Armenia's Revolution Is a Lesson for Putin

(Bloomberg View) -- It was almost inconceivable after Russia's violent reaction to Ukraine's 2014 "Revolution of Dignity" that tiny Armenia, a largely Moscow-friendly nation, would attempt a revolution of its own. Yet on Monday, Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan was forced to resign by mass protests that paralyzed the nation.

Russia is unlikely to intervene: The protesters have been careful to stress that their motives were strictly domestic. And yet the end of Sargsyan's career should be of interest to another leader who might be tempted to extend his reign past constitutional limits: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

For 10 years, Sargsyan had been Armenia's president. A native of Nagorno Karabakh, disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan, he rose in the 1990s to become the breakaway region's defense minister and eventually to occupy the same position in Armenia. The Karabakh issue, important to many Armenians, carried him to victory in the 2008 presidential election. As president, he played a complex game, letting Russia extend its military presence in Armenia yet also cooperating with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, joining Putin's pet project the Eurasian Economic Union and signing a partnership agreement with the European Union. Unlike the leaders of Georgia and Ukraine, who navigated the divide between Russia and the West in much less nuanced ways, Sargsyan was happy to work with anyone except Azerbaijan.

While this stance was geopolitically sound for a small, landlocked country engaged in a festering territorial conflict, Armenia hasn't done well economically under Sargsyan. It has barely recovered after a 14 percent economic output drop in 2009. Strong economic ties to Russia have been one reason for the slow economic performance, not that Armenia had too many other options. In 2017, the Armenian economy posted an impressive growth of 7.5 percent, but that was from a low base after almost zero growth in 2016. Through the end of that year, the Armenian economy was tortured by deflation and an anemic domestic demand. The government has consistently run high budget deficits, and unemployment remains above 16 percent.

Armenia is a poor nation, with 11.6 percent of its population living below the official poverty level of $3.20 a day, adjusted for purchasing power parity, and the most active part of its population has long preferred to emigrate. According to 2017 data from the United Nations, almost 900,000 people born in Armenia live outside their home country while only 3 million are still there (the entire Armenian diaspora, which emerged long before the nation became independent, has been estimated at 8 million). Remittances from the emigres constitute some 14 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

Immigration provides a release valve for discontent, and widespread poverty has allowed Sargsyan to consolidate power beyond what's normal for democratic countries. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has observed all major Armenian elections, has reported widespread intimidation, pressure and vote-buying during Sargsyan's rule. He also failed to do anything about the country's pervasive corruption

The Armenian constitution only permits two presidential terms, and in 2015, Sargsyan ran a referendum ostensibly shifting the country to a European-style parliamentary republic run by a prime minister who leads the country as long as his or her party wins elections. At the time, Sargsyan claimed he didn't want to become prime minister himself. But in 2017, Sargsyan's Republican Party won a parliamentary election, and he was elected prime minister last week after his presidential term ran out.

In response, more than 100,000 Armenians flooded the central square of Yerevan, the nation's capital, in the biggest rally of the past 20 years. Thousands also took to their balconies to bang on empty saucepans, and thousands more marched in provincial towns. In total, some 20 percent of the country's population took part in the protests, led by Nikol Pashinyan, a journalist turned legislator, whose Way Out faction controlled almost 8 percent of the seats in parliament. Young people were the movement's driving force: Faced with a choice between emigrating and trying to change things at home, students have, for the first time in decades, chosen the latter option.

On Sunday, Sargsyan met with Pashninyan, hoping to negotiate an end to what the opposition leader described as a "velvet revolution." Pashinyan merely demanded his resignation, so Sargsyan left in a huff after just three minutes

On Monday, as unarmed but uniformed members of the military joined the crowd in the central square, police gave up trying to control the crowd and detain rabble-rousers. Sargsyan gave up, too. "Nikol Pashinyan was right," he said in his resignation statement. "I was mistaken. There are a number of solutions in the current situation, but I will not resort to any of them. That is not my work style. I am giving up the post of the country’s prime minister."

The stern Karabakh warrior surrendered to an unarmed, pointedly non-violent crowd. Mass jubilation followed, and, unlike in Ukraine, it's unlikely to be marred by a forceful Russian response. Asked on April 19 for a reaction to the Armenian protests, Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, merely expressed a conviction that "the situation in friendly Armenia will be resolved democratically and lawfully." Pashinyan interpreted that as a decision not to support Sargsyan, and he was probably right. Given Sargsyan's decision to resign, there's no reason to speak of a coup, as official Moscow did after the Ukrainian revolution. There's also no trace of Western interference; the protesters haven't received public support from any foreign leaders. While Pashinyan has complained about Armenia's obedience to Moscow, he won't be one to dismantle the relationship, if only because Armenia is too small to put up the kind of resistance Ukraine has and mindful of how quickly neighboring Georgia was overrun by Russian troops in 2008.

Without a single reason to interfere with Armenians' choice, Putin need to think hard about the finale of his own presidential career. According to the Russian constitution, that is scheduled for 2024. He could try switching to the prime minister's office, as he did in 2008 when Dmitri Medvedev took over as placeholder president, and he could push through constitutional changes that would make the prime minister's office the most powerful in the land. But what if Russians are as fed up by his rule in six years as Armenians were with Sargsyan's? And what if they follow Armenians' example and protest non-violently but stubbornly and in large numbers? That sounds almost impossible today, but six years is a long time, and, given Russia's lack of economic direction and deep-seated corruption, it can't be ruled out.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

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