Give Peace a Chance: Armenia's Nonviolent Regime Change
by Ani Oganesian
Protest demonstrations against Serzh Sargsyan in April 2018
Photo by Gardmanahay
"I was wrong. There are other solutions in this situation. But they are not for me <> As the leader of the country, I appeal to the public for the last time. The street movement is against my figure. I fulfill your demand", said Serzh Sargsyan and left the office. He was appointed the Armenia's prime minister just a week earlier.
Before that, Sargsyan headed the country as its president for ten years. A former officer of Karabakh war, he resigned after ten days of protests that were held against him all over Armenia. The demonstrations were later called a "velvet revolution" and "a triumph of democracy" by the world's most extensive media.

"It was almost inconceivable after Russia's violent reaction to Ukrainian "Revolution of Dignity" 2014 that tiny Armenia, a largely Moscow-friendly nation, would attempt a revolution of its own," said Bloomberg analyst Leonid Bershidsky.

In fact, Russia is famous for its position on regime changes in many countries across the globe. Events in Ukraine were not the only Russian violent act in former USSR countries. Russia also attempted a war in the neighboring of Armenia Georgia in 2008. Somehow, this is not Armenia's case.

"Armenia, Russia will always be with you!", wrote on her Facebook page Russia's spokeswoman Maria Zakharova when events in Armenia followed the resignation of its PM Serzh Sargsyan. Allies in various geopolitical and economic unions, the countries have always had close relations. How come Russia takes such restrained and calm position about the situation in Armenia today as if this was not about the state where its interest is so clear?

"Revolution of Peace and Goodness"

Armenians took the streets in protest of Sargsyan's appointment as the PM. According to the Armenian law, he was not eligible for the presidency as he was governing the country for ten years. After a constitutional change approved in 2015, Armenia became a parliamentary republic, offering more authority to the prime minister rather than the president. The position of the prime minister would allow Sargsyan not only to continue being the head of the country but also expand his power over it.

Particularly outraged was the fact that before the reform, Sargsyan publicly promised not to run for the prime minister's post. But he broke his promise, eventually. The movement "Take a Step, Reject Serzh" began when the catalyst of the protest, deputy of the Armenian parliament Nikol Pashinyan, started a two-week walking tour through Armenia. During his trip, he urged all Armenians to join the movement against Sargsyan and his Republican Party.

Thousands of supporters waited for him for when he arrived at his final destination, Yerevan. Protesters broke into the building of the Armenian public radio, blocked central streets of the city, and Pashinyan announced a "velvet revolution" in the country.

The movement soon was taken on a mass character, uniting people of all social classes and ages. For the next ten days, the center of Yerevan was continuously blocked. During the demonstrations, people on the stage spoke about the unity of the Armenian people, about mutual respect, about the fact that people should not be blamed if they have different views. Besides, they asked not to abuse the police and the army.

The police was very kind too. There was no use of force and not so many arrests. A slogan from some student's poster that said, "Long Live the Revolution of Love and Kindness" was picked up from the stage at the rally on April 24. It was known by this time about Sargsyan's leave.

In theory, Sargsyan was able to suppress the demonstrations by force. "The Armenian [citizen] in Sargsyan took the upper hand over a high-ranking official. Choosing between power actions and leaving, the second option was given preference", says Sergei Markedonov, Associate Professor at Russian State Humanitarian University.

Kind-Hearted Authoritarianism

Mass protests against the authorities in Armenia are common. Thus, in 2008, thousands of people took to the streets because of dissatisfaction with the victory in the election of President Serzh Sargsyan over the first president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who moved into opposition. The movement came to its end on March 1, when ten demonstrators were shot dead, and many others were arrested.

Non-political demonstrations were usually more successful. In 2015, the protesters blocked the street of Baghramyan in the center of Yerevan against the increase of electricity tariffs, after that the issue was discussed at the level of the president, the increase in fares was suspended. In 2016, residents of Gokht village of Kotayk region of Armenia blocked Garni-Geghard road, protesting against the construction project. After the arrival of the Prime Minister to the spot, the construction was stopped.

Artak Kirakosian, the director of Armenian Institute of Civil Society, calls the Armenian form of the government "kindhearted authoritarianism". In comparison to other authoritarian countries, Armenia is a particular case. There are not so many restrictions on the media, demonstrations and NGO's as in different authoritarian regimes.

Paul Stronski, a political researcher from Carnegie Center, agrees. According to Stronski, Armenia has not adopted any of the two paradigms of development characteristic of most states of the former USSR. The system in Armenia allows the existence of a public space where one can discuss the problems of the country and criticize its leadership. Electoral and constitutional instruments of the influence of civil society on politics are still limited, but sometimes it manages to get concessions from the authorities.

Human rights organization Freedom House in its report "Freedom in the World" for 2018 classified Armenia as "partially free state," and that is the same category as Western-oriented Soviet countries: Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Between Europe and Russia

Armenia is also a particular case regarding geopolitics. In recent years, it has been customary (especially after the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine) to consider any foreign policy developments in the countries of the former USSR as a choice between Russia and the West. Quite often, this choice is served as a competition of different value systems.

In case of Armenia, it is the only country that maintains a balance in its relations with both the European Union and Russia. For instance, in 2013 Armenia was expected to sign an association agreement with the European Union that would create a free trade zone, just like Ukraine did. But two months before that, Sargsyan met with Putin and then announced that Armenia would be joining the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) instead.

But in 2017, Yerevan was able to make up for the U-turn, signing an association agreement with the EU. It excludes, however, the trade partnership of the original document. Russia officially expressed its support for the deal. The Armenian-EU agreement did not contain the condition "either Russia or Europe," as in the Ukrainian case since both Armenia and the European Union did not want to provoke a conflict with Russia. But this agreement can be one of the reasons for Putin's indifference to Sargsyan's figure now, as his attitude is still a symptom of the fact that there was no idyll in Russian-Armenian relations.

It can be said, that the response to the agreement was Russia's supply of arms to Azerbaijan. The Armenian side was, of course, very unhappy with this, but publicly sought to mitigate the adverse effect. But Armenia is also very connected to Russia with its human resource. More Armenians live overseas (8 millions) than in Armenia (only 3 million).

Armenia is an impoverished nation. The living standard in Armenia is one of the lowest, if not the lowest in the former Soviet Union countries. The average salary is 183 thousand drams (slightly more than $380). The unemployment rate in recent years ranges from 16% to 19%. The initial family allowance for unemployment is 18 thousand drams (about $35). Over the past ten years, more than 200 thousand people (of almost 3 million population of the country) left the country in search of a better life. The state debt of the country has considerably grown — now it has approached a mark of $7 billion. The authorities can not cope with corruption. Emigration has assumed almost mass character, depopulation is taking place in the country, according to Armenian Sociological Association.

The most numerous Armenian diaspora is in Russia. Ruining relations with more than 3 millions Armenians in Russia would be a big mistake, as Armenians hold posts everywhere — from general workers to managers of Russian state companies. The recent protests united people of all social classes, including the rich. So even if among the local elite, there is no readiness to support Sargsyan with the use of force, how can Russia intervene?

Nevertheless, it is clear that Russia is not happy with Armenia's choices. "There is little doubt that Moscow is extremely irritated by what is happening. Imagine that Putin will have to accept the leader of the crowd — Nikol Pashinyan — in the Kremlin: it contradicts the entire ideology of the Russian government", argues political observer of Kommersant FM Dmitry Drize.

But in his opinion, for Russia, any interference will have harmful consequences. The West, who has not paid too much of attention to Armenia, will immediately wake up. Russia's relations with the West are not at their best recently. In fact, Russia's economy went down under US and European sanctions. Any attempt to strangle the democratic process in a small republic means even more sanctions, and another set off with the West.

Not Many Choices

Even if Pashinyan, a Moscow-skeptic leader of the crowd, who is an open opponent for Armenia's alliance with Russia, becomes the head of the country, he will have to deal with Russia, as its influence on Armenia remains extraordinary.

Armenia's case can be compared to Kyrgyzstan. When there were similar events in Kyrgyzstan, due to its remoteness (like Armenia, which does not have a border with Russia), and its geopolitical dependence on Russia, the attention and urgency of the Kremlin's reaction was also much calmer than in case of Ukraine or Georgia.

In official Russia, there is a certainty that no matter what happens, as a result of Armenian revolution, the country has not many choices concerning geopolitics. Any government of the country will have to maintain allied relations with Moscow, so as not to be alone between Turkey and Azerbaijan. It's unlikely that all Armenians enjoy Russia's military presence. But they understand that this is an opportunity to prevent Azerbaijani revenge in Karabakh. "Armenia continues depending on Russia for its energy, weapons, and trade," argues public activist and publisher Harout Sassounian.

However, not everyone views Russian position as single-valued as it may seem. This was reflected when Russian officials visited Armenia after four days of the revolution. "Russia's position is dual. Russia is afraid that this process, a constitutional precedent of the regime change will somehow transfer to its borders. Russians may say: why Armenians can, and we can't?", argues Andranik Tevanyan, a head of the Political Economy Research Institute.

Whereas it is likely for Armenia that "peace and goodness" will take over, Russia without a single thought to interfere should consider its own future. As Leonid Bershidsky says, "Putin needs to think hard about the finale of his own presidential career. According to the Russian constitution, that is scheduled for 2024".
About the author: Ani graduated from Moscow State University with a Bachelor degree in Journalism, with major in Media Management and minors in International Journalism and American Studies. She will specialize in Political Communication at the University of Amsterdam. Ani has worked as news and story writer in independent Russian media such as financial newspaper RBC, city guide and lifestyle Afisha magazine and in socio-political publication Meduza. Ani also has an experience in politics as she has worked for a major Russian opposition party.

Ani Oganesian
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