Furious protests continue as Sargsyan sworn in as Armenian PM

Furious protests continue as Sargsyan sworn in as Armenian PM
Protest organiser and Civil Contract party leader Nikol Pashanian addresses the media near the parliament in Yerevan.
By Carmen Valache in Berlin April 18, 2018

With 77 votes in favour and 17 against, the Armenian parliament voted on April 17 for former president Serzh Sargsyan to become the country's next prime minister. The vote took place against a backdrop of mass protests in the capital Yerevan and the largest cities, which saw tens of thousands of Armenians rallying against Sargsyan's continued rule. The demonstrations are now into their sixth day.

Sargsyan served two terms as president between 2008 and 2018 and has been accused of perpetrating a culture of corruption and economic mismanagement in the impoverished country of 2.9mn people. Upon the ruling Republican Party's proposal, the country changed its constitution in 2016 to become a parliamentary, rather than a presidential, republic. In the past, Sargsyan has said he had no intention of becoming PM after stepping down from the presidency. Protesters, furious at his “power grab”, have been chanting "Serzh the liar".

With the presidency now reduced to a largely ceremonial role, Sargsyan is poised to remain the most powerful politician in Armenia for at least another four years, at least until the next parliamentary elections. Given that there is no stated term limit for the office of prime minister, and seeing how Sargsyan is the chairman of a party that has been in power for over two decades, his rule could in theory extend for much longer. 

In response to Sargsyan's bid to remain the most powerful leader in the country, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Yerevan from April 13, threatening to remain there until the parliamentary vote on April 17 and to block access to the parliament building. Some 46 were injured in clashes between the riot police and demonstrators on April 16, according to a statement by the health ministry. The crowds grew to the tens of thousands and the rallies expanded from Yerevan to other large cities in Armenia, like Gyumri and Vanadzor. 

The organiser of this week's demonstrations, Nikol Pashanian, the MP who leads the Civil Contract party, has called the movement a "non-violent velvet revolution" and has urged people to continue the peaceful demonstrations in order to force the government to resign. Pashanian, who has been mostly on the streets since April 13 rallying demonstrators and who was injured in confrontations with the police, told protesters on April 17: "Something unprecedented is happening in Armenia: the same person wants to become the country's leader for a third time. We cannot let this happen [...] The time has come to liberate Armenia's citizens. With this minor inconvenience we are trying to save you from a greater inconvenience called Serzh Sargsyan." 

"We must paralyse the entire state system and the power should pass to the people," Pashanian also told protesters in Yerevan. "Serzh Sargsyan must see that he has no Armenia to rule in and no people to rule over," he declared.

Meanwhile, from his own podium, Sargsyan accepted the parliament's vote, saying: "I am standing here today as a leader of the party which can ensure a harmonious cooperation between the executive and legislative branches of power." With Sargsyan occupying the top executive position and the Republican Party commanding a majority in parliament, it is unlikely that there will be much distinction between the executive and legislative powers under his administration. 

Fractured opposition's ability to organise in question
Maximilien Lambertson, lead Armenia and Georgia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told bne IntelliNews on April 17 that the protests currently appeared smaller than those sparked by Sargsyan's first election as president in 2008, but much would now depends on the ability of the fractured opposition to organise and the restraint of the protesters and security forces when it came to violence.

Lambertson said: “The protests underline the strong sense of alienation felt by many, reflecting anger at the lack of social and political reform, coupled with a perception that political change is impossible through formal channels.”

He added: “Armenia has a track record of public unrest and major demonstrations, which many see as one of the only ways to hold government to account. Aside from anger at the brazenness of Serzh Sargsyan’s [shift to become the] newly-empowered prime minister, discontent with the government is high because of entrenched corruption, inequality and a failure to foster inclusive economic growth.” 

The prosecutor general's office has deemed that the rallies contravene legislation on public gatherings, and 80 demonstrators have been arrested thus far. In a statement on April 16, watchdog Human Rights Watch urged Armenian law enforcement to refrain from the violence that has characterised its anti-demonstration interventions in the past. 

Sargsyan - and the Armenians - have a history of peaceful demonstrations turning bloody. After the former president was first elected in 2008, 10 died in mass demonstrations against his alleged rigging of the election.