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In Armenia, Cautious Optimism, Uncertainty Follow Shock Resignation


Former Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan (L) walks out of a meeting with protest leader Nikol Pashinian (R) in Yerevan, Armenia, April 22, 2018.

From the streets of the Armenian capital to think tanks across the Atlantic, activists and experts alike grappled with implications of Monday's shock resignation of Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan after 11 straight days of protest over the former president's new political appointment.

"Proud citizens of the Republic of Armenia, you have won!" protest leader Nikol Pashinyan announced to thousands celebrating Sargsyan's resignation in Yerevan on Monday.

Sargsyan, who was elected prime minister by parliament on April 17—some eight days after his two-term presidency ended—had previously said he would not seek to become prime minister after newly implemented constitutional changes, which he championed during his presidency, made the office of prime minister more powerful than that of the president.

When parliament convened for last week's vote, tens of thousands of protesters had already amassed in Yerevan's Republic Square, upset at Sargsyan's violation of his own pledge, claiming the shift threatened to make the 63-year-old leader for life.

Calling the rare populist political victory a "purely Armenian velvet revolution"—a reference to the 1989 protests that ended communist rule in Czechoslovakia—Pashinyan himself had particular reason to celebrate. The 42-year-old opposition lawmaker had been arrested shortly after a brief Sunday meeting with Sargsyan, which was organized with the aim of peacefully ending the protests.

Sargsyan walked out when Pashinyan said he came to discuss his resignation, to which the prime minister responded, "This is blackmail."

Serzh Sargsyan, left, speaks with protest leader Nikol Pashinian during their meeting in Yerevan, Armenia, April 22, 2018. (Hrant Khachatryan/PAN Photo via AP)
Serzh Sargsyan, left, speaks with protest leader Nikol Pashinian during their meeting in Yerevan, Armenia, April 22, 2018. (Hrant Khachatryan/PAN Photo via AP)

Within hours of Pashinyan's Sunday jailing, however, it was announced that he and other demonstrators detained or arrested during the protests would be released.

Early Monday came Sargsyan's official statement, declaring "Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was mistaken. ... I am giving up the post of the country’s prime minister. ... The movement in the streets is against my tenure. I comply with your demand."

On Monday evening, Armenians still reeling from the dramatic turn of events reacted with everything from smug determination to exuberant optimism to deep skepticism.

"We were certainly expecting this outcome, we knew the protests would have this result!" said one man who appeared to be in his 30s and, like others, did not share his name. "There were no other options. Good for everybody!"

"Has anyone even seen the video of him resigning? We don’t believe it, and we won’t believe it until we see it," said another man, surrounded by a group of fellow revelers. "We were certainly hoping for it, but it’s unbelievable."

Armenian officials say parliament has accepted the resignation and now have seven days to put forward the name of a new prime minister. In the meantime, former Armenian prime minister Karen Karapetyan, an ally from Sargsyan's ruling Republican Party was named acting prime minister.

Sargsyan's allies remain in key positions in the government and it remains unclear whether his resignation will herald any real change.

According to one young Armenian demonstrator, Sargsyan's resignation alone represents a political benchmark for the small southern Caucuses nation.

"I know that after this, Armenian people understand that they can [bring about political change]," she told VOA's Armenian Service. "If after this the country gets into this type of neglected situation again, the people will rely on this event to know that we are powerful and able to change things.

Yerevan residents celebrate Armenian Prime Minister's Serzh Sargsyan's resignation in Yerevan, Armenia, April 23, 2018.
Yerevan residents celebrate Armenian Prime Minister's Serzh Sargsyan's resignation in Yerevan, Armenia, April 23, 2018.

"And we won’t have this type of situation again in our country," she said.

Some experts, however, aren't so sure.

"Because Armenia and Russia have a military alliance, there are 3,000 Russian troops in Armenia itself ... there is no 'will Armenia go in a different direction?'” Yuval Weber of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute in Washington told VOA.

"Armenia is set with Russia in order to help defend itself against Azerbaijan and to maintain its control over Nagorno-Karabakh,” he added, referring to a mountainous part of Azerbaijan run by ethnic Armenians who declared independence during a conflict that broke out as the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991.

"Any leader of Armenia has to essentially be pro-Russian."

Other experts, however, suggested the unexpected resignation—especially how quickly it came to pass—may indicate a broader political sea-change in the tiny nation of 3 million.

"What surprised me is not the fact that there were protests, but how quickly they became large-scale and the fact the former Prime Minister Sargsyan has actually resigned," said Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former National Security Council staffer during the Obama administration.

"I am surprised at the success of the protest movement has so quickly galvanized the government, the establishment, and convinced Sargsyan that it was time to go," he added. "Even the opposition Armenian politicians didn’t see this as a move that would lead to a clear change of leadership."

"This regime that was based on fear of people to speak out and protest, is coming to an end," said Gevorg Ter-Gabrielyan, an analyst with the Yerevan-based Eurasia Partnership Foundation, which is supported in part by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Sargsyan's resignation, he said, is just the first move in a broader political shift.

"It happened despite all political prognoses that democracy has left post-Soviet countries," he said in an interview with VOA's Russian Service. "Armenia just demonstrated that people have voice and power. The historic importance of this event is enormous—it is not just a local Armenian issue. The most important is the possibility of peaceful and democratic change of power. We did not let one more regime in post-Soviet bloc become everlasting."

Responding to the latest developments, a State Department spokesman thanked Sargsyan "for his many years of service and his contributions to the strong U.S.-Armenia partnership."

"We expect the democratic process to determine his successor will be conducted in a transparent manner, consistent with Armenia’s laws and international obligations, and we look forward to working closely with the new government," the official added.

U.S. Senator Edward Markey, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the resignation marks "a good day for democracy in Armenia.”

“It is a good day for the rule of law in Armenia, and it is a good day for the Armenian people," he added. "I congratulate the people of Armenia on their continued move towards a free and open democratic society. I look forward to continuing to work to enhance the friendship between the United States and Armenia based on our shared values.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was "very attentively observing what is happening in Armenia," which was once a Soviet republic that has retained close ties to Moscow.

This story originated in VOA's Armenian Service. Anush Avetisyan of VOA's Russian Service contributed original reporting.