After 11 consecutive days of peaceful protests dubbed “Merzhir Serzhin” (Reject Serzh), Armenians have finally managed to dethrone Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan. Widespread jubilation across Armenia’s cities followed the announcement of his resignation. Sargsyan’s ouster on April 23 does not mean that democracy or economic prosperity will immediately arrive for the nation in the South Caucasus. However, it does mean that there is a renewed prospect for political openness and growth.
Why Reject Serzh
Deeply disliked by the Armenians, Sargsyan ruled for two presidential terms, winning in largely rigged elections in 2008 and 2013. In 2008, following reports of widespread electoral fraud, sit-in protests formed in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. After a few days, the authorities dispersed the peaceful protesters by force causing at least eight deaths. Similar protests erupted after fraudulent 2013 presidential elections.
Sargsyan’s government passed a number of political and economic reforms, yet largely due to political unwillingness, little to no change occurred. In fact, Armenia’s foreign debt has tripled since 2008; instead of an agreement with the European Union, it joined the Eurasian Union without discussion or a demonstration of any tangible benefits for joining; the increasing brain drain has shrunk the population; 30% of Armenia’s population lives below the poverty line; and in 2016, the escalation of the frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh almost exploded into full-scale war. In addition, as various democracy rankings and OSCE electoral reports indicate, Sargsyan’s government failed to advance democracy.
Thus, people continued taking to streets whenever they felt that their government neglected their economic and social interests or continued to ignore transparency in decision-making. Pervasive evidence of systemic corruption did not boost the regime’s image either.
In late 2015, Sargsyan’s ruling Republican Party initiated constitutional reform, which was passed through another fraudulent referendum. The constitutional changes effectively transformed Armenia from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system, transferring presidential powers to the prime minister. Research tells us that a parliamentary system is more conducive to democratization than a (semi)presidential one since it is supposed to provide people with more direct power. Yet, these seemingly democratic reforms had to do more with the preservation of Sargsyan’s power rather than meaningful democratization. In the presidential system, Sargsyan would be barred from presidency after two terms. His second term expired in 2018. Yet, the constitutional changes allowed him to transition from the position of president to prime minister, given the parliament (ruled by his party) would nominate and elect him.
As expected and despite repeated promises not to seek the position of prime minister, Sargsyan, with the help of his ruling party, weaseled his way to the top government position.
The discussion that Sargsyan might be nominated by his party for the position of prime minister sparked the Reject Serzh campaign, which protest leader Nikol Pashinyan dubbed Armenia’s own “velvet revolution.” Armenian’s parliament elected Sargsyan to the position of prime minister on April 17, while protests grew. After the initial attempt to ignore the protests, Sargsyan repeatedly called for negotiations. During hastily organized and televised negotiations, Pashinyan said that the protesters’ main demand was Sargsyan’s resignation. Sargsyan grew even more defensive, reminded the country that the opposition should have learned lessons from the bloody 2008 events, and abruptly left the negotiations. Afterwards, Pashinyan was detained. During his detention, he was approached by other high-ranking officials, indicating that he would soon be released.
On April 23, Sargsyan gave in to popular demand and resigned. In his resignation message, he mentioned that he was wrong, and Pashinyan was right; Sargsyan also said that he was not the solution to the problem. Sargsyan’s resignation elevated Deputy Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan to the position of acting prime minister.
Staying on Target
The departure of a corrupt regime’s leader does not guarantee a meaningful change. Sargsyan does not possess the gravitas or charisma of a leader that generates a cult of personality and whose ouster would shatter the regime itself. Similar personalities generated or corrupted by the regime may replace him. Alternatively, the infighting in the opposition, that happened too many a time, may jeopardize current democratic momentum.
Thus, Armenian citizens need to be wary and acutely aware of the systemic indoctrination of corruption, political apathy, and lawlessness that has plagued the country for last several decades. Sargsyan’s cronies were quick to laud him for “courage” to admit his mistake and resigning, instead of shedding blood as in 2008. Yet, in a democratic and civilized society, threatening people on live television with the memories of government-sanctioned bloodshed should not even be a point of discussion.
Nevertheless, there truly seems to be a new hope, and, unsurprisingly, it does not stem from Karapetyan or even Pashinyan. The unprecedented number of youth mobilizing for protests indicates that the era of Armenia’s cagey, dependent, and apathetic populace may slowly but steadily come to an end. Perhaps, this generation of Armenians understands that waiting for the “right person” to govern them is a waste of time. Instead, they will ensure that the authorities understand that Armenian citizens will not compromise again on their civil and political rights for the enrichment of a small group of oligarchs, but will keep the elected officials in check.