Newly elected Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan has been forced to resign after almost two weeks of public protests. Sargsyan, who has close ties to President Putin, was accused of attempting to grab power after already serving two terms as President of Armenia.
Armenia is a landlocked country in the South Caucasus region between Europe and Asia. It is bordered by the Turkey in the west, Georgia in the north, and Azerbaijan in the south and east. Armenia was one of the first Christian civilizations, with some of its churches dating back to the fourth century. It has been a part of the Roman, Arab, Byzantine, Persian, Mongolian, and Ottoman empires.
During World War I, the country faced what it considers a mass genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks instituted a policy of forced resettlement coupled with other harsh practices that resulted in approximately 1 million Armenian deaths. A number of Armenians resettled in modern day Syria. When the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I, Armenia emerged as an independent nation. However, soon after, in 1922, it was incorporated into the Soviet Union (USSR).
In 1988, Armenia entered into conflict with Azerbaijan, in a dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh territory. The conflict lasted five years. Armenia ceded from the Soviet Union in 1991 with a 94% referendum. Russia brokered a peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1994, which was partly successful, and there were attempts made to normalise Armenia’s diplomatic ties with Turkey in 2009. However, Armenia’s ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey have remained tense, and Armenia is economically isolated from both these nations. In 2013, Armenia chose to join the Russian-led Customs Union as opposed to the European Union, strengthening its bond with Moscow.
Today, Armenia has a population of over 3 million, of which 92.6% is Armenian Apostolic Christian. Approximately half the population works in the service industry. In 2017, the population was growing at a 3.5% rate. Its primary exports include metals such as unwrought copper and pig iron, machinery, diamonds, and other mineral products.
Serzh Sargsyan was first elected as President in 2008. He won a second term as in 2013, and has been in power for a decade. Sargsyan is known to be a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2015, a public referendum backed constitutional changes reducing the powers of the President in favour of the premiership. Armenia moved from a presidential to a parliamentary system. The opposition claimed that the move allowed Sargsyan to remain in power, and Sargsyan vowed “not to seek any high office if the constitutional change passed".
The ruling Republican Party of Armenia did not keep this promise. Sargsyan was voted into power in April 2018, as Prime Minister. Russian President Putin reportedly called Sargsyan to congratulate him on this victory.
Armenian Prime Minister Serzh recently resigned after 11 days of protests. The Opposition had accused Sargsyan of attempting to cling to power. Wide-spread protests demanding his resignation broke out on the 13th of April. Over 100,000 protestors joined in on rallies across the country. Three opposition politicians and approximately 200 demonstrators were arrested during the course of the protests. On the 23rd of this month, soldiers joined in on the anti-government protests in the capital Yerevan, and Sargsyan announced his resignation. Former PM Karen Karapetian was named as acting Prime Minister.
"The street movement is against my office. I will fulfil your claim," Sargsyan said in a statement announcing his resignation. "I was wrong," he said. "The situation has several solutions, but I will not take any of them... I am leaving office of the country's leader, of prime minister." Sargsyan’s spokesperson told the BBC that the resignation was "a clear demonstration of a democracy in force.” “It's not that every demonstration in every corner of the world leads to the resignation of the authorities,” he said.
Despite Sargsyan's resignation protests continued on Wednesday as demonstrators called for opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan to be the next Prime Minister. According to a Russian statement President Putin spoke with Armenian President, Armen Sarkissian emphasising the need for "restraint & responsbility".
According to media reports, Russian officials noted that this was a domestic affair. “Why should Moscow interfere?” asked spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. "The people who have the strength to keep respect toward each other despite crucial differences and stay united even in the most difficult moments of its history is a great people," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook.
Russia has previously blamed the West for uprisings in Ukraine and Georgia. Armenia saw wide-spread protests in 2015 over rising fuel costs. At the time, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “You know how the color revolutions, and the Maidan in Ukraine started.” Russia claims that the CIA played a role in starting anti-Russian protests.
Analysts have called Sargsyan’s resignation a “blow” to Russian foreign policy. Some have noted that similar protests have sparked a change in leadership in a number of ex-Soviet nations, including Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. American media called the move “a blow to the authoritarian political model promoted by Mr. Putin.” The Russian President is also known to switch positions between President and Prime Minister in order to avoid certain constitutional limits.
Others have expressed their opinion that these protests had a limited scope, and thus Russian interference is unlikely. Lilit Gevorgyan, from IHS Markit said that any change brought on by protests would be a “cosmetic solution” if the country did not also address underlying issues such as corruption, nepotism, and “the flawed oligarchic model.”
Our assessment is that these protests may be a step towards democratization. The Armenian people have used their voices to participate in democracy. However, we believe that even with a change in leadership, Armenia’s foreign policy may not see much change. Armenia has been one of Russia’s closest allies, and the two nations have maintained positive relations since the end of the Soviet era. Additionally, Russia and Armenia have strong economic and security ties. Armenia remains reliant on Russia for its energy supply, and Russia is its largest trading partner.