In the face of more than 10 days of nationwide protests, Armenia's longtime leader Serzh Sarkisian stepped down April 23 as prime minister, a position he'd assumed only days earlier. "I made a mistake," Sarkisian told the country. "In this situation, there are several solutions, but I will not resort to any of them … I abandon the post of the head of our country."
Sarkisian's "mistake" was pursuing the prime minister position after term limits prevented him from extending his tenure as president in March. As his second five-year term in the office was nearing its end, Sarkisian spearheaded changes to Armenia's Constitution that transferred powers from the presidency to the parliament, changes that effectively would have enabled him to continue his rule indefinitely under a different title. As Sarkisian's intentions became clear — there had been earlier discussions of him foregoing the premiership to rule from behind the scenes as the head of the Republican political party — protesters, eventually numbering in the thousands, took to the streets.
In 2017, Stratfor wrote that protests in Eurasia would become larger and more frequent thanks to rising expectations among the public and the proliferation of social media and other technologies. As demonstrations in the region intensify, Stratfor forecasted, protest movements will drive governments to change their domestic and foreign policies, and perhaps even their leadership. The Armenian protests are a confirmation of this forecast.
A Ukrainian Lesson
Unlike elsewhere in the Caucasus, large-scale protests in Armenia are not uncommon, particularly during times of political transition. Mass demonstrations broke out after presidential elections in 2008, when Sarkisian first came to power, for example. They ended only after security forces cracked down, main opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian was put under house arrest, and the government enacted a state of emergency to force demonstrators off the streets. This latest round of protests played out quite differently, with Sarkisian opting to honor the demands of the demonstrators rather than buckling down for a more forceful confrontation.
Why was this the case? The answer lies in the geopolitical context. While the Armenian government previously had shown its willingness to use force against protesters, the Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine in 2014 likely had much to do with Sarkisian's hesitation this time. In Ukraine, instead of quelling dissenters, the forceful response to protests in 2014 ushered in mass demonstrations that spawned a violent standoff between security forces and protesters. This culminated in greater support for the protests — including backing from the United States and the European Union — and led to the forced ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovich. The Euromaidan protests not only had the effect of replacing the Russian-leaning Yanukovich government with a Western-oriented one, but it also sent the message to states throughout Russia's periphery — and indeed in Russia itself — that business as usual when it comes to forceful and indiscriminate crackdowns on protests may no longer be tolerated to the degree it was during the Soviet and early post-Soviet eras.
Which brings us back to Armenia. Sarkisian could have followed the same tactics used to snuff out protests following his election 10 years ago. But he clearly hesitated to adopt a more forceful response this time. Though the government detained hundreds of people, most were released shortly thereafter (including opposition leader Nikol Pashinian, a lawmaker who led the demonstrations). Unlike 2008, no protesters were killed, showing that the government was worried that violent incidents would trigger broader demonstrations. This reluctance to use widespread force allowed the protests to sustain themselves for more than a week, and once a group of around 200 unarmed soldiers from Armenia's Blue Berets professional army corps joined a protest march on April 23, Sarkisian decided that resigning as prime minister rather than digging in would be his best bet.
This change in protest reaction in the post-Euromaidan environment has not been limited to Armenia. Other Eurasian countries, particularly those like Armenia with a strongly centralized government oriented toward Russia, have also moderated their positions when it comes to dealing with demonstrations. Belarus, for instance, cracked down on protests after presidential elections in 2010, as Armenia had done two years earlier. Now, the Belarusian government, led by long-time leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, has taken a somewhat softer approach to demonstrations, pursuing less violent crackdowns and employing shorter detention periods for most protesters. Lukashenko, who is clearly worried about meeting the same fate as Yanukovych, has even softened certain controversial policies, like his plan to tax the unemployed. He backed off this "social parasite" tax when people across the country mobilized against it.
Governments in Eurasia can no longer rely on the same forceful tactics of the past to manage protests and public discontent.
Other countries in the region have also made notable, albeit more gradual, adjustments to their handling of protests, whether it be sanctioning certain opposition rallies, as in Azerbaijan, or showing greater willingness to address oil workers' grievances in Kazakhstan. Even the Russian government has moderated its position on protests, with fewer large-scale crackdowns during demonstrations in recent elections than those seen in 2011 and 2012. Governments throughout the region are acknowledging the changing attitudes and expectations of their citizenry, particularly of the younger generation that is coming of age in the post-Soviet years and is becoming increasingly politically engaged.
This is not to say that those countries are being completely transformed. In Russia and most states throughout the former Soviet periphery, power remains highly centralized, and the greater tolerance of protests has taken place only in a relative sense, with disruptions and detentions still common. Even in Armenia, Sarkisian's resignation is not guaranteed to fundamentally alter the country's power structures, as Sarkisian's party holds all of the main organs of power, and the ex-premier could very well remain influential as a gray cardinal-type figure — though upcoming negotiations between Pashinian and acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetian on April 25 could pave the way for more political changes to come. And unlike Ukraine, the protests in Armenia have been limited to domestic political issues rather than questions of strategic orientation, so changes in leadership are not likely to be met with significant foreign policy shifts unless the leadership weakens enough to undermine Russia's position and create opportunities for the West.
Nevertheless, the protests in Armenia, like those in Belarus, Russia and elsewhere, do show that governments in the region can no longer rely on the forceful tactics of the past to manage protests and public discontent. These governments are increasingly, if begrudgingly, acknowledging that reality, with Ukraine's Euromaidan movement serving as a key reminder of what could await if they don't adapt to it.