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Asia-Pacific

What will change in Armenia after Sarkisian resignation?

media Hundreds of opposition supporters took to the streets of Armenia's capital Yerevan on 23 April 2018 to force the departure of long-time leader Serzh Sarkisian. AFP

Armenia woke up to the first day in more than a decade without Serzh Sarkisian as its leader on Tuesday, after the prime minister gave into calls of protesters to leave power. Opposition leaders are calling for new elections but it remains to see if there will be a real change in the small country’s political culture.

Protesters on Republic Square in Yerevan were surprised at the abrupt change of position that led Sarkisian to step down.

On Sunday the long-time leader, who became prime minister last week after serving 10 years as president, accused protest leader Nikol Pashinyan of blackmail and had him and others arrested.

But protests continued to grow, even attracting some soldiers and army veterans, and on Monday evening Sarkisian resigned, saying that Pashinyan was right and he was wrong.

“I was very surprised, because the day before police started working more brutally against the crowd and my opinion was that the situation could turn bloody,” says Samvel Martirosyan, a social media and information security analyst who took part in the demonstrations.

“I was on Republic Square at that moment and everyone started to ask each other if they could confirm, because no one could believe that he resigned. It was very unexpected.”

Grievances over corruption and lack of legitimacy

Former prime minister Karen Karapetian has replaced Sarkisian in an interim role, and, technically, lawmakers should elect a new head of government.

But, with Sarkisian’s Republican Party holding the majority, Pashinyan is pressing for early elections to prevent the departed leader from ruling from behind the scenes.

A parallel issue is how legitimate any elections would appear, given the grievances of protesters, which run much deeper than Sarkisian himself.

“Election fraud has been widely documented by local and international observers, and it just made people angry as well, because they thought they could not change the government through elections,” says Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch.

“Other grievances include rampant corruption, poverty, oligarchic domination of the economy with close ties with the government, lack of accountability, lack of judicial independence, you name it.”

One question going forward, then, is whether the 10 days of protests that preceded Sarkisian’s announcement represent an evolution in the country’s political culture.

“It was the first time the youth have seen that they can do something, and it was the first time civil society won over the authorities,” says Martirosyan.

“We should try and clean the corrupt political elites and to throw oligarchs out of the government and parliament,” he continues. “Can Pashinyan succeed in this? I hope so, but I’m not sure.”

Armenia likely to keep ties with Russia and West

Moscow said Tuesday it viewed the situation as stable and rejected comparisons to the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, where protests saw the country shift from Russia’s orbit towards the West.

Participants in the protests in Yerevan also doubted there would be a major change in the country’s position.

“For Armenia it has always been better to have some balance between Russia and the West,” says Martirosyan. “Even Sarkisian moved to the West, so I don’t think we will see dramatic changes, maybe some fine tuning, a little more pro-Western and a little less pro-Russian, but nothing major.”

Paris-based political analyst Laurent Leylekian also doubts any major shifts in one of the rare former Soviet republics to maintain solid ties with Russia and Western countries.

“Most of the leading political parties and forces, probably including Pashinyan, cannot contest the Russian influence in the area because of the blockade formed by Turkey and also the ongoing state of war with Azerbaijan,” he says but adds that internal changes do seem to be happening.

“Some people are trying to change the deadlock situation of this old political system holding up power without any chance for civil society to access responsibility,” Leylekian says. “In this case it could trigger some change.”

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