The first impression of small, mountainous Armenia is that it a country deeply defined by its beautifully harsh landscape and the sheer determination of its people to protect a homeland that now makes up only a fraction of what was once a vast ancient Near Eastern nation on the fringes of the Greco-Roman and Persian worlds.
The borders of modern Armenia are the result of Soviet planners acting on the orders of Joseph Stalin who, as a Georgian, was not known for having a great affection for his fellow Orthodox Christian neighbours in the South Caucasus. Stalin had the Armenian SSR’s boundaries reduced to the tiny territory that the world’s Armenian population now regard as their rightful homeland following the horrific deportations and genocide that they were subjected to by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War.
Armenia has struggled in the years since it became an independent state following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The economic fallout from being untethered from a planned economy and the strain of the bloody war with archenemy Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has left Armenia dependent on the remittances sent home by its people who work mostly in Russia and in other former Soviet republics.
The vast Armenian diaspora in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East have done their best to help with Armenia’s struggling economy, but the need to generate jobs for the country’s dynamic and ambitious post-Soviet youth remains a major challenge.
The crippling brain drain and loss of many of Armenia’s best and brightest to better job prospects in Russia and other locales abroad has severely stunted the nation’s growth as Armenia’s most qualified and best educated young people follow the well-beaten path of their counterparts across the former Soviet Union by leaving the country in the hope of forging a brighter future for themselves.
Attempts by the government of former-President-turned-Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan to deepen Armenia’s already close ties to Russia by joining Moscow’s Eurasian Customs Union of former Soviet republics have done little alleviate the economic hardship that has dogged the country for nearly a quarter of a century. The promised benefits of their membership in the Union has brought little in the way of actual wealth but has successfully barred Armenia from diversifying its potential trade and business partners to include Europe, the US, and East Asia due to Moscow’s draconian protectionist rules for being a Union member. The knock-on effect has resulted in Armenia’s exports to Russia declining by 35% in 2015 and private remittances being slashed by 49%, a catastrophic development for a country where an estimated 20% of the GDP comes from foreign investment and the diaspora.
It is against this backdrop that Sargsyan’s recent power grab has so infuriated an already exhausted society. A December 2015 referendum orchestrated and pushed by Sargsyan changed Armenia’s form of government to a parliamentary system from the quasi-presidential model it had enjoyed since gaining independence in 1991. As a result, the president’s veto power was stripped and the post was downgraded to a figurehead position elected by parliament.
Sargsyan, who was first elected in 2008 and served two terms as president, had repeatedly promised not to to be premiership if Armenia switched from a presidential to a parliamentary system. That abruptly changed, however, after Armen Sargysan, who is of no relations to Serzh, was sworn in as Armenia’s new president on April 9.
In move that seemed evoked the worst memories of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s bait-and-switch act, where the public was never consulted and the democratic process trampled on, the two Sargsyans announced to the public that Serzh would be named the country’s new prime minister after being elected by a rubber-stamp parliament.
The vast majority of Armenians do not want to see Serzh Sargsyan as the head of the state again, as his government has been accused of corruption and of allowing oligarchs to thrive. The population has grown increasingly angry over Russia’s increased arms sales to Azerbaijan, which most Armenians see as a betrayal by a close ally that is supposed to be the guarantor of Armenia’s national security.
This was not the first time that Sargsyan has disregarded his country’s electoral laws. In 2008, when first securing the presidency for himself, he came under heavy criticism from the Armenian public amidst accusations of widespread vote-rigging. At least eight people died in street clashes with the authorities after demonstrators took to the streets.
To his credit, Sargsyan appears to understand his limited appeal outside of his own Republican Party. To ensure his position of power, he had the parliament amend the constitution to give him, as prime minister, full control over the police and security services and to allow him to remain in what had been the heavily-guarded presidential palace in the capital Yerevan, which is now the residence of the prime minister.
Knowing that he is an authoritarian president without popular support has untethered Sargsyan, leaving him wide open to the possibility of using any means necessary to crush the current mass protests in Yerevan, led by opposition political Nikol Pashinyan.
Armenian civil society is no stranger to organising mass protests during the 10 years of Sargsyan’s rule. From 2012-2016, the country was rocked by four consecutive summers of protests – including the three-month Electric Yerevan protests in the summer of 2015 that saw tens of thousands gather in Yerevan’s Republic Square to demonstrate against massive hikes to utility costs by the Russian-owned state energy company, Electric Networks of Armenia.
The Armenian-American former presidential candidate Raffi Hovannisian led thousands of protestors into the streets in 2013 to denounce the rigged results of a presidential election that gave Sargsyan another term in office. Karabakh war veterans and civil activists opposed Sargsyan’s decision to scrap closer ties with Europe in favour of joining the Eurasian Customs Union later joined Hovannisian’s protest movement.
A year after the landmark Electric Yerevan protests in 2015, a group of armed Karabakh veterans seized a police station on the outskirts of the Armenian capital, demanding Sargsyan’s resignation and the release of Jirair Sefilian, a Karabakh and Lebanese Civil War former commander and fierce opponent of Sargsyan who had been accused of plotting a coup against the latter’s government.
With Pashinyan at the helm of the current protests and tempers running high on the side of Sargsyan’s loyalists, the response by the authorities has been to replicate the type of heavy-handed crackdown seen during the 2012 pro-democracy Bolotnaya Square protests in Moscow. The worry now is that Sargsyan will react much in the same way Putin dealt with the aftermath of Bolotnaya by engaging in an extended multi-year campaign to destroy the country’s dissident movement while playing on jingoistic themes to cater to the patriotic impulses of the average voter as a way to justify his turn towards fully realised authoritarianism.
Sargsyan’s previous response to the protests in year’s past had been to deploy his interior ministry troops to the sites where the demonstrations were taking place and to fire stun and flash grenades at the thousands of protesters and journalists gathered there. With the current wave of demonstrations still ongoing, the evidence is mounting that Sargsyan has resorted to taking extraordinary measures that have gone far beyond his earlier crackdowns.
Journalist Tirayr Muradyan of the Union of Informed Citizens was beaten by two young people who did not behave like “classic demonstrators” and the police detained dozens of demonstrators as they tried to block streets and interrupt traffic amid daylong protests and marches around the capital on April 18.
More than 180 people have so far been detained in the Armenian capital, as well as in the northern cities of Gyumri and Vanadzor, as the security services have tried to stop the opposition’s rallies from spreading or growing to a size that would be hard for the regime to suppress.
The opposition has taken to social media to warn the outside world that Sargsyan’s loyal security services have resorted to KGB-style round-ups, saying: “The regime has started large-scale repressions against peaceful demonstrators who are protesting against Sargsyan becoming prime minister of Armenia…demonstrators are being kidnapped from different parts of Yerevan and other cities in Armenia. They have been taken away by plainclothes policemen and pro-government gangs. Human Rights activists and journalists, who are in this locations following the events, covering or defending the basic rights of the demonstrators are being attacked for covering violations against the peaceful protesters. Plainclothes policemen are taking the activists into cars without identification numbers and to unknown destinations.”
Sargsyan is likely betting on the backing of and his close relationship with Putin and the thousands of Russian troops he allows to be based in Armenia to help stymie any outside objections from the EU, US, or international human rights groups. He has been a close witness to the downfall of similar authoritarian post-Soviet leaders in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan over the last 15 years and is determined not to become the next casualty of a popular uprising carried out by his own people.
But instead of heeding the calls of the Armenian people, Sargsyan has positioned himself to be the subject of an ironic twist of fate as he’ll be named alongside Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev as one of the region’s authoritarian strongmen desperate for a lifetime in power.
It remains to be seen how many more years the Armenian people can endure being mentioned alongside their erstwhile foes in Baku and Ankara and counted with their former imperial master in Moscow as another failed attempt at ending dictatorial rule.