Armenian protesters brought down a prime minister

Supporters of Armenia’s protest leader Nikol Pashinyan rally in downtown Yerevan on Thursday. (Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of Armenia’s protest leader Nikol Pashinyan rally in downtown Yerevan on Thursday. (Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty Images)

This month, mass protests in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, have forced the prime minister to resign — and put this nation’s political future up in the air.

The unrest began in March after then-President Serzh Sargsyan, leader of the ruling party, tried to circumvent limits on his power. Facing term limits as president, Sargsyan changed the government to a parliamentary system and stepped into the position of prime minister. Nikol Pashinyan, a member of the Armenian legislature, launched a public campaign to stop him. Intense street protests forced Sargsyan to resign after less than a week in the post of prime minister.

So what is going on?

Here’s the background

Once part of the Soviet Union, Armenia has spent most of the past 20 years as a soft authoritarian state in which the ruling elite has closely controlled political and economic opportunities. Although the country is nominally democratic, all democratic institutions, including elections and the mainstream media, have been controlled by the ruling Republican Party and its leaders since 1999.

Sargsyan has led the country as president since 2008 and was facing constitutional limits on his term in 2018. And so in 2013, he launched a constitutional review that transformed the country from a semi-presidential system into a parliamentary republic, giving the prime minister most powers formerly invested in the president. What’s more, a new electoral system was introduced that grants disproportionate advantages to the ruling Republican Party, easing its ability to form a stable parliamentary majority.

Protests started in March as part of a wave of self-organized, nonviolent acts of civil disobedience across Armenia. In a country marked by low trust in democratic institutions, record-high levels of poverty and corruption, the protesters unified around calls for Sargsyan’s resignation. More profound was that Armenians demanded justice, dignity, the rule of law and the end of government corruption.

The protests were distinctly peaceful, drawing tens of thousands of people into the streets. After Sargasyan stepped down on Monday, people celebrated with barbecues and champagne in the streets — and then continued protesting, demanding that Nikol Pashinyan be approved as prime minister and that the ruling Republican Party be dismissed from parliament.

According to the Constitution, if the prime minister resigns, the parliamentary factions have seven days to nominate candidates for prime minister. As political negotiations continue, Nikol Pashinyan has announced that he is the only legitimate candidate for the prime minister’s post. The Republican Party has announced it will not nominate a candidate. The speaker of the parliament has already called for the vote on the prime minister’s election May 1. To win, a candidate needs 53 of the parliament’s 105 votes.

The Republican Party has 58 members, giving it an absolute majority. That means that even if all other parliamentary factions unify to vote for Pashinyan, the protest leader, he cannot become prime minister without at least six Republican votes. While the Republicans are unlikely to risk nominating one of their own, given the mass street mobilizations against them, protesters fear that if Pashinyan is rejected as prime minister twice, according to the law, snap parliamentary elections have to be organized within 45 days.

However, major reforms in electoral institutions and law enforcement bodies are needed to make it possible to organize elections in line with democratic standards. Protesters fear that if snap elections are held, the Republican Party will exploit its control of the executive branch and its inbuilt advantages in the electoral system to falsify the vote and continue to dominate the country.

Why have the protests been so successful?

Armenia is far from alone among former Soviet nations in being a poor, ill-governed country dominated by an oligarchic political system. As has been true in most of these countries, major street protests hardly seemed possible just a few years ago. This movement has emerged gradually from steady growth in citizen activism and growing cooperation between civic activist groups and the political opposition.

In part, this new activism seems to have been the result of the rise of a new generation that has no memory of the Soviet period and was not part of the “transition” generation.

The movement’s success has largely depended on the tactics and tools of networked protests that we have seen the world over. Using social media and networks of students, employees of big and small companies, civil society organizations and many others, the protesters organized multiple actions simultaneously in many cities throughout the country. During the day, the protesters undertook such activities as blocking streets, public transportation and government buildings; each evening, protesters held massive gatherings in big squares.

As was the case in the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, these public gatherings and meetings helped build the movement gradually. In coming together at the end of each day to discuss events and agree on further steps, activists started face-to-face communication among a range of previously isolated societal groups. Many activists report to us that the streets were transformed into open educational spaces in which citizens cooperated to reject the ruling regime, peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and spontaneously creating acts of protest.

Unlike the Ukrainian revolution, however, the Armenian protests have so far remained strictly nonviolent. This has proved highly effective; when police became violent, using stun grenades, arbitrary detention and excessive force against protesters and reporters, the protests remained peaceful — attracting even more people to the streets.

What comes next?

As protests continue, the political elite seem to be abandoning Sargsyan and uniting in support of Pashinyan and opposition forces. Two parliamentary factions, Tsarukyan Dashink and Yelk, have announced that they support the movement. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnakcutyun party left the government coalition; its members resigned from government posts on Thursday. A party leader said that, while there’s not yet a final decision, they will most likely support Pashinyan.

Meanwhile, Sargsyan has resigned from the leadership of the Republican Party. Because he was the figure who united the otherwise divergent interests of the party’s oligarchs, that puts the party’s support in jeopardy. During an open meeting in Yerevan’s Republic Square, Pashinyan announced that a number of Republican members are ready to defect if protests continue. Most movement leaders now support trying to install Pashinyan as prime minster, giving them time to implement legislative electoral reforms before holding new elections.

If the experience of Ukraine and other post-Soviet states is any guide, Armenia will find it an arduous task to deliver on its citizens’ demands. The oligarchs and other entrenched interests will push hard to retain their privileges in any new system. For the protests to result in meaningful political and economic reforms, elections will need to be observed, and civil society will need to continue to work with the government and the international community.

Mariam Matevosyan is a Magdalena Yesil fellow and a master’s candidate in international development at Duke University, Sanford School of Public Policy.
Graeme Robertson is a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author (with Samuel A. Greene) of the forthcoming book, “On Thin Ice: Putin, Power and the Russian People,” which will be published by Yale University Press in 2019.

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