BACKGROUND: Despite President Sargsyan’s promise to discontinue his rule of the state after his second presidential term, there is little doubt that he was planning to become the next prime minister with full executive power. Between January and April, the National Assembly rubber-stamped a number of legal amendments further extending the prime minister’s authority. When Sargsyan’s presidential term expired on April 9, he was officially nominated by the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) as the only candidate for the post of prime minister, as suggested previously (see the 12/29/15 Issue of the CACI Analyst).
In 2003, 2008, and 2013, presidential elections accompanied by election fraud led to mass protests with demands to revise the results. Abandoning direct presidential elections and transition to a parliamentary system was probably considered the safest option for retaining power. As the amended constitution included a “stable majority” clause, the new Electoral Code was designed in order to provide a bonus for the largest party, thus RPA’s hegemony could be secured by a disproportionate advantage. This tactic seemed successful, as both the constitutional referendum and the 2017 parliamentary elections took place without significant mobilization among the opposition.
However, a new protest movement called “Make a move, reject Serzh” managed to overturn this state of affairs. The movement was initiated by Nikol Pashinyan, whose party, the Civil Contract, is a member of the Way Out bloc (see the 06/09/17 Issue of the CACI Analyst).
The civil disobedience movement started on March 31, when Pashinyan and roughly a dozen supporters started a march from Armenia’s second largest city, Gyumri, to Yerevan. Demonstrations began in Yerevan on April 13, university students went on strike, and other citizens gradually joined. The movement obtained a stronger momentum as the protesters attempted to block the National Assembly building on April 17 in order to prevent voting in favor of Sargsyan. Social networks and other information technologies played a pivotal role in organizing and coordinating the protests, on a level unprecedented in Armenia.
On April 20, when the number of people gathering in Yerevan every evening approached 100,000, the protesters announced their demands: Prime Minister Sargsyan’s resignation, the appointment of a provisional government headed by person nominated by the protesters, and snap parliamentary elections. On April 21, Sargsyan agreed to meet with Pashinyan next day, but the meeting was very short. Pashinyan demanded resignation; Sargsyan in turn threatened a possible repeat of the events of March 1, 2008, when 10 people were killed as the army engaged post-election protests, and immediately left the meeting.
Shortly afterwards, police arrested Pashinyan and two other MPs representing the Civic Contract, several known activists, and a number of other demonstrators. The total number of arrests exceeded 250 in one day. However, the same evening an even larger gathering took place at the Republic Square in Yerevan, despite fears of a possible attempt by the authorities to break up the protests by force. Another gathering in the city center started in the morning of April 23, in parallel with road blocking actions throughout the city. In the early afternoon, Pashinyan and other MPs were released from custody, followed shortly afterwards by the news about Sargsyan’s resignation, causing euphoria and spontaneous celebrations.
IMPLICATIONS: On April 24, Pashinyan held a press conference where he particularly underscored his determination to insist on snap elections. He also stated that no foreign states or other entities had been involved in the movement, and that there was no need to look for a geopolitical component. Moreover, he requested an investigation of the March 1, 2008, events and highlighted the need to take measures against corruption and to dismantle economic monopolies in order to revive the economy, yet without attempts to redistribute wealth. Concerning foreign policy, he mentioned the need to proceed with the implementation of the EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement, and proposed a multi-vector policy aiming to develop relations with different partners but not at the expense of relations with others. He did not indicate a changed position on Armenia’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or the status of the Russian military base in a short-term perspective. These views are consistent with those he expressed previously as party leader.
Generally, avoiding any mention of a geopolitical choice has been a distinctive feature of the protest campaign. This cautious approach is understandable in light of the uncertainty, until the climax on April 23, as to whether Sargsyan would attempt to use force, like his predecessor Robert Kocharyan in 2008, or even request assistance from Russia. In 2011, Sargsyan signed an agreement within the CSTO framework allowing Russia to participate in the suppression of “anti-constitutional revolts” threatening stability in CSTO member states.
While Sargsyan did not seek to enforce his will through Russian military assistance, Moscow showed remarkable restraint during the demonstrations in Yerevan, although Russian TV and some politicians speculated about a possible deterioration of bilateral relations. There likely was an understanding that none of Armenian political forces would risk leaving the CSTO or otherwise disappointing Russia in the current situation. Acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan – a former Gazprom executive – made an attempt to occupy the office permanently, sending one of his deputies and the minister of foreign affairs to negotiate with Russian officials in Moscow. Then, on April 27-28, a 10-member group representing both chambers of the Russian State Duma (Parliament) held meetings with members of the National Assembly of Armenia in Yerevan, and Russian emissaries attempted to intimidate Pashinyan. Yet, Pashinyan refused to give in, and managed to further increase the number of protesters. Shortly afterwards, Karapetyan accepted he had to forfeit his ambitions.
As the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashaktsutyun (ARF) left the coalition with the RPA, and the second largest parliamentary fraction – the Tsarukyan Bloc joined the protesters, on April 30 the RPA fraction members met with Pashinyan and, despite their contemptuous behavior during the meeting, agreed that on May 1 they would vote for him. Yet, around midnight, Pashinyan broadcasted a live video, telling that according to insider information, RPA representatives would not keep their promise. Indeed, during the plenary session on May 1, RPA representatives engaged in an attempt of character killing which looked as if their main audience was in Russia, as they specifically focused on speculations about Pashinyan’s possible lack of trust in Russia-centered institutions, especially the Eurasian Economic Union. Eventually, Pashinyan got 45 votes, falling eight votes short from getting the prime ministerial post. On May 2, a general strike started, with no automobile traffic in Yerevan between 8 a.m. and 5 p. m.
Such an important issue as keeping the army out of domestic politics has so far been solved, although a few days before Sargsyan’s resignation some media reports emerged on the movement of heavy military equipment in Azerbaijan, with speculations of a possible imminent violation of the ceasefire, and Minister of Defense Vigen Sargsyan hinted on the possibility of using force against the protesters whose destabilizing actions allegedly threatened national security. Officers from units deployed near the borders wrote in social networks that their units would not leave their posts and move towards larger cities inland. On April 23, some soldiers from the peacekeeping brigade stationed in Yerevan, whose members have been deployed in Kosovo, Iraq, and elsewhere, left the barracks and joined a marching demonstration. Soon thereafter, Sargsyan announced his resignation and protesters greeted the soldiers’ move amidst the general euphoria, yet protest leaders soon called upon the military to stand aside from the ongoing events.
CONCLUSIONS: Thus far, the most important feature of the ongoing developments has been avoiding bloodshed, thereby leaving room for a democratic transition and reconciliation. However, it remains to be seen how the transition will be managed, considering the existing parliamentary majority and possible attempts by Sargsyan to rule from behind the curtain as chair of the RPA. The National Assembly has to attempt appointing a prime minister by May 8, or snap elections will be announced. However, in that case the election code advantageous for the RPA will remain in place. Therefore, protesters may remain in the streets in order to maintain pressure on the authorities to fulfill their demands. Pashinyan’s plan is to amend the election code and to hold snap elections afterwards.
Elections free from customary fraud could be a decisive move towards restoring the trust in political institutions, which could in turn stimulate modernization, economic growth and social development, and prevent further frustration and emigration. In order to ensure free and fair elections, it will be necessary to reach a consensus on removing the bias embedded in the current election code, ensuring that no other supermajority will replace the RPA.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Armen Grigoryan is an Armenian political scientist, and the author of several book chapters, journal articles, and policy papers. His research interests include post-communist transition, EU relations with Eastern Partnership countries, transatlantic relations, energy security, and conflict transformation.
Image source: By: en.kremlin.ru, accessed on 5.2. 2018