“It’s too early to talk about the 'fall of the regime'”: political scientist David Petrosyan on the sources of Armenia's protests

Processes designed to relegitimise Armenia's president Serzh Sargsyan have gone badly awry — with protesters taking to the streets and forcing him out of office. RU

Thomas Rowley David Petrosyan
26 April 2018
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25 April: Republic Square, Yerevan. Source: Mikayel Zolyan. Independent journalist and political scientist David Petrosyan has been writing for OpenDemocracy since 2014. In a 2016 presentation, he predicted the possible fall of Serzh Sargsyan in 2018 after Armenia's 2015 constitutional referendum solidified the president's illegitimacy in society. David submitted this text to oDR, but we didn't publish it — looking back on it now, it has a lot to say. 

For many international observers, events in Armenia look like another “colour revolution” — whether in the positive or negative interpretation of that phrase. Whether it’s a revolution or not, it’s clear that Armenia’s political field was cleared under Serzh Sargsyan’s rule, and the opportunities for participating in parliamentary politics were limited. What’s the best way to describe what’s happening?

It’s too early to talk about the “fall of the regime” and, most likely, incorrect. The regime is a very complex system of clan and oligarchical relationships, criminal and clientele components, monopolies, corruption and other elements — these have developed systematically over the past 20 years. These components have gone nowhere.

Nikol Pashinyan, protest leader and head of Civil Contract party, was also a part of this system, for many years heading a newspaper that had opaque sources of financing. So the regime has remained. But possibly there will be a chance to demolish it partially, according to the results of the likely upcoming parliamentary elections.

If early elections are held, we could receive the first genuinely legitimate parliament in Armenia since 1999

The issue here is different. If early elections are held, we could receive the first genuinely legitimate parliament in Armenia since 1999. But what this parliament will be - we don’t know. Accordingly, we don’t know what the new government will look like, and whether it will want to demolish the system that has been built up.

I want to say that I am entirely unsure whether future democratic processes in Armenia will be democratic. Remember, we haven’t heard much about democracy or necessary democratic changes from Nikol Pashinyan and his associates. Rather, they have demonstrated a similar appetite for authoritarianism (for instance, the demand heard at rallies not to permit the ruling Republican Party to participate in the elections) as their opponents in power.

Meanwhile, there has always been, at least formally, talk of the necessity of democratic process during every “colour revolution”. Today, we can speak about something different: Armenia could have a chance to elect a legitimate parliament, though we cannot predict what it will look like.

In one of your articles about Armenia’s December 2015 constitutional referendum, you cited public opinion surveys concerning the referendum, in which a total 83% of respondents stated they did not trust the process. During the referendum itself, there were many reports of falsifications and multiple votes. This was a process designed to relegitimise Sargsyan, but in reality it delegitimised him in the eyes of society and the ruling elite. Has the process of the referendum itself influenced what’s going on now?

Definitely. The real results of the 2015 referendum were presented in detail by the Armenian National Congress party. I’ll say briefly that ANC turned out to be the only political force that fought against Serzh Sargsyan’s political project. It’s a paradox, but the current hero of Yerevan’s protests, Nikol Pashinyan, called the fight against the constitutional amendments the “wrong political agenda”.

In so doing, he basically supported Sargsyan’s political project of moving from the post of president to being prime minister of a parliamentary republic in 2018. Back then, the leaders of ANC showed that the ratio of real “no” to “yes” votes at the referendum were 2.3 to 1. The majority of voters at the December 2015 referendum didn’t support president Sargsyan.

Nearly two and a half years on, the real “no” vote at the 2015 referendum has resounding in the protests of April 2018.

To my outsider’s view, it seemed to me that the results of the 2016 April War (loss of territory and the ensuing silence from Serzh Sargsyan on that issue) and the Sasna Tsrer siege hit the Armenian government’s ratings, and radicalised the public sphere in the wake of the 2015 referendum. It seems like it was here, in the demands of the armed group that seized the Erebuni police station outside Yerevan, that the idea of forcing Sargsyan to resign was born. Do you see any causal connections between these events and what’s happening now?

You have to give Serzh Sargsyan credit where it’s due: he honestly recognised the loss of territory after the “April War” in 2016, and did this relatively quickly. This moment really did have a negative bearing on the authorities’ approval, but it was one of many and wasn’t the main one.

Far more important was the fact that the government didn’t have the right level of legitimacy in society, given that it had constantly falsified all electoral process in the country since 1999 (back then, no one doubted those parliamentary elections). In this sense, the illegitimacy of the government has been building for years. The explosion was going to happens sooner or later.

As to Sasna Tsrer and other groups like them, they appeared precisely because it has been impossible over the past 20 years to change the government via elections. Here, I address a significant portion of my criticism to the numerous international structures, including the OSCE and Council of Europe, which have year on year not only recognised the results of falsified elections, but even managed to write in their reports of some kind of “progress” after each electoral campaign. In Armenia, it was clear that it wasn’t worth waiting for justice from European structures.

All the main players in Armenia — Russia, the US and EU — have completely distanced themselves publicly from what’s going on

In fact, legal cases concerning the recognition of different national elections in Armenia, or their consequences, have been gathering dust in the European Court of Human Rights for too long. For example, the suit of ex-president Levon Ter-Petrossian to recognise the results of the 2008 presidential elections (which ended in Serzh Sargsyan becoming president) as illegitimate has been in Strasbourg for 10 years and it still isn’t time for its examination. In the post-election environment, 10 people were killed and 230 people were wounded.

We have a copy of your 2016 article on the results of the 2015, which you presented at the University of Berkeley. We didn’t publish it back then, although reading it now, there’s a lot of interesting observations about the weakness of the Sargsyan system. If we take Armenia’s foreign policy vector, you, for example, note that after the 2015 referendum, the US Consulate distanced itself from the Armenian government, even threatening personal sanctions — and suggested that the Russian Federation would do something similar in order to preserve its influence in Armenian society. This time, unlike the summer 2015 protests, the Russian state, which owned the Armenian energy company that was the target of public anger, has so far refrained from trying to influence the situation, and the US and EU have called on all sides to refrain from violence and respect freedom of assembly. What’s your view of external actors in Armenia’s political life? It feels like this has been a protest cycle without geopolitics.

It’s true. All the main players in Armenia — Russia, the US and EU — have completely distanced themselves publicly from what’s going on, calling on all sides to restraint, non-violence and not to act outside the current Constitution.

At least from the side of the protesters, there is an agenda of internal demands — from the resignation of Sargsyan to the formation of a new government. Observers haven’t yet seen one slogan, banner, sign or action that relates to foreign policy as such, without even touching on geopolitics.

But I’d be wrong if I said that there wasn’t a geopolitical component to all of this. For instance, last autumn, the Yelk blok, which Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract is a part of, tried to bring a bill in Armenian parliament, “On starting the process of stopping the operation of Armenia’s agreement on the Eurasian Economic Union”. The parliamentary majority, i.e. the Republican Party and ARF-Dashnaktsutyun, as well as Gagik Tsarukyan’s bloc, which isn’t in the coalition, rejected this bill.

Let’s be honest: the press has been on the side of the protesters, and hasn’t particularly tried to hide it

But there’s not a moment of doubt that Moscow knows and remembers this bill, and that Moscow rightly assumes that the coming of Nikol Pashinyan to power in Yerevan could potentially be the pretext to “Armexit” from the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Organisation. Moreover, there’s nothing known about the funding of the protests by the leaders and organising groups — it’s there and the scale of it is unclear.

Naturally, this situation is enough to talk about a geopolitical component of what’s going on in Armenia — more accurately, that it is there, but it is hidden, sloganless and the flags of western organisations and states aren’t been waved.

In the same article, you talk about the “imitation of support” for Sargsyan by the majority of Armenia’s oligarchs as the approval ratings of the president dropped. Can you comment on the oligarchs’ behaviour during this protest cycle?

The regime had a problem with the whole society. The first signs that a significant section of the population wasn’t wild about supporting Sargsyan’s projects came during the 2015 constitutional referendum. Back then, many oligarchs merely imitated their support of Sargsyan, but didn’t try particularly hard to get the result needed. The result had to be produced using different methods, with falsifications coming from above, rather than below. In April 2018, it was the same — the oligarchs hid at their country houses, with their bodyguards close. The groups, who could have acted like Ukraine’s titushki, were active only on occasion.

This speaks about the fact that the oligarchs are ready to defend the regime “to the end” only when they can feel its power. They know its weaknesses better than others, from the inside, and this is why they only imitated their support in 2015 — in April 2018, there was none of this. Sargsyan’s main source of power was the state apparatus and law enforcement.

In your 2016 presentation, you make the following prediction:

“Throughout the whole of 2016, there will be a forced reworking of the country’s legislation — political and military, criminal and civic, and economic laws will be rewritten under a new Basic Law. It’s highly likely that this process will be accompanied by elements of legal chaos and uncertainty, which could create the conditions for instability.”

This quote begs the question: what signs were there of this possible chaos and uncertainty?

I didn’t notice any chaos, it seems, but there was definitely uncertainty. It’s enough to talk about a series of laws that basically removed the president of those small powers that the position already had. In January and February 2018, laws that centralised power under the future prime minister, e.g. Sargsyan, were passed. As a result, he received powers worth of being called “premier-presidential”, and the position itself - premier-president.

The journalist Liana Aghajanian recently thanked Armenian journalists on Facebook for their coverage of the protest movement: often working in dangerous conditions, they helped create the media background to the protests. What’s your opinion of the quality of the coverage?

I would like to say first and foremost that journalists needed to cover this process quickly, with flexibility, analysis, from all sides and neutrally. The speed and flexibility were definitely there, but the level of neutrality, giving others’ sides opinions and the analysis was weak. Let’s be honest: the press has been on the side of the protesters, and hasn’t particularly tried to hide it. The position of the government, unexpectedly for the government, was buried under a wave of pro-Pashinyan reporting. So I would refrain from odes and agree to very moderate praise.

The main problem of Armenia’s media is, as ever, the lack of financial independence — its dependence on sponsors and an inability or lack of desire to honestly earn money as other independent media do around the world. But that isn’t only the press’ fault, but the whole system’s — it couldn’t be different under it. Roughly ten years ago, and definitely 20, Armenia had media that were financially independent and could honestly make money. These kind of media don’t exist now, and that is very sad. But a much bigger problem is the fact that the press doesn’t seem to be trying to become financially independent.

Given your 2016 prediction of Sargsyan’s possible fall in 2018, I’m curious to know your opinion of what will come next — will the revolution spread further than the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan?

This is asking quiet a lot, but still, I’ll try to give a short-term forecast of how things will develop — although you understand, this is not easy.

I’ll venture to assume that the sides of the internal political confrontation will come to an agreement and the protests in Yerevan will stop. It’s completely possible that as a result Nikol Pashinyan will be elected prime minister, by consensus from the entire parliament. Then a new government will be formed, which will be, in essence, both a transition authority and most likely a technocratic one. The majority of the ministers in the economic block will keep their jobs. Next, parliament will pass a series of important legislative amendments for Armenia, including ones concerning the Electoral Code. It will either be rewritten anew or will be fundamentally changed. Key here will be the long-awaited removal of the rating element in the proportional electoral system.

Then we’ll have parliamentary elections according to a 100% proportional system — that is, what the Armenian opposition has been trying to get for the past 17-18 years. I don’t want to predict the election results, but this will be the most genuine conflict of power resources without the country’s best-resourced player, the Republican Party of Armenia. Most likely, RPA will take part in the elections. But will be an extra of sorts, and it’s unlikely it will get into Parliament.


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