Armenian Premier Resigns Under Pressure of Mass Protests

(Bloomberg) -- Armenia’s long-term leader Serzh Sargsyan suddenly resigned as prime minister on Monday, less than a week after taking office amid massive opposition protests.

“The people in the streets are against my rule,” Sargsyan, who served for a decade as president before becoming premier, said in a statement. “I’m fulfilling your demand.”

The announcement sparked joyous celebrations among tens of thousands of Armenians who’d flooded the streets of the capital, Yerevan, to demand Sargsyan’s resignation during 11 days of protests. It followed the release from overnight detention of opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan, who’d urged a peaceful “velvet revolution” to oust the premier.

The crisis erupted when Sargsyan became prime minister last week as Armenia completed constitutional reforms to switch to a parliamentary republic, with executive powers transferred from the presidency to the premier. Pashinyan accused him of trying to rule the former Soviet republic indefinitely after two terms as president. Tens of thousands of people joined protests amid discontent over official corruption and widespread economic hardship.

Talks between the two men on Sunday broke up within minutes when the opposition leader said he’d only discuss the premier’s resignation. Pashinyan was detained shortly after, triggering the largest demonstration so far. Scores of troops also joined the anti-government movement on Monday for the first time.

‘I Was Wrong’

“Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong,” Sargsyan said in the statement announcing his resignation. “This situation has several solutions but I will not take any of them,” he said, as he wished “peace, harmony and logic for our country.”

This is a “victory” for Armenia’s citizens, Pashinyan said on Facebook. “Congratulations, victorious people.”

Sargsyan maintained close ties as president with Russia, which has a key military base in Armenia and sells arms to the Caucasus republic that’s locked in a decades-long conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. A former war leader from Nagorno-Karabakh, he took Armenia into the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and the two countries have a mutual-defense pact.

“Armenia, Russia will always be with you!” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Facebook after Sargsyan’s resignation.

Acting Premier

Sargsyan’s resignation in response to public protests “is an important event for the whole post-Soviet area,” Russian opposition politician Vladimir Milov said on Twitter.

Armenia’s government submitted its resignation and First Deputy Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan was named acting premier, the Interfax news service reported. He’d been prime minister for 19 months until stepping aside to make way for Sargsyan.

Pashinyan told supporters at a rally late Monday in Yerevan’s main Republic Square that he’ll meet Karapetyan on Wednesday to demand a transition of power leading to new parliamentary elections.

Sargsyan, 63, stepped down as president on April 9 at the inauguration of his successor Armen Sarkissian, and then announced his intention to become prime minister amid opposition criticism that he was effectively seeking a third term. The parliament dominated by his Republican party voted to appoint Sargsyan as premier on April 17 and he was the only candidate.

Sargysan resigned a day after he accused Pashinyan at their meeting of “blackmail” by trying to force him from office through street protests.

“You don’t understand the situation in Armenia,” Pashinyan replied. “The power is now in the people’s hands.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.