After Serzh Sargsyan’s second presidential term ended on April 9, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) appointed him the country’s new prime minister by a vote on April 17 (Public Radio of Armenia, April 17). Armen Sargsyan (not related), previously nominated by Serzh Sargsyan to be the latter’s successor as head of state (see EDM, January 29), was sworn in as the new president on April 9 and performed the ceremonial functions for his former patron a week later (Panorama.am, April 9). Thus, the transition to a parliamentary system, stipulated by the constitutional amendments adopted in December 2015, was finalized. But the process has sparked weeks of persistent massive protests in Yerevan and across Armenia, ultimately leading to Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation on April 23.
Although Serzh Sargsyan’s intention to occupy the prime minister’s post was not officially announced until the end of his presidential term, there was little doubt about his plans. For several months, Sargsyan was continuously glorified on television and in RPA officials’ statements (Araratnews.am, November 3, 2017; Lragir.am, December 8, 2017; Tert.am, February 28). Since January, the National Assembly began rubber-stamping a number of legal amendments further extending prime ministerial authority (Hraparak.am, January 27; Sputnik Armenia, April 5).
It seemed that Serzh Sargsyan had chosen the securest option for retaining power—forgoing either the Russian alternative, whereby a “placeholder” is appointed and he runs for the presidency again in five years, or by simply removing the ban on a third term, like in Azerbaijan. In both cases, large protests were likely to follow. Indeed, every Armenian presidential election in recent memory, in 2003, 2008 and 2013, had led to mass protests. Maintaining power through election fraud, or, like in 2008, by armed violence against the opposition, could become complicated. A transition to a parliamentary system thus seemed like the safest option. The amended constitution pointedly includes the stipulation of a “stable majority” (Parliament.am, December 6, 2015); and together with the new Electoral Code, this provides a bonus for the largest party, effectively securing the RPA’s hegemony over the political system. This tactic succeeded in the short term, preventing the opposition from mobilizing during both the constitutional referendum and the 2017 parliamentary elections.
However, that initially successful move eventually backfired. Social mobilization had traditionally taken place during Armenian presidential elections because the opposition generally presumed that, following a fraudulent vote, their candidate’s victory would only be possible through civil disobedience. However, in the new constitutional system, the RPA enjoys a disproportionate advantage, making regime change by elections essentially impossible. Since waiting for the next election cycle to spark social mobilization apparently became pointless, Nikol Pashinyan, the leader of the Civic Contract party—one of three parties of the “Yelq” (Way Out) bloc, which occupies 9 of 105 seats in the National Assembly—attempted to use Serzh Sargsyan’s prime ministerial appointment to mobilize the public.
On March 31, Pashinyan and about a dozen supporters launched the “Make a Move, Reject Serzh” action, marching from Armenia’s second largest city, Gyumri, located 126 kilometers (78 miles) from Yerevan, with an intention to reach Yerevan within two weeks, walking through several towns on the way (Aravot.am, March 31). On April 13, as the group reached Yerevan, they held a demonstration with a few thousand supporters, and afterward put up a barricade on a busy intersection in the city center (Hraparak.am, April 13). The initial demonstration and the following sit-ins and barricading of some other streets during the weekend played out on a relatively small scale, and the protesters left during night hours; therefore, the police did not interfere. However, the following week, students walked out and larger protest rallies followed, with streets being barricaded throughout the capital and similar actions gradually beginning in other cities—despite the police’s attempts to disperse the crowds (Azatutyun.am, April 20).
On April 20, Pashinyan announced the protesters’ demands, including Sargsyan’s resignation and the appointment of a provisional government, to be followed by snap parliamentary elections (Aravot.am, April 20). As the number of protesters gathering in Yerevan every evening approached 100,000, on April 21 Sargsyan agreed to negotiate with Pashinyan. However, their next-day meeting lasted only a few minutes. Pashinyan reiterated the demand for resignation, and Sargsyan threatened a possible repetition of the March 1, 2008, events, when the army was engaged to disperse the protesters after a contested election, killing ten people. Within minutes, Sargsyan left the meeting (Epress.am, April 22). Pashinyan, in turn, called upon his supporters to continue their peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience (Azatutyun.am, April 22). Soon, Pashinyan, two other members of the parliament from the Civic Contract party and several known activists, among others, were detained by police. The number of arrests on Sunday exceeded 250 (A1plus.am, April 22). Despite the arrests, the largest gathering to date happened on Sunday evening (Epress.am, April 22). Pashinyan was kept in custody at an unknown place but was released on Monday afternoon, together with other parliamentary deputies (Epress.am, April 23). A few hours later, Sargsyan resigned as prime minister (Primeminister.am, April 23).
The new movement’s rather unexpected popularity shows that despite results achieved through electoral manipulation, a large part of the population is not satisfied with the economic and social conditions nor the political direction of the country. As noted in a recent article in The Economist, nearly 10 percent of the population has emigrated since 2008, when Sargsyan became the president; unemployment is at nearly 20 percent; and about 30 percent fall below the poverty line of $2.90 a day (The Economist, April 19).
Most importantly, Armenia’s disaffected youth is at the core of the protest movement. The current system offers few prospects other than a career in the military-industrial complex within the “nation-army” framework (see EDM, October 31, 2016). Modern information technologies have helped many see the possibilities enjoyed by their peers in other countries. And these technologies have been used for communication and to coordinate the ongoing protest activities.
A restoration of trust in Armenia’s political institutions could help to modernize the country and perhaps open it up to the world, entailing economic growth and further social development. The outcome of the protests depended on steady growth in the number of participants despite oppression from the police and, most importantly, on Sargsyan’s ongoing restraint and not ordering security forces to shoot. Since bloodshed has been avoided, there may currently be room for a democratic transition similar to the Czechoslovak model of 1989–1990, instead of authoritarianism, which would continue to boost frustration and emigration.