April 24, 2018 – Fort Russ News –
By Eduard Popov, translated by Jafe Arnold –
On April 23rd, the Prime Minister of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, resigned, a decision which put an end to the confrontation dragging on in Yerevan and throughout the country.
Since the beginning of April, Armenia has been rocked with protests against Serzh Sargsyan, formerly president, being elected head of state. Sargsyan, to recall, has been in power for 10 years, and in 2015 he initiated constitutional reform with which Armenia transitioned to a parliamentary form of government in which the prime minister wields the broadest powers and heads the whole system of government, while the president is restricted to representative functions and monitoring constitutional compliance. In this model, the president has the right to hold his post for no more than one seven-year term, whereas the prime minister can be re-elected an unlimited number of times.
Thus, Sargsyan had effectively prepared a platform for staying in power, and as a result of his constitutional “inflation”, the presidency lost its appeal, the levers of power having passed into the hands of the prime minister. As opposition politicians and experts predicted, this was a move known in chess as “castling” and Sargsyan retained the status of the leader of Armenia.
It is no surprise that in such a politically turbulent country as Armenia which is, despite all its shortcomings, the most democratic country in the Transcaucasian region, such a “castling” caused mass discontent. On April 13th, protests broke out in Yerevan which were immediately dubbed an Armenian Maidan. Supporters of the opposition party Civil Contract headed by Nikol Pashinian, blocked the center of Yerevan and set up a tent camp. After some time, other large Armenian cities joined the protest wave, thus raising the number of protesters to several thousand. The police largely refrained from risking to use force against the opposition. Clashes with protesters were sporadic and did not take on such a ferocious character as in Ukraine or Belarus.
On April 23rd, several dozen soldiers from a peacekeeping brigade joined the protests. On this day, opposition leaders that had been detained, such as Pashinian, were released.
Observers in Armenia and Russia have assessed Pashinian’s motives variously. Some believe that Pashinian is a typical “color revolution” leader, while others are more cautious. It is worth noting that Armenia, a country of only three million people, hosts one of the largest US embassies in the world with a total of more than 2,500 employees. Sure, such analysts have stipulated that they have not yet found any hard evidence of any links between Pashinian and the US embassy, but nevertheless, objectively speaking, the resignation of Sargsyan, a firm supporter of close relations with Russia, plays into Washington’s hands.
Nonetheless, Moscow has shown reasonable restraint. Yesterday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the ongoing events in Armenia are the country’s internal affair and that Russia respects the choice of the Armenian people.
The following circumstance speaks in favor of this position. Sargsyan’s reputation in Armenian society, as far as I can judge, is rather low. He has been blamed for the country’s poverty, growing corruption, and polarizing income gaps between poor and rich. In other words, the protests in Yerevan had objective grounds. In the very least, I can say that my friends from Armenia often adhere to sharply anti-Sargsyan stances. Pashinian may or may not be linked to the American embassy, but he has voiced the sentiments and demands of many Armenians. What he can offer in return to improve life for the small country which has been deprived of its rich natural resources and is located in a very complex foreign policy environment is a much more complex question.
The precedent set in Armenia on April 23rd, 2018 is a perfect occasion to think about the possible consequences for other former Soviet countries which are enduring hard times. First and foremost we should mention here Moldova, the poorest country in Europe whose political system has for several years now operated with the very reforms that “broke” Sargsyan. The main governmental powers belong to the parliament-chosen government, whereas the President of Moldova is a representative and somewhat decorative figure. True authority in Moldova belongs to the “gray cardinal”, the oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, who controls the ruling Democratic Party. Although this party’s approval rating is very low (according to various surveys, such does not exceed 4-6%), the ruling party continues to keep power in its hands, and this despite the fact that Plahotniuc and Democratic Party functionaries are openly called thieves and criminals.
Given the fact that almost all the ministers of the government and the majority of parliamentary deputies have Romanian citizenship and are in favor of Moldova being annexed by its neighbor, the West considers the ruling regime in Moldova to be democratic.
The events in Armenia give reason to wonder: will a similar process of purging the super-corrupt elites in government not grip Moldova as well? The popularly elected President Igor Dodon (who was elected by the people, not deputies), could initiate this process. He could pose the question on behalf of the Moldovan people who elected him: on what grounds does the scanty-supported, highly unpopular, and corrupt Democratic Party have the right to lead the country and lead it towards self-destruction?
According to some reports, a political reform similar to the Armenian template is being prepared in Belarus as well. At the same time, the approval rating of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, deemed the “last dictator of Europe” by the West, has fallen sharply over the past several years, as the “Belarusian economic miracle” based on comprehensive and large-scale assistance from Russia now remains a thing of the past. The standard of living in Belarus is falling, although it does remain above those in Armenia and Moldova. The majority of Belarusians want to see real convergence with their Union State brother, Russia, whereas Lukashenko has kept things on the speculative and rhetorical level. Meanwhile, the very well-organized minority led by Foreign Minister Makei insists on drifting towards the West. Lukashenko, in this case, might resort to political reforms to extend his place in power in a new capacity.
The recent events in Armenia, therefore, are a cogent reminder of the complex reality of interlocking internal and external issues which threaten the post-Soviet space. These countries’ leaders would be wise to address their problems before others do.
Eduard Popov is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia, and from 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don and actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass. In addition to being Fort Russ’ guest analyst since June, 2016, Popov is currently the leading research fellow of the Institute of the Russian Abroad and the founding director of the Europe Center for Public and Information Cooperation.