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‘I Was Wrong’: Armenian Leader Quits Amid Protests

Thousands of incensed Armenians, most of them young, swarmed through Republic Square starting on April 13. The protests gradually spread to other major cities in the tiny southern Caucasus nation, including Gyumri and Vanadzor.

The pressure on Mr. Sargsyan, 63, to resign ratcheted up markedly on Monday after soldiers from one company of the country’s prestigious peacekeeping force, which had served abroad in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, joined the march in Yerevan in their uniforms.

“All the momentum was with the street,” said Thomas de Waal, an expert on the Caucasus region at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.


Serzh Sargsyan, left, the longtime president of Armenia who was recently appointed prime minister, met with the opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan in Yerevan on Sunday. Credit Vano Shlamov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Tuesday is Armenia’s Genocide Memorial Day, when many of the country’s more than 2.6 million people turn out onto the streets. It was expected to quickly turn into a vast anti-Sargsyan demonstration that would have been unthinkable to suppress by force, said Aleksandr M. Iskandaryan, the director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan.

Mr. Sargsyan had promised last year not to try to extend his tenure in office by becoming prime minister when his presidential term ended.

Karen Karapetyan, who had just left the post of prime minister to make way for Mr. Sargsyan, stepped in as acting prime minister.

The rapid events threw the country into disarray. The new Constitution invests considerable power in the Parliament, and some expected snap elections to be called.

The demonstrations were fueled by a new generation of Armenians disenchanted with the small elite of politicians and their oligarch allies who have long controlled the government and much of the economy, analysts said. The protesters dismissed the standard argument that Armenia needed unvarying leadership to negotiate an end to the conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan and to deal with the tense relations with Turkey on the other side.

“There is a new generation that wants change,” Mr. de Waal said. “The problem is that they do not really have a leader.”

Nikol Pashinyan, the opposition member of Parliament who led the protests, lacks a party and a large constituency.

Mr. Sargsyan agreed to meet with Mr. Pashinyan on Sunday but stormed out of the meeting within minutes, claiming he was being blackmailed. Then Mr. Pashinyan and two of his opposition allies were detained overnight, after scores of demonstrators were also detained. The three opposition leaders figures were released on Monday.


Armenian students march through the streets of Yerevan on Monday, protesting efforts by the former president to stay in power. Credit Vano Shlamov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. de Waal compared the protesters to the professional, urban elite who turned out to protest President Vladimir V. Putin’s re-election in 2012 after he served as prime minister for one term to avoid term limits. Some Armenians even referred to their leader’s maneuver as “pulling a Putin,” Mr. Giragosian of the Regional Studies Center said.

Unlike Armenian leaders, however, Mr. Putin cracked down hard, sending in the riot police and making an example of some protesters with lengthy jail sentences. Any sign of government change through protests, like that in Ukraine, makes the Kremlin jittery, so the protests in Armenia garnered scant attention on Russian state television until Mr. Sargsyan resigned.

Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, praised the transition for being peaceful, saying, “Armenia, Russia is always with you!

Armenia, a Soviet state until declaring independence in 1991, remains a close partner of Russia in a volatile region, with a Russian military base at Gyumri. It has been locked for two decades in a low-grade war with Azerbaijan, another former Soviet republic, over control of a disputed enclave called Nagorno-Karabakh. Some Armenians accuse Russia of fueling a new outbreak of the fighting in 2016 by selling arms to both sides.

Azerbaijan has long exploited unrest in Armenia to try to make gains in the conflict, which may be one reason Mr. Sargsyan acted swiftly, analysts said. Beyond that, the start of his presidency in 2008 was marred by street protests in which 10 people were killed and 100 injured — so he was determined to keep the peace this time, they said.

Apart from political and territorial tensions, the country also has suffered from a rocky economy in recent years. Armenia depends heavily on remittances from its diaspora, which grows by some 50,000 people annually, said Andrei G. Areshev, a researcher on the Caucasus at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

Armenians working in construction and other manual jobs in Russia were hit hard by the devaluation in the ruble in 2015, but they sent home $ 1.07 billion last year, according to records from the Central Bank. As prime minister, Mr. Karapetyan had helped the economy grow by fostering a technology sector, among other steps.

Given that most key government officials, including the acting prime minister, are Sargsyan allies, it is unclear that his resignation will bring any immediate change, or what he protesters might do next.

“The government hoped the tide would die down, but the opposite happened,” Mr. Iskandaryan said in Yerevan.

Source: NYT > World

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