recordings of telephone conversations between two top officials.
Armenia’s new Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, is at the centre of a domestic storm this week after the YouTube posting of the recordings where the officials are heard apparently discussing orders from him to secure the arrest and conviction of political opponents.
In one conversation the head of Armenia’s National Security Service is heard saying that the Prime Minister had told him to “cage” a former Deputy Defence Minister. At another point the security chief appears to suggest that he pressured a judge to arrest a former President, saying: “The judge called me. He is a little scared. I told him to have courage – whether you want it or not, you will arrest him”.
The ex-President, Robert Kocharyan, said the recordings proved that “the judge was under pressure and made an illegal decision”. The Armenian authorities, he said, were pursuing a “political vendetta” through the courts and he accused the Prime Minister of “personally coordinating” the prosecution against him.
It is a depressing turn of events. When Pashinyan came to power earlier this year there were widespread hopes that he would turn out to be a new type of leader who would set the country on a more hopeful path and that he would be a leader with whom the West could do business.
As it happens, Pashinyan is this week set to meet another European leader whose election also raised hopes of a better future for his country. The meeting in Paris between French President, Emmanuel Macron and the Armenian Prime Minister was arranged long before this week’s furore, but it does provide a timely opportunity for a President who has positioned himself as a leading defender of Western values to ask his visitor how those values are currently being defended in Armenia.
Macron should use the leaked recordings to voice concerns about the independence of Armenia’s judiciary and to ask searching questions about the role of the Prime Minister in the prosecution of former political opponents. He could usefully remind Pashinyan that Armenia is a member of the Council of Europe and therefore subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.
The hope must be that Armenia’s Prime Minister will come to understand that the support he has been given by the West is not guaranteed, but conditional on how he and his Government behave. This means that, if he wishes to retain that support, from now on cases like Kocharyan’s must start to be handled in a way that is consistent with European values.
For the moment the omens don’t look too encouraging. Laurence Broers, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, has said that it is questionable whether Armenia’s judiciary will be able to offer Kocharyan a “credible legal process” and warned of a danger that any failure to uphold the highest standards could make the process look more like ‘victor’s justice’ than a society coming to terms with its past.
His concerns have been echoed by Human Rights Watch, who said that prosecutors and judges in Armenia would “need to ensure that charges are based on sound evidence and are not excessive, intended to silence others, or to settle scores with people whose messages the authorities don’t agree with. Human Rights Watch concluded that “resolving the issue of politically motivated prosecutions will be challenging, but very important to restore faith in Armenia’s criminal justice”.
It is good to know that events in Armenia are being closely watched by observers like these, but I suspect it will take the intervention of a leader of the calibre of President Macron for Prime Minister Pashinyan to sit up and take notice. No doubt Macron, President of a country with a substantial Armenian diaspora, will be too diplomatic to say anything in public, but he shouldn’t hold back in his private discussions.
An effective intervention by Macron this week, at a crucial turning point in Armenia’s difficult modern history, might just be enough to convince Pashinyan that the time has come to take a different course to retain Western support and to ensure a brighter future for his country.