assessments

Armenia's Upcoming Protest and Russia's Position

5 MINS READMar 17, 2011 | 00:21 GMT
KAREN MINASYAN/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
The March 17 opposition rally in Armenia is expected to be the largest of the past month. The latest wave of opposition protests, while not unusual for post-Soviet Armenia, was sparked by revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. If the unrest grows or persists, it could shift from a domestic affair to one that would potentially involve Armenia's patron state, Russia.
The Armenian opposition group Armenian National Congress (ANC), led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, is set to hold a rally in central Yerevan on March 17. This will mark the third demonstration led by the ANC in the past month, indicating that the opposition movement is building momentum and putting pressure on the government led by President Serzh Sarkisian. Thus far, the government has been able to keep the situation under control, and it does not appear that the survival of the regime is currently under threat. But if the opposition movement grows in the weeks and months ahead, it could shift from an internal Armenian affair to one that would potentially involve Armenia's patron state, Russia. The March 17 rally will be the third opposition demonstration in the past month. A Feb. 18 rally drew an estimated 8,000-10,000 people, and a follow-up protest on March 1 was slightly larger. It is expected that the upcoming rally will bring even bigger numbers to the streets, and Ter-Petrosyan has called for people to continue to demonstrate until the opposition's demands are met. The ANC is primarily concerned with the levels of corruption in Armenia and its poor economic situation. (Its leader, Ter-Petrosyan, served as Armenia's first post-Soviet president from 1991 to 1998 and ultimately is interested in returning to the presidency.) The opposition has called for the sacking of several high-ranking state officials, including Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian, the release of opposition members from prison, the repeal of a controversial ban on street trade, economic reform and measures to address rising food prices. In its post-Soviet history, Armenia has a tradition of large protest movements that draw tens of thousands of demonstrators. There have been protests immediately following or shortly after major elections, including in 1998, 2004 and 2008, the last of which was the largest and most threatening to the government. In February and May 2008, shortly after the elections that brought Sarkisian to power over Ter-Petrosyan, the latter organized protests that lasted roughly two weeks and brought as many as 50,000 people to the streets. Government security and police forces responded with a crackdown that resulted in roughly 10 deaths and more than 200 injuries and ultimately caused Ter-Petrosyan's movement to fizzle out. Now, the rise of revolutionary movements in the Middle East and North Africa and their spread to other regions of the world has helped to rekindle Ter-Petrosyan's movement after roughly two years of low-scale and ineffective protests. STRATFOR has previously indicated that Armenia is one of the former Soviet Union states at risk for social and political instability due to the growing opposition protests, particularly in the capital of Yerevan. These protests have not yet had any serious effects on the Armenian government, and Sarkisian has for the most part allowed them to proceed. If the protests grow and persist, Sarkisian could make concessions or order a crackdown, more likely the latter. But the rallies in Armenia are unlikely to lead to revolution or the general state of chaos that has occurred in the Middle East for several reasons. First, even the most serious protests in Armenia's post-Soviet history, particularly in 2008, did not cause the government to fall; the security forces were able to deal with and disrupt the opposition at the peak of the unrest. Also, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, the ANC's primary demand is the holding of early elections, and more broadly, Armenia is more vulnerable to pro-Western color revolutions than Middle East-style uprisings. Unlike Georgia and Ukraine, however, Armenia lacks a significant pro-Western movement, and Ter-Petrosyan's movement certainly does not fit this mold. Finally, and most important, Armenia is a client state of Russia. Moscow has numerous economic, energy and military interests in the country, including the 102nd military base in Gyumri, which houses 5,000 Russian troops. Furthermore, Russia has a strategic interest in Armenia, because it serves as Moscow's foothold in the Caucasus. Russia does not want the potential chaos associated with government change, and Moscow has an interest in keeping the country — and the regime of Sarkisian — stable. For now, the protest movement in Armenia is an internal affair. At worst, it appears at the moment that Armenia could be returning to a period of regular domestic unrest like that of 2008. However, if levels of violence increase as the opposition continues to confront the government, or if the protests rise to levels beyond the realm of precedence, the issue will then be what action — if any — Russia will take to deal with the situation. Russia opted to stay mostly out of the revolution in Kyrgyzstan and subsequent ethnic conflict in the southern regions, increasing its troop levels but avoiding direct military intervention in both cases. But Russia has more direct strategic interest in Armenia. While the situation in Armenia currently is not close to that point, Moscow will be monitoring the political situation in the country closely as Ter-Petrosyan's ANC continues to challenge the authority of Sarkisian's government.

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