An Armen-ia leg: Armenians say enough is enough

Guest post by Emil Sanamyan

In a turn of events few could predict only days earlier, Armenia’s leader of ten years resigned on 23 April under public pressure, and for the first time since independence an opposition leader was elected. How did this shift come about so rapidly and without violence? And what does it mean for Armenia’s place in its neighborhood and beyond?

Stars align

Only weeks ago Serzh Sargsyan appeared to be in firm control through the ruling Republican Party where he enjoyed a majority in parliament. With the single exception of Georgia, Armenia is surrounded by countries with restrictive political systems. Long unpopular, Sargsyan initially promised to give up power after the end of his second presidential term. During the 2017 parliamentary election, the Republicans were led by newly-appointed and relatively popular Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan and Sargsyan’s long-time aide, Defense Minister Vigen Sargsyan (not related).

But as the time of constitutional transition approached, Sargsyan began dropping hints that he would not be leaving. Sargsyan stepped up his diplomatic maneuvering, particularly with the European Union, and announced long-term national goals for the coming decades. The moves garnered no reaction from either the EU nor inside the ruling party. Sargsyan then claimed his promise not to seek the prime ministership was “taken out of context” and that he wanted to continue “to be useful” to the country’s security.

The other NK

In April 2016, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces fought a brief, bloody border conflict that became known as the Four-Day War, gripping the attention of both societies. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a conflict over the status of Nagorno Karabakh since 1988, with a ceasefire agreed in 1994. The flare-up in 2016 was followed by a respite in hostilities along the Line of Contact, the border area between the two countries. From 2014 to 2016 Azerbaijan continuously escalated attacks against Armenians positioned along the border. The relaxation of tensions that followed the April war provided a favorable external backdrop for domestic political contestation in Armenia.

Armenia relies on a military alliance with Russia as a deterrent to Turkey,which has refused to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia since its independence. At the same time, the Sargsyan administration also sought to maintain positive relations with the EU, signing a new partnership agreement last November. As Sargsyan made the decision to become prime minister following the constitutional transition, he did so cautiously, tolerating dissent in media and parliament and protests in the streets.

Still, Sargsyan’s move provided an opening for the opposition, whose most prominent voice in parliament, Nikol Pashinyan, announced a campaign against Sargsyan’s third term and – as Pashinyan termed it – Armenia’s “Azerbaijanization”. The notion that Sargsyan was moving a relatively more democratic Armenia in direction of repressive one-family rule as in Azerbaijan resonated with many Armenians.

The protest also tapped into the sense of long-term disenfranchisement by many Armenians. Ever since the Armenian National Movement ousted the ruling Communists in 1990, incumbent Armenian leaders – by hook or by crook – always won national elections. Angry protests that followed each such vote inevitably fizzled out through a combination of public apathy and police harassment. Public dissatisfaction the ruling party had long been festering and came to a head with Sargysan’s move to stay in power.

A citizens’ rebellion

When Pashinyan and other opposition activists rallied supporters in the capital city of Yerevan on 13 April, turnout was particularly strong among university students. It helped that at 42, Pashinyan was the youngest protest leader since Armenia’s independence. He also adopted the tactics of more recent Armenian civic campaigns, such as [hyperlink], insisting on strictly non-violent methods and embracing conciliatory rhetoric towards police and other officials.

Protesters blocked major avenues in Yerevan, making their presence felt throughout the city and helping the protests spread. On 16 April, the day before the vote for Prime Minister was to take place, protesters attempted to breach police cordons and march towards the parliament. On 17 April the parliament met and 78 of 105 MPs voted for Sargsyan. In response, protest leaders announced a national strike. They also moved the main protest venue to the Republic Square, a large space in Yerevan capable of accommodating more than 100,000 people.

The spectacle of masses of protesters gathering for evening rallies at the Republic square and their positive, hopeful message captivated Armenians in and out of the country. The protests received celebrity endorsements from actors, athletes and musicians. The strikes and protests expanded throughout the country and Armenian diplomatic missions were picketed abroad.

On 20 April, Pashinyan announced a road map out of the crisis: Sargsyan must resign and a “people’s candidate” elected Prime Minister would take his place until new elections could be held. The government called for private talks between the major parties, but Pashinyan refused to negotiate, insisting that any meetings take place in front of cameras. When on 22 April, Sargsyan agreed to meet in public, the meeting lasted less than three minutes, with Sargsyan walking out and accusing Pashinyan of blackmail. A few hours later Pashinyan and other protest leaders were detained in what appeared to herald a massive crackdown.

However, less than 24 hours later Sargsyan resigned, admitting in a parting statement that “Nikol Pashinyan was right” and that he “was wrong”. The announcement came after a consultation between Sargsyan, Karapetyan (then First Deputy Prime Minister), Bako Sahakyan – the president of Nagorno-Karabakh, and other senior figures. Significantly, Sargsyan did not name Karapetyan or any other Republican as his successor, opening the way for Pashinyan’s election on 8 May with a majority vote of 59 of 105.

A new Armenia?

Only weeks ago, the rapid success of Armenian protests seemed an impossible dream. As opposition activists said publicly, the most they were hoping for was to spoil Sargsyan’s election celebration. Now thrust into government office buildings, the new Armenian leaders are feeling their way through the unfamiliar corridors of power.

Although Republicans in parliament have voiced distrust of Pashinyan, Sargsyan chose not to sabotage the political transition. Some of his key aides are now working with the new administration. For his part, Pashinyan appointed widely respected senior officials as the new ministers of defense and foreign affairs. The military, from which Sargsyan, a former defense minister, long enjoyed loyalty, remained neutral throughout the protests and seems to be adapting quickly to the new political leadership.

Gripped by unprecedented optimism, Armenians now speak of a new Armenia: “the fourth republic”. While its leaders are new, its core external challenges remain unchanged. Its small population and remote location make it difficult to attract major investors and external political support. The conflict over Karabakh doesn’t appear anywhere near resolution, particularly as both Azerbaijan and Turkey have grown more authoritarian and armed themselves for new wars. Armenia is left reliant on Russia, itself an authoritarian state whose leaders are worried about the precedent that Armenian protests have set. Finally, the US is moving to reignite tensions with Armenia’s other major neighbor – Iran.

All these challenges and risks notwithstanding, Armenian citizens have succeeded in winning a fresh chance to fix their country, while the precedent also helped to push back on broader anti-democratic trends.

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