In April 2018, Serzh Sargsyan reached the end of his constitutionally-allowed two terms as President of Armenia. Less than ten days later, the national assembly elected him as Prime Minister. The reaction was swift and uncompromising: for ten days, citizens took to the streets in Yerevan and other cities to protest the attempt to hold on to power. The widespread peaceful protests drew increased power as members of Armenia’s prestigious peacekeeping force joined the protests, marching in uniform. Yesterday, the marchers achieved their desired result: Sargasyan resigned. “I was wrong,” he said in an official statement. “The street movement is against my tenure. I am fulfilling your demand.”
Sargsyan, a former military officer, first became President in 2008. He was the third president of the country’s post-Soviet period; he followed Levon Tev-Petrosyan and Robert Kocharyan. Kocharyan in particular rode out a period of intense political unrest and attempts to force his resignation in 1999 and 2000, though his reelection in 2003 was marked by widespread allegations of ballot-rigging, a frequent (and frequently accurate) charge. Kocharyan’s popularity did not recover during his second term in office, and the Sargasyan’s transition to power was marked by violence; eight demonstrators were killed in conflicts with the security forces.
During his time as President, Sargasyan did little to improve the quality of democratic governance in Armenia; he also lacks a strong economic record that might otherwise make up for those restrictions among voters. Unemployment remains high at 20%, and the economy is largely dependent upon remittances from Russia. The number of citizens living below the poverty line is higher now than it was ten years ago during the recession. Part of the problem is entrenched corruption, choking economic development and scaring off potential foreign investment. While the government adopted multiple reforms following the political crisis of 2008, including a new Electoral Code and a law on public service, corruption both causes and feeds on voter apathy. In its most recent report, Transparency International ranks Armenia 107 out of 180, with a score of 35/100.
One thing Sargasyan did achieve during his second term, however, were several changes to the constitution, changing Armenia from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic. According to the Economist, “The new, convoluted electoral system almost guarantees Mr. Sargasyan’s Republican party [HHK] a majority”. What is more, the changes eliminate the direct election of the President, ensuring the role will be filled by one of his own loyalists.
In this way, Sargasyan seemed to be following in the footsteps of the leader of his country’s most important partner: Vladimir Putin. When he was barred from serving a third consecutive term as President of the Russian Federation, Putin selected his own successor in Dmitri Medvedev, and transitioned to the role of Prime Minister, though many observers held the view that Putin was still firmly in control of the reins of government. In Armenia, Sargasyan laid the groundwork for this transition of power well in advance; the constitutional amendments that transition much of the president’s power to the Prime Minister passed in December 2015, to take effect in April 2018, just in time for the end of his second term.
These constitutional workarounds are, in many ways, emblematic of the broader issues of freedom and democracy in Armenia. In its 2017 Freedom in the World report, Freedom House noted that 2016 was marked with political and social turbulence, including street protests and the seizure of a police building in Yerevan by armed opposition activists in July of that year. They also wrote of the government’s “soft authoritarian” tendencies, voters’ limited ability to influence policy without resorting to street protests, and the restrictions on freedom of the press. Flare-ups in the conflict with Azerbaijan over the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region also provide a useful rationalization for government repression in the name of security.
In spite of Sargasyan’s constitutional maneuvering, Armenia’s political opposition managed to create an unstoppable momentum. The movement was decentralized, a coalition of young activists, leaders in civil society, liberal politicians, ordinary citizens, and soldiers. During the days of protests, Sargasyan briefly met with Nikol Pashinyan, a leader of the opposition; Sargasyan left the meeting almost immediately, and Pashinyan was detained along with two colleagues. The three were released the next day. As in East Germany, losing the support of the army was likely a decisive factor in Sargasyan’s decision to step down; Armenia’s peacekeeping force enjoys a high level of public prestige for their work in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
The future of the democratic movement in Armenia remains to be seen, especially given the current weakness of political parties. Former Prime Minister and mayor of Yerevan Karen Karapetyan has stepped in as interim Prime Minister. Next, an interim government will need to be organized to carry out new elections; Pashinyan, head of the Way Out Alliance and a key figure in the protests, will meet with Karapetyan to negotiate the terms of the interim government. It seems likely that the success of the protest movement will reinvigorate an electorate that has spent much of the past ten years disenchanted with the democratic process.
There was a deeper significance to the aftermath of Sargasyan’s ouster; April 24 is Armenian Genocide Day, a public holiday in remembrance of the victims of the Armenian genocide of 1915. As Armenian citizens and members of the diaspora around the world gather to remember the past, it also a day to feel hopeful about the country’s future.
Photo Credit: Narek Avetisyan, Creative Commons license
As someone who has seen the rise of the previous USSR small republics and has witnessed the Armenian protests from the perspective of a neighbor and ally of the democratic movement, I feel that you have wonderfully covered the subject of Armenian national separation from leftover Soviet influence. By establishing ‘evergreen’ leaders like Putin, Nazarbayev and Sargsyan, former USSR republics have veiled the, as you have put, the ‘soft authoritarianism’ in their countries while disguising it as democracies.
It was a refreshing to see how you have analyzed the undergoing struggle of nations to regain their independence from the authoritarianism. The dependence of Armenia on Russian economic support cannot go unnoticed – as an emerging and relatively young small country Armenia had to cultivate close relationship with Putin’s government in order to provide Armenia basic means to survive and feed their own people. Putin’s reach in the foreign policy is so vast and there are still so many things that are unknown.
The fact that Armenia has had these protest and people going on the streets and actually seeing the results of their demands is finally giving other former USSR countries a light in the end of the tunnel. After bloody war in Ukraine, Armenia has set an example and giving us hope that some liberalization, not yet democracy, is possible and one day could be within our reach.
Once again, an amazing and informative piece!
I like how you drew upon the ways Sargasyan was a threat to democracy. However, it was interesting to learn that these peaceful protests were effective in leading him to step down as Prime Minister. I think your blog post brought up some interesting points in relation to democracy. I think peaceful protests are very effective and can go a long way. When democracies are threatened, it is important for many different kinds of people in countries to realize that unifying in peaceful protests can go a long way. Instead of sitting back as bad things are happening, citizens have voices and they can use them to demonstrate how democracy should be. In addition, you mentioned some problems ingrained in Armenia’s institutions. There are issues with the ways that some countries are set up, which makes democratic backsliding easier and more common. I think it would be wise of us to be cautious in these situations and work to strengthen countries with these institutional issues that could potentially cause them to backslide.