On April 23, the prime minister of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan resigned under the mounting pressure of tens of thousands of Armenian citizens. The protesters had taken to the streets on April 13 under the leadership of Nikol Pashinyan, leader of opposition Civil Contract Party, which is highly connected with and supported by Armenia’s NGO community. At the time of writing, the revolution remains incomplete because of the ruling party’s resistance to give up power. This article provides a brief summary and factor analysis of events since the protests started mid-April.
Sargsyan’s gamble bid to extend his rule
Sargsyan served as president of the Republic of Armenia from 2008 until his resignation on April 23, 2018. Approaching the end of his second term in office - the maximum period allowed by the Constitution - he took the nation to a referendum on constitutional amendments on December 6, 2015, through which he could shift the political system in the country from a semi-presidential republic to a parliamentary republic. Many saws this as a bid on his part to extend his rule - this time as a strong prime minister with no term limits, while still keeping a democratic façade. This was supposed to be a third variant in the post-Soviet space of how the rule of incumbent could be extended. Such would be the another “creative” and cunning version of how an incumbent’s power could be prolonged without eliminating the term limit of the presidency, akin to Putin and Medvedev’s power shift. All the others simply eliminated term limits.
Nevertheless, on the eve of the referendum, Sargsyan made clear in a statement he had no intention of running for the post of prime minister or president in the new system. However, once the new system was in place and the incumbent’s term concluded, and the subsequent presidents would become largely ceremonial figures, Sargsyan’s candidacy for prime ministership was put forward by his party and he was elected as a prime minister on April 17, 2018. As that took place, thousands of protesters under the leadership of Nikol Pashinyan, leader of the relatively new “Civil Contract” Party, paralyzed life in the streets of Yerevan by protesting the continuation of his grip on power.
Underlying factors for the discontent
The immediate reason for the protests was Sargysan’s attempt to continue keeping power in his hands as prime minister without term limits. However, he had been consistently losing the confidence his fellow citizens had in him since his first day in office as president. According to Caucasus Barometer, conducted by CRRC, popular trust in him slumped extremely low, from 53% in 2008, his first year in the presidential office, to 17% in 2017, while the percentage of those who distrusted him climbed from 30% to 66% in the same period. The long-term economic stagnation and social injustice in the country had been the underlying reasons for the discontent. Additionally, the losses Armenia had during the four-day escalation in April 2016 also triggered discussions about widespread corruption in the army and government’s failure to build a strong army - in general, many security-related questions in Armenian society, where security matters greatly in social spheres. In general, one can argue that during his time in power, Sargsyan’s government and himself as leader steadily lost people’s belief in their integrity and effectiveness, key factors for the erosion of political legitimacy.
Post-Sargsyan political turmoil
Although the protestors achieved Sargsyan’s resignation, by no means, the velvet revolution can be count as complete at the time of writing. Under the Nikol Pashinyan leadership, the street movement demands the formation of an interim government led by the “people’s candidate” and it to be followed by snap elections. Pashinyan has also expressed his readiness to take the job if people want him to do so.
Nevertheless, the still ruling party - Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), led by former deputy prime minister Karen Karapetyan, who served previously as chief executive of the Armenian-Russian joint venture ArmRosGazprom for nine years and worked for Gazprom in Russia from 2011 to 2016 and thus is known to be well linked to Putin’s administration, has resisted against Pashinyan’s demands.
Following the failed parliamentary republic gamble of Sargsyan for extending his rule, Karen Karapetyan has played his own gamble which is no less risky than Sargsyan’s. Reportedly, beginning from some point after the start of mass protests he covertly worked to fill streets with protestors until the resignation of Sargsyan on April 23, paving way for his premiership.
Following Sargsyan’s resignation, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (known primarily as Dashnaksutyun), withdrew its support from the ruling party. Even so, the RPA has the necessary number of seats (58, 53 is required) to get its candidate elected. On the same day, Gagik Tsarukyan, leader of the Tsarukyan block, an oligarch-politician who announced that he joined the protests and asked his supporters to join the protests, too. His late support for the protests could be just a sign of an attempt to “steal the revolution” with the Kremlin’s support. According to the Zhamanak newspaper, on April 27, Tsarukyan flew to Moscow to negotiate Moscow’s support to his candidacy. Unlike the ruling party which seems to have lost its popular base now, Tsarukyan’s block still enjoys popular support to a certain extent. This was seen as a factor that could make him a candidate the Kremlin would prefer over the RPA and Karen Karapetyan.
Nevertheless, Pashinyan, the leader of the street movement, has stated that no RPA candidate will be accepted by the protesters and that Armenia will have a people’s prime minister or none at all. Thus, the ruling elite with formal legitimacy is facing the most successful opposition campaign with a popular legitimacy in the streets since independence. The election of a new prime minister is scheduled to be held on May 1. After rallying in other cities of the country on 27-28 April, he returned to Yerevan and re-launched mass protests on 29 April. It is expected that after reaching the necessary size on 29-30 April the protesters will turn to 26 Marshal Baghramyan to the address of the parliament on May 1.
An absence of anti-Russian sentiments
Although neither Nikol Pashinyan nor any other leader of the movement depicted it as anti-Russian and no EU flags were waved in the protests, there is obviously no intention in Kremlin to support the election of Pashinyan to the post of prime minister. This alone may mean Putin might never support him. Pashinyan is not the kind of corrupt oligarch-politician Russia supports in the post-Soviet space. His “qualities” for the existing corruption-based system are neither tested nor proved. He is simply not the kind of leader Russia would support comfortably. We have never seen Russia supporting popular movement leaders in the post-Soviet space.
However, the protests have reached such a sheer size that it has become too costly for any other political stakeholder to reject it. The determination of the protesters and strong leadership is shown by Pashinyan have been key factors. Therefore, for the old ruling regime, it would cost an absolute loss of legitimacy, and the prolongation and deepen of the political crisis in the country, the result of which would be uncertain for any side. Although, as stated above, Nikol Pashinyan is not the kind of leader that would be immediately favored by the Kremlin, it would also be risky to reject the movement of such a scale. Protesters’ success against the Kremlin’s support of any other actor can damage Russia’s image in the Armenian society and strong ties between the states. Thus, the size of protests can be the decisive factor in the whole process.
On April 28, a Russian commission made of members of the State Duma visited Armenia and met with all political stakeholders, including Pashinyan himself. A day before, on April 27, in an apparent appeal to Russia, opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan stated openly that he would not pull Armenia out of Russian-led defense and trade blocs if he were to succeed in coming to power. This statement in particular and the general absence of any anti-Russian or pro-EU discourse in the protests can the second key decisive factor that might help Nikol Pashinyan to bring the Kremlin to recognize his power in the streets. Obviously, there is a certain reality in Armenia-Russia relations that would be hard for any upcoming government in Armenia to reject. Undoubtedly this is well understood in Armenia. Nonetheless, aiming at more profitable and beneficial conditions for Armenia could naturally lead to some revisions by a new government of “people’s candidate” to Armenia-Russia relations, even if not immediately.
On April 29, in front of protesters in the Republic Square in Yerevan, Pashinyan stated he had “a very constructive meeting with members of the Russian State Duma”, and that they” parted as friends”. He further added that “...Armenian-Russian relations will not only not suffer but they will deepen further…” This is a sign of the Kremlin’s recognition of the power of people in the streets of Yerevan and other cities of Armenia. This is key to break the resistance of the ruling party. Also, Russia might have learned a lesson from past experiences.
At the time of writing (the situation develops so quickly that this phrase will be used repeatedly in this article), the ARF, Prosperous Armenia, and Yelk Bloc have said they will support the people's candidate - Nikol Pashinyan, and the ruling Republican Party announced that it would not obstruct the vote. However, if all members of parliament other than those from the ruling party stick to this decision, he will still need six more votes from the ruling RPA. The successful meeting between Pashinyan and the Russian commission could have helped ARF and Prosperous make their minds up. However, there is a risk that if the parliament fails to elect a prime minister, the country will go to snap elections under the administration of RPA, which is not Pashinyan’s aim. This would put the fate of revolution still under question. Despite the RPA’s statement, there is still the possibility for them to put forward their own candidate and continue resisting the protesters already too many to be called a movement.
Nikol Pashinyan’s definitive success will depend on the number of people he can gather in front of the parliament on May 1. It will be too difficult and politically too costly for the ruling regime to crack down on hundreds of thousands of protesters and to drag the country into chaos. Currently, the movement, as well as the NGOs supporting it, have started a mailing campaign to RPA MPs asking them to recognize and respect the will of the nation.
In case, the parliament goes to elect an RPA candidate as prime minister, it is highly probable that the non-violent nature of the protests could change as a result of the crackdown attempts by security forces. Even if the ruling regime successfully ends the protests with the fierce use of force, this will further worsen the political crisis in the country and lead the country into greater uncertainty and a longer period of instability.
In general, it is clear that even if the current political crisis is successfully (which means peacefully) solved, Armenia will experience unstable parliamentary politics in the following decade. Nevertheless, even if unstable, parliamentary politics would bring the larger distribution of power within the Armenian society.
Pro-bono 1: What would a Pashinyan-led government promise for the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict?
Very little is known about the details of his and Civil Contract’s approach to the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict. Until the rally in Gyumri on 27 April, no mention was made of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict during the protests. In Gyumri, Pashinyan mentioned that “this powerful and spiritual nation is going to be victorious in the Karabakh conflict”.
His choice of keeping silent over the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict could well be a matter of strategy as the movement has been strictly keeping any issue of foreign policy out of the protest discourse so that they do not get any foreign reaction. The movement is depicted as concerned only with domestic issues. No European aspirations, no Karabakh.
Secondly, they might not have a detailed vision on the conflict and therefore, would not wish to express any view that might not work later.
Thirdly, even if Pashinyan and his team have a detailed view on the conflict they might not wish to disclose it at such a moment when anything can be misunderstood, misinterpreted or used for manipulation. Finally, expression of any view on the conflict might put them in a difficult situation before those who are comparatively liberal, among which there is an NGO community, conservatives, and between Yerevanians and the Karabakh clan.
Nevertheless, two things should be considered. First, during the protests, Nikol Pashinyan met with the leader of the regime in Karabakh and thanked him for keeping his neutrality. If the leader of the regime in Karabakh sensed or knew anything against the interests of his regime about Nikol, he would not have met him.
Secondly, when Levon Ter-Petrosyan talked about his ‘peace program’ on the eve of parliamentary elections in 2017, Pashinyan accused him of having a softer position, saying that “...following peaceful program of Levon Ter-Petrosyan... the Armenian side could never get the recognition of Artsakh independence” and that “speaking about the bilateral concessions, the first President dissembles, because the Azerbaijani side is not ready for them, moreover, it does not accept two of three basic principles: the self-determination right of the nation and not using force or menace. The Government of Azerbaijan talks about the intentions of drinking tea in Stepanakert and Yerevan, thus, the given program only approaches the implementation of Baku plans." It is worth remembering that former president Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s approach is supportive de-occupation of the regions adjacent to Karabakh.
In any case, as said by one Azerbaijani philosopher, it is difficult to imagine Pashinyan’s meeting with Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev: both are sharp and rigid. Under Nikol’s leadership, the Armenian position in negotiations could be more resistant and insisting, sharper and determined, but probably also more sincere than Sargsyan’s leadership. Moreover, negotiating with the government of a parliamentary republic would not be easy for Azerbaijan as it would always have to inform other parliamentary parties and face their criticism.
Pro-bono 2: What else has this (incomplete bv April 29) revolution tested?
The thus far incomplete Armenia revolution is also a test of the widely held perception in both Armenian and Azerbaijani societies that the “Karabakh card” can be played by the regime as a last resort to keep their powers. So far this has been proved not true. As the developments unfolded it was clear that it is too risky for the Armenian regime to play the “Karabakh card” as the regime lacks the necessary resources and capacity to successfully and convincingly use it. There were some limited attempts to use it in the media but the government did not dare to fully utilize it, as it was not certain such a move could play into the hands of the government but not the opposition, in particular considering the loss of trust in the capacity of the Armenian government after the April 2016 escalation.
As put by one Azerbaijani civil society member, the idea of “peaceful transformation of political regimes as a viable option in the region despite all the hype around the arguments of stability and security” is tested in the Armenian Velvet Revolution. In other words, the civil power of people as a game changer in the post-Soviet space is being tested.
It was also a challenging period to regional political analysts who, with their all-Russia or -West and elitist approaches, fail to necessarily estimate the social-economic and political developments in society, and who by doing this, contribute to the construction of an existing political culture that depicts citizens as powerless and politics far away from them.