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Events in Armenia: not a ‘colour revolution’

The political crisis in Armenia had clear internal causes and is unlikely in the long term to effect Armenia’s close relationship with Russia

One of the great problems caused by the US’s ‘colour revolution/regime change’ policy is that it is sometimes difficult to separate a genuine political crisis and real protests from US confected ones.

Recent events in Armenia provide a good example.

Over the last week Armenia’s has been hit by a massive wave of protests following the ruling party’s attempt to appoint Armenia’s longstanding leader and former President Serzh Sargsyan to the post of executive Prime Minister.

The protests, which took place in several cities including the capital Yerevan and in which by some accounts some members of the military joined in, eventually led to the forced resignation of Prime Minister Sargsyan and of his government.

Talks are now underway on setting up a new government.

Comparisons with the events in Ukraine in 2013-2014 are irresistible, and many see in the events in Armenia a repeat of those events, with a ‘pro-Russian’ leader – Sargsyan – ousted by pro-Western protesters in what is essentially a ‘colour revolution’ coup orchestrated by the US.

In my opinion this comparison is misleading and is almost certainly wrong.

First of all, it should be said that Sargsyan can indeed be described as ‘pro-Russian’ if by that is meant someone with strong personal ties to the Russian leadership who has led Armenia on a course of integration into the Russian led Eurasian institutions.

That the Russian leadership sees in Sargsyan a friend is shown by the extraordinarily warm letter of congratulation Russian President Putin sent to him on his appointment as Prime Minister.  According to the Kremlin’s website parts of it read as follows

Your appointment to this responsible post reaffirms your high political authority and broad support for the reforms aimed at solving the socioeconomic challenges facing Armenia.

I am certain that your activities as head of government will facilitate the further consolidation of friendly, allied relations between our countries and the continuation of mutually beneficial integration processes in Eurasia.

I would like to reaffirm our interest in close cooperation on pressing international and regional issues

By comparison Viktor Yanukovich – the Ukrainian President who was ousted by the Maidan coup – was in no sense ‘pro-Russian’.  His relations with the Russian leadership and with President Putin personally were bad and far from integrating Ukraine into the Russian led Eurasian institutions he resisted doing so.  On the contrary it was his government which negotiated Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU.

However the key difference is in the attitudes of the protesters.  In Ukraine the Maidan protesters were outspokenly and vehemently hostile to Russia.  Indeed it was hostility to Russia and the issue of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia which was the driving force behind the protests.

By contrast there is no evidence of hostility to Russia playing any role in the anti-Sargsyan protests at all.  Nor does the question of Armenia’s relationship with Russia appear to have played any role in the protests.

The simple fact is that though Sargsyan has been Armenia’s leader for a long time, many Armenians have become increasingly unhappy with him, and disaffection towards him has been growing for some time.

This was explained at length two years ago during an earlier much more violent protest outbreak in Armenia by Rafael Babikian writing for The Duran

The Armenian public and diaspora were left with mixed feelings about the violent methods adopted by the gunmen. People defined the group by a wide range of terms, calling them anything from ultranationalists to “Armenia’s last hope”. But what’s interesting is that most of those who did not condone the methods, did agree with the gunmen’s demands. The popularity of President Sargsyan has been hanging by a thread for years now. The lack of popularity stems mostly from uneasy economic situation in Armenia. Many Armenians feel that the government has not done enough to promote economic growth, fight corruption and take on oligarchic monopolies, many of whom are members of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia itself……

What’s happening in Armenia is not another Ukrainian Euromaidan as some pundits would like to call it. The protesters have not come out with any chants against any country, and the issue is far from being related to Armenia’s deep ties with Russia, which has been getting deeper every year.

The event which precipitated the latest wave of protests was Sargsyan’s decision to break a promise he made during the constitutional referendum of 2015 not to stand for election as Armenia’s Prime Minister at the end of his second Presidential term if the outcome of the constitutional referendum was to convert Armenia from a Presidential into a parliamentary republic.

Though it is always difficult to assess the precise reasons why people vote the way they do, the fact remains that Armenian voters voted in the constitutional referendum to convert Armenia into a parliamentary republic, and voted in the Armenian parliamentary elections of 2017 for Sargsyan’s Republican party, after Sargsyan gave that promise .  It is at least possible and even likely that some Armenian voters who voted the way they did in the referendum and in the parliamentary elections did so because they placed reliance on Sargsyan’s promise.

It was Sargsyan’s decision to break his promise – confirming suspicions voiced by many of his opponents at the time of the constitutional referendum that the constitutional change being proposed by him was simply a manoeuvre intended to perpetuate indefinitely his hold on power – which provoked the protests.

Given the dissatisfaction with Sargsyan which has been building up in Armenia for some time, and the bad effect on the Armenian public of his broken promise, that is in no way surprising.

At this point I should say that contrary to what some Western commentators are saying, there is an essential difference between President Putin’s appointment to the post of Prime Minister of Russia in May 2008 on the conclusion of his second term as President, and what Sargsyan has just tried and failed to do.

Not only was Putin at that time immensely popular in Russia in a way that Sargsyan has never been in Armenia, but no change to the Russian constitution was made, and no promise that Putin would not be appointed Prime Minister or would not stand in future again as President was ever given.

Where does Armenia go from here?

The nominal leader of the protests is Nikol Pashinyan, an individual with a shady past who is a protege of Armenia’s former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan.  He is now calling for fresh elections and he may get his wish.  Whether he or his pro-Western party does well in those elections – in the 2017 parliamentary elections it only won 8% of the vote – remains to be seen.

Ultimately however Armenia’s position makes a fundamental geopolitical realignment unlikely.

Armenia is hard-pressed by strong and potentially hostile neighbours – Turkey and Azerbaijan – who are effectively in alliance with each other against it.  Moreover it is in a state of undeclared war with Azerbaijan over the disputed Armenian populated territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Though Russia has been working hard and with some success in recent years to improve its own relations with both Turkey and Azerbaijan, ultimately Armenia depends on Russia to guarantee its security.

Armenians – politically speaking a sophisticated people who have traditionally looked to Russia as their friend and protector – understand all this very well.

That makes it unlikely that political leaders and parties such as Pashinyan’s which want to distance Armenia from Russia will gain much traction in Armenia over the long term.

Certainly the Russians appear to be very relaxed about what has happened.  Their position throughout the protests has been determinedly non-interventionist.  Dmitry Peskov – President Putin’s spokesman – put it this way.

This is absolutely Armenia’s domestic affair, this is all I can say. Why should Moscow interfere?

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s Prime Minister, has for his part in a telephone conversation today with Armenia’s acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan sounded similarly confident.  Here is how the Russian government’s website reports the call

During their conversation the officials discussed current issues of Russian-Armenian relations and developments in Armenia. Dmitry Medvedev expressed support for the friendly Armenian people and stressed the importance of keeping the situation within legal and constitutional boundaries.

They also addressed the topic of integration within the Eurasian Economic Union.

(bold italics added)

The implication is that so long as the political situation in Armenia continues to develop within “legal and constitutional boundaries”-  ie. so long as there is no unconstitutional seizure of power by Pashinyan and his like – the Russians are relaxed about it.

Interestingly, from the other side of the fence, the US magazine Foreign Affairs – the  voice of the US foreign policy establishment – is of the same view

……we should not expect this to have geopolitical repercussions beyond Armenia’s borders, nor should we see it as a signal of Russian decline or as a prompt for potential Russian intervention. Sargsyan’s downfall is not about geopolitics. At most, it is a sign that post-Soviet regimes are not as secure as they look from a distance and that the region’s old regimes are perfectly capable of crumbling peacefully without any push from the outside……

We shouldn’t look at the events in Armenia, then, through a geopolitical prism. They are decidedly not a rejection of Russia. Armenia looks out at two closed borders, with Azerbaijan and Turkey — a result of an ongoing 30-year-old conflict over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The country’s military alliance with Russia stems from that and is deemed essential to national security. (The new opposition wants to lessen Russia’s economic hold over the economy, but that is a different matter.) Nor does Pashinian, the de facto opposition leader, dissent from the consensus line of the political establishment, which is opposed to making concessions over Karabakh, which Armenians fought over with Azerbaijan and have held since 1994.

Much will now depend on how the situation evolves over the course of the next few days.

Though the protests have been large there has been little in the way of violence and with Sargsyan gone the issue which united the protesters and which brought them out onto the streets has been removed.

Unlike Ukraine Armenia is a small but politically sophisticated country of 3 million people with a high degree of social and political cohesion.

That makes it possible and even likely that the crisis will now subside and that a road out of it which preserves Armenia’s vital relationship with Russia will be found.

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