This article was co-written with Movses Ter-Oganesyan.
Late last month, Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan officially resigned amid reams of anti-government protests across the nation.
The impetus behind the non-violent demonstrations was a deliberate power grab by Sargsyan.
The leader of the protests against the government, MP Nikol Pashinyan, is set to be elected Prime Minister on May 8.
With the end of his second (and final) term as president in sight, Sargsyan held a referendum in December 2015 proposing a constitutional amendment to adopt the idea of a parliamentary republic — meaning constituents would vote for MPs to represent their respective regions and the MPs themselves elect the prime minister, the most powerful position in the country. The parliamentary system would effectively eliminate the previously existing term limit on the head of state. Sargsyan, however, assured Armenians that under the new system he would honor his term limit and not seek re-election.
In March 2018, as Armenians went to the polls, Sargsyan’s Republican Party (HHK) won majority seats in parliament. Soon after, reneging on his promise to retire from high office, Sargsyan was elected prime minister by the HHK members of parliament.
There were early fears that Sargsyan would appoint a figurehead PM and rule the country from the position of president, much like the Russian musical chairs between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in 2008. However, Sargsyan’s move was out of Turkish president Recep Erdogan’s playbook; Erdogan held a similar referendum in April 2017. Erdogan switched Turkey’s system of governance from a parliamentary republic to a presidential one in order to remain head of state.
In a riveting rebuke to Sargsyan’s attempts at consolidating power, large-scale protests shut down the nation’s capital, Yerevan. The leader of the anti-corruption movement is MP and head of the Civil Contract Party, Nikol Pashinyan. As the mastermind behind the grassroots movement, Pashinyan is the only person who’s put forth his candidacy for the prime minister’s position. With chants of “Nikol, Prime Minister!” bellowing over the capitol and crowds referring to him as “peoples’ choice,” Pashinyan has the unanimous approval of almost the entire nation.
On April 23, in a stunning victory for the Armenian people, Sargsyan capitulated to the protesters’ demands, saying, “I was wrong, while Nikol Pashinyan was right” as he stepped down from office. The day was of huge symbolic importance to Armenians as it came one day before Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, April 24. Armenians did not want to protest on that national day of mourning, and to everyone’s astonishment, it became a day of political rebirth one day before the anniversary of the darkest chapter in the nation’s history.
Sargsyan’s ouster became one of the handful of times in history that a sitting head of state resigned due to peaceful protest with no dissidents harmed or hurt by government police (take notes, world). Protesters would even gather to clean the capitol before commencing the protests, which consisted in large part of BBQing and dancing in the street.
Subsequent to the premier’s resignation, Pashinyan turned his sights to dismantling the ruling HHK party. The protests — dubbed the “Velvet Revolution”— grew in scope, seeking to rid the country of the corrupt politicians who use the nation’s political institutions to enrich themselves. Like much of the post-Soviet space, Armenia is plagued by oligarchs who consolidated vast amounts of wealth during the privatization that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s no mystery why Russia’s president Vladimir Putin favors the status quo across Armenia’s political landscape. His ability to exert influence on the ostensibly sovereign post-Soviet Armenia takes Putin back to his real aspiration, the revival of the halcyon days of the vast Soviet empire.
Refusing to accept their government’s corrupt condition, the protests changed course once again, now pressuring MPs into electing Pashinyan as the prime minister. Yerevan, the country’s capital, drew an estimated crowd of 150,000 people. This is staggering when considering Armenia’s population consists of less than three million people. With all roads in and out of the capital blocked, airport staff preceded to shut down Zvartnots Airport.
Regardless of all this, on May 1, when the MPs convened to vote for the next prime minister, Pashinyan fell eight votes short of the required 53 for a majority. A second vote is scheduled to be held seven days after the first (May 8); failure to elect a prime minister for the second time will result in the dissolution of parliament. However, on May 2, HHK officially announced that on May 8 it will support whichever candidate garners one-third of the parliament’s votes.
This unprecedented turn of events has not been lost on Armenia’s dictatorial arch-foe, Azerbaijan. As early as April 22, Azerbaijan moved heavy military hardware and manpower to the line of contact which separates the de facto Armenian province of Artsakh. Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh Republic) has been under Armenian control since 1994 and has been striving for international recognition of its self-determination from Azerbaijan. While Azerbaijan scouts for an opportunity to take advantage of the political turmoil in Armenia, there is anxiety about a similar revolution taking hold in the country. Some analysts believe that President Aliyev of Azerbaijan may move for a localized offensive similar to the one Azerbaijan launched in April 2016 to take pressure off its internal issues.
The now near certain but previously unthinkable election of Nikol Pashinyan, a politician beholden to no foreign governments or special interests, as prime minister shines a bright light into Armenia’s future; for the first time in decades there is hope that Armenia, the world’s first Christian nation, will gain greater independence from post-Soviet Russia with the hope of removing its own post-Soviet vestiges. This is with the hope that Pashinyan will in fact “drain the swamp” — and of course: Make Armenia Great Again.
This article was co-written with Movses Ter-Oganesyan. Movses is a fellow at the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute. His area of expertise encompasses the wider Caucasus as well as American Foreign Policy.