By Anna Ohanyan
In Armenia, large-scale protests and acts of civil disobedience in recent weeks have forced the embattled prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan, to step down, and have upset the ruling party’s attempts to retain power indefinitely through feats of constitutional engineering. In an otherwise increasingly authoritarian region, this popular movement represents a massive achievement. Now, after bringing about the prime minister’s resignation, tens and thousands of protesters have returned to the streets in an assertive bid to force additional resignations from Sargsyan’s parliamentary faction and push for snap elections.
Civil disobedience as a political strategy has a long history, dating back to the Roman Empire. The past 10 days have seen its skillful and deft application in Armenia. The nonviolent movement, referred to by its organizers as an Armenian “velvet revolution,” attracted large and diverse groups of protesters in the tens to hundreds of thousands. It was networked locally and globally, connecting remote towns across Armenia and extending its reach all the way to diasporic communities around the globe. The movement was sparked after Sargsyan, the term-limited president, stepped in as prime minister in a revamped parliamentary system that had replaced the country’s semi-presidential one in a disputed 2015 referendum. The constitutional change to Armenia’s parliamentary system was initially presented to voters along with Sargsyan’s assurance that he had no intention of assuming the newly powerful prime ministerial position. However, on April 17, he did just that, and appeared to justify fears that the reform was simply a stunt of constitutional engineering in order to grant Sargsyan perpetual leadership of the government.
People flooded the streets in response. During days of mass-scale, round-the-clock acts of civil disobedience, followed by large protests in the evenings, the movement paralyzed the country and forced Sargysan’s resignation. The popular movement that deposed him was decentralized and disciplined, with nonviolent tactics applied with surprising consistency and determination. The self-governance of the protesters became evident after the leader of the movement, opposition member of parliament, Nikol Pashinyan, was detained by police after abortive negotiations with Sargsyan. The movement continued unabated. Pashinyan was released the next day, followed quickly by the prime minister’s remarkable resignation.
This movement has been strikingly different from the “color revolutions” in the post-Communist space in the early 2000s or the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East. Continued experimentation with various nonviolent strategies in Armenia over the past decade built the foundation for the large-scale, grass-roots effort that led to the movement’s ultimate success. Unique among movements in the post-Soviet region or the Middle East, too, the Armenian protests were not geopolitically polarizing. Armenia has balanced, more or less successfully, its relationships with neighboring powers—namely, the European Union and Russia—which has in turn provided wiggle room for activists to expand and refine their experiences and practices of peaceful protest.
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Also in contrast to the color revolutions, Russia has acted with restraint in response to recent events in Armenia. A spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry praised the peaceful resolution and stated that “Russia is always with you [Armenians]” upon Sargsyan’s resignation. With two Russian military bases hosted by Armenia, and the Kremlin’s long track record of supporting illiberal elites in the region, Russia’s restraint was uncharacteristic for the post-Soviet space. As the world saw in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia in the recent past has not hesitated to intervene directly in such cases.
Indeed, the deepening schism between the people and the embattled Sargsyan represented a political opening for the Kremlin. Russia has exploited similar divisions within and between states repeatedly over the past decade, on both sides of the Atlantic. It employed “wedge strategies” in the U.S., France, and southeastern Europe, where information warfare was used to sway electoral politics. In the post-Soviet context, where the Kremlin is seeking to recapture its lost imperial influence, wedge strategies have been more direct and multifaceted. Armenia was already dissuaded by Russia from further integration with the European Union: Yerevan’s years-long negotiations with Brussels for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU were thwarted in 2013. Instead, the Kremlin pressured Armenia into joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Russian restraint in Armenia this spring also contradicts its now long-established strategy of supporting illiberal elites on its peripheries. The Armenian movement unfolded in a context of regional fracture: Over the past 20 years, governing elites in the South Caucasus have governed with little national legitimacy and have kept busy pursuing external patrons, often at the expense of developing much-needed neighborhood ties. Both the EU and Russia have contributed to this problem, directly and indirectly, by courting the elites through competing regional projects. Russia has found this fracturing to be a particularly useful lever.
Yet in this case, Armenia and Russia already share a tight alliance of economic and political interests. Indeed, Russia’s actions in the region can be explained by its pursuit of these narrow interests, rather than explicit authoritarian promotion. By moving Armenia into the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union in 2014, and giving Russia monopolistic control over sectors of the Armenian economy over the past decade, then-president Sargsyan may have believed he was buying support for his highly unpopular regime. Instead, unintentionally, he likely created a geopolitically safe space for Armenia to democratize without the risk of openly confronting Russia’s interests in the country.
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It remains unclear whether Russian restraint in the Armenian case is the outcome of specific circumstances, or whether it reflects a new approach by Russia toward its peripheries. If the latter is true, then it may represent maturation in Russia’s dealings with post-Soviet and Eastern European states. The benefits of such benign hegemony may be larger than Russia’s traditional preference for working with select elites. Extensive trade and security relations with Armenia having been cemented during Sargsyan’s decade in power, Russia likely calculated that its interests, economic or geopolitical, were not threatened by the Armenian opposition movement.
Young people have been in the driver’s seat in this latest and most successful wave of civil disobedience in Armenia. This is a generation that does not remember the Soviet Union and has little cultural attachment to Russia—and Russia has clearly been considering this reality. Following the trend of world politics, public diplomacy, soft power, and economic incentives may be seen as more effective than overt propaganda or conflict. Armenia’s increasingly sophisticated culture of nonviolent protest likely made the calculation for Russian intervention more complicated. Russia’s restraint in the face of recent developments in Armenia may signify the dawn of a new social contract between Russia and the constellation of new nations around it. Or, it may simply be remembered as the exception that proves a long-standing rule.
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Anna Ohanyan is the Richard B. Finnegan Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Stonehill College, Massachusetts. Her forthcoming book is an edited volume, titled Russia Abroad: Driving Regional Fracture in Post-Communist Eurasia and Beyond (Georgetown University Press, 2018).