Armenians’ peaceful revolt could reverberate

Armenians’ peaceful revolt could reverberate
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If not for reporting by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Al Jazeera over the past two weeks, you could be forgiven for not knowing a political earthquake was taking place in Armenia. The Western media hardly carried a word until Monday when, after 11 days of massive demonstrations in the country’s capital of Yerevan, Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan bowed to protesters’ demands and resigned. The implications though will ripple out from Armenia, across the Caucasus and the post-Soviet space.

While the protests targeted political and economic corruption, the spark for the demonstrations was an attempt by Sargsyan and the ruling Republican Party to extend their control of the government by appointing Sargsyan as prime minister following two terms as president, despite his earlier promise that he would not do so.

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A key moment in the protests occurred when hundreds of soldiers broke ranks and joined upwards to 100,000 protesters in Yerevan’s central square. In the manner of the recent popular protests in Iran and the earlier Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the protests were fueled by social media and spontaneous support from ordinary citizens that overwhelmed the government’s ability to control the narrative on the ground. When the protest leaders in Armenia were taken into custody, the leaderless protests swelled in numbers and continued.

 

With Sargsyan gone, Armenia now must organize its interim government and plan for elections. The protest leader, Nikol Pashinyan, and the interim prime minister, Karen Karapetyan, who is a former prime minister and former mayor of Yerevan, met and failed to agree on a way forward. Protests are continuing.

The Yerevan protests demonstrate once again the latent power of civil society as a brake on political and economic corruption. Armenians held large protests in 2008, 2015 and 2016 against a host of grievances, including, as enumerated by Human Rights Watch, not only corruption and election fraud but also “overwhelming poverty, and the economy’s domination by oligarchs who are close to political leadership” and “the lack of accountability for abuses committed by law enforcement, lack of judicial independence, and other human rights issues.”

An informed (and enraged) public, once aroused, is more than a match for an entrenched autocratic government — a lesson autocratic rulers who aspire to uncontested rule might note, such as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The Yerevan protests also signify the continuing decline of Russian influence among the post-Soviet independent nations. It is more striking in Armenia because of Armenia’s complex economic and security relationship with Russia, including a frozen conflict with its neighbor Azerbaijan for which Armenia needs Russian support. Russia even maintains a substantial military base at Gyumri, Armenia. Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was monitoring the events in Yerevan because the country is "extremely important" for Russia.

Russia’s own internal political and economic weaknesses are enabling neighboring countries to chart independent political courses. Putin repeatedly has warned (and as recently as April last year) that Russia will not allow “color revolutions” to take place, especially among the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, of which Armenia, Russia, and the Central Asia nations are members. Yet, Russia has struggled to contain popular — and often anti-Russian — protests in neighboring countries, short of military intervention.  

Another military adventure, such as those that Russia has carried out in Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova, would result in crippling Western sanctions that Russia can hardly afford. On a minor note, Sargsyan once served in the Soviet military and speaks the Russian language fluently.  There is every chance he will be the last Armenian leader to do so.

Popular uprisings against political and economic corruption across the former Soviet space do not mean that peace and prosperity are assured to happen in those countries. It does mean that the search for peace and prosperity is taking those countries in new directions that are less constrained by historic context. The people of Armenia have forcefully declared their desire for honest government and a decent chance at economic opportunity.

Dirk Mattheisen is a writer/blogger on political economy and governance. He is a former assistant secretary of the World Bank Group in Washington (2008-2012) and alternate secretary of the World Bank Board Ethics Committee. Follow him on Twitter @dirkmattheisen.