After weeks of mass protests, former Armenian president and newly appointed prime minister Serzh Sargsyan suddenly resigned on Monday, April 23. According to Al Jazeera, opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan told a rally in Armenia’s capital Yerevan that he was “ready to discuss conditions of Sargsyan’s resignation and transfer of power.”
The arrest of Pashinyan — who had called on his supporters to launch a “velvet revolution” to remove Sargsyan from power — the day before seemed to indicate that Sargsyan and his regime would not budge and if necessary dissolve protesting crowds with violence. But after thousands of soldiers joined the demonstrations, the prime minister must have understood that support for extending his ten years in power was clearly lacking. In a short statement published on his website, translated and annotated by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Sargsyan concluded: “The street movement is against my tenure. I am fulfilling your demand.”
After Sargsyan’s second presidential term ended on April 9, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia appointed Armen Sargsyan (no relation) as the new head of state. The party subsequently elected Serzh Sargsyan prime minister on April 17, in a blatant attempt to keep him in power. The tactic was one seemingly copied from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, albeit facilitated by changing the Armenian constitution so as to downgrade the position of the president and strengthen the prime minister’s role. It was this process that sparked mass protests across Armenia.
Armenia’s disaffected youth were the nucleus of the demonstrations, which began in March. While the movement was started primarily by members of the “Civil Treaty” party, Armenian youth came onto the streets in huge numbers beginning on April 17, the day Sargsyan was formally voted in as prime minister. By Sunday, April 22, 50,000 Armenians had gathered in the streets of Yerevan, surprising many of their fellow citizens.
Since 1999, the Republican Party has dominated Armenia, and only two men, once close friends — Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharian — have served as president. Once Sargsyan’s second and final term as president ended, the ruling party was left in a quandary as to how to continue its power. It chose to do so by electing Serzh Sargsyan prime minister. Armenia’s youth would, however, have none of this. After ten years of Sargsyan rule, the country’s economy is in bad shape and youth unemployment remains extremely high (35.1 % in 2017).
After Sargsyan stepped down, the Armenian government quickly named former prime minister and Sargsyan ally Karen Karapetian as acting prime minister. The Caucasus nation of three million has a history of violence when it comes to presidential elections. Indeed, every recent presidential vote — in 2003, 2008, and 2013 — has led to mass protests that were countered by violence from security forces. During the latest protests, the police acted with restraint, however.
The demonstrations that led to Sargsyan’s resignation were certainly not a revolution by any stretch of the imagination. But the voluntary and velvet transfer of power was definitely a break from Armenia’s past.