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Armenia protests: What happens next?

Posted April 26, 2018 4:49 a.m. EDT

— Days of mass demonstrations in the streets of Armenia's capital brought about the resignation of leader Serzh Sargsyan and could now lead to a change of government.

Parliament will elect a new prime minister on May 1, state-run Armenpress reported. Meanwhile, opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan continues to call for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia to relinquish control.

The upheaval, while peaceful so far, has focused unusual international attention on the small former Soviet Republic, which borders Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Georgia. So what's it all about?

What triggered the protests?

Sargsyan, who had previously served two five-year terms as president, was appointed prime minister on April 17 -- just eight days after his presidency ended.

The move prompted thousands to take to the streets of the capital Yerevan to protest what was seen as an unconstitutional power grab.

Under constitutional changes Sargsyan promoted in 2015, the prime minister became more powerful than the president, leading to concern of authoritarian rule descending on the country.

As the protests entered their 11th day, Sargsyan -- who had previously said he would not try to become prime minster -- stepped down. "Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was mistaken," he said in his resignation statement.

His deputy, Karen Karapetyan, was then named acting prime minister at an emergency cabinet meeting. Sargsyan's handpicked successor, Armen Sargsyan (no relation), had been sworn in as president on April 9.

According to Laurence Broers, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank's Russia and Eurasia program, discontent with Serzh Sargsyan had been brewing for years.

He struggled to gain legitimacy after 10 people were killed as protesters were dispersed following his first, narrow 2008 election win, Broers said. Renewed conflict with Azerbaijan in April 2016 did nothing to help.

Meanwhile, Armenians have seen their country, once the poster child for democratization following the collapse of the Soviet Union, stagnate in the hands of an entrenched oligarchy while many citizens choose to leave, Broers said.

"Serzh Sargsyan has come out as a politician who was not really leading Armenia anywhere it needed to go," Broers said, adding that Sargsyan deserved credit for standing down rather using violence to try to cling to power.

Who is leading the opposition?

Pashinyan, of the opposition Civil Contract party, has headed the recent protests. He cuts a rebellious figure, with images showing him rallying the crowds while dressed in camouflage and with a bandaged hand, reportedly injured on barbed wire last week.

He was arrested over the weekend -- shortly after highly anticipated talks with Sargsyan broke down, with the prime minister walking out -- but was released Monday before the announcement that Sargsyan would resign.

Pashinyan and Karapetyan were due to meet Wednesday but the talks were called off by the acting prime minister the night before. Street protests resumed amid frustration over the political deadlock.

Speaking at a rally in Yerevan on Wednesday night, Pashinyan -- who's long been in opposition -- called for the "unconditional capitulation" of the ruling party, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

"I want to make clear that if there is even an attempt to nominate a Republican candidate as prime minister, the people will blockade the parliament building, the [main] government building and all the government buildings," he is quoted as saying.

Pashinyan urged parliament to choose a consensus candidate and called for negotiations on "the peaceful transition of power without any shocks," according to Armenpress.

Small, focused protests have been increasing in Armenia in recent years, supported by young people who have no memory of the Soviet era, Broers said. He doesn't ascribe sole credit to Pashinyan for the latest protests, but said the opposition figure "has been very successful in harnessing that desire and that energy for change."

The crunch now, Broers said, is whether Pashinyan can turn his hand to coalition-building skills, "because people have got to get off the street and into institutions."

What will happen next?

Parliamentary Speaker Ara Babloyan has called for lawmakers to elect a new prime minister on May 1, according to Armenpress.

Under the country's constitution, parliamentary factions are entitled to nominate candidates for the role within seven days of the prime minister's resignation, Armenpress said. An open vote is then held in the parliament.

The Civil Contract party urged parliament -- in which the Republican Party faction won 58 out of 105 seats in parliamentary elections a year ago -- to elect Pashinyan as the "people's candidate."

But it's not clear whether Pashinyan's opposition faction will be able to garner enough support from other opposition groups and Republican Party lawmakers to push his candidacy through.

"The Republican Party have two options," said Broers. "They can either try to force their own candidate (Karapetyan) through and repress protests -- the option of violence, basically. Or they can try to force through their candidate and fail to get them voted for, in which case snap elections would happen anyway."

Violence would destabilize the country and put the vested interests of the Republican Party elite at risk, he added -- another reason to seek consensus. Armenia's lawmakers will also be aware of the risk that Azerbaijan could seek to capitalize on any instability, said Broers.

Another danger, he added, is that Pashinyan comes to power and his bloc simply picks up where the previous party left off.

In a statement Wednesday issued through Armenpress, President Armen Sargsyan spoke of "a new page in the history of Armenia" and called for "all political forces" to follow a peaceful, constitutional path.

What role does Russia play?

Russia and Armenia maintain close relations. Armenia is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, an international body backed by Russia. Moscow is also an important provider of military hardware to Yerevan.

While Russia does not share a border with Armenia, it wields serious regional influence. When fighting broke out in 2016 between Azerbaijan and the Armenia-backed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Russian government quickly brokered a ceasefire.

Russian officials have been measured in their response to the recent protests. Following the resignation of Sargsyan, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova sent a message of support on Facebook.

"A people that has the strength even in the most difficult moments of its history to maintain unity and respect for each other -- despite categorical disagreements -- is a great people," she wrote. "Armenia, Russia is always with you!"

But the Kremlin is also suspicious of what Russian officials describe as "colored revolutions" -- democratic uprisings that have led to the ouster of friendly governments in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere -- as well as opposition demonstrations at home.

On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the continuing demonstrations in Armenia were "an internal affair of Armenia."

Asked if the Kremlin considered the peaceful protests to be part of a constructive dialogue with Armenia's government, he said: "We hope that they will have constructive exchanges that will allow for a compromise."

Armenian acting Deputy Prime Minister Armen Gevorgyan traveled to Moscow on Thursday for "working discussions," Armenpress reported, a day after President Sargsyan spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

What do other countries say?

In a statement Tuesday, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Armenia faced a "historic moment" as it embarks on the process of forming a new government.

"We urge all sides to engage constructively, within the legal framework of the Armenian constitution, to ensure a peaceful transition of power that follows the rule of law," she said.

The European Union said it applauded the "peaceful nature of the changes that we have been witnessing" in Armenia.

"It remains imperative that the current situation is resolved swiftly and peacefully. A national dialogue involving all political stakeholders remains crucial," said a joint statement from the EU delegation to Armenia and EU member states' embassies in Armenia.