Armenia scores one for democracy

We worry, rightly, about the rise of authoritarianism in many parts of the world, but the scene is not all gloomy. Democracy continues to make gains in many places as well, with the spotlight this week on Armenia.

Armenia’s story may sound familiar. A fortnight ago, the leader of the ruling party, Serzh Sargsyan, reached the end of his maximum two terms as president. He duly left office, but then, contrary to his previous promises, was immediately appointed as prime minister, and confirmed by parliament last Tuesday. A referendum in 2015 had changed the constitution to make the prime ministership the more powerful position, evidently with just this scenario in mind.

But events then departed from the script. Protests broke out in Yerevan, the capital, and mounted in strength during the course of last week. On Saturday the new president, Armen Sargsyan (no relation – Sargsyan is apparently a very common name in Armenia), visited the protest site and expressed his support for talks with the opposition.

Opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan, the main leader of the protests, met briefly with Serzh Sargsyan on Sunday morning, with no agreement reached. The same day, he and other opposition figures were arrested and detained, but the protests continued to grow.

Yesterday it was reported that a number of members of the armed forces had joined the protests, and that was probably what convinced Serzh Sargsyan that his time was up. Last night he announced his resignation, saying “Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong.”

Former prime minister Karen Karapetian, also from the ruling Republican Party, has returned to the job on an interim basis while the government works out what to do next. The opposition is demanding fresh elections, and given the ascendancy it has established in the streets, it’s hard to see how that demand can be resisted.

The last election, just over a year ago, saw the Republicans win 49.2% of the vote and 58 of the 105 seats. Pashinyan’s liberal alliance, Way Out (or “Exit”), had only 7.8% and nine seats. Voting itself was said to be relatively free and fair, but against the background of an autocratic regime no-one ever gave the opposition much of a chance. Things might now be very different.

As post-Soviet autocrats go, Serzh Sargsyan has been a relatively mild one, and his decision to resign rather than attempt to crush the protests by force certainly does him credit. A previous round of protests, in 2011, had also been met by concessions and eventually an amnesty.

The 2015 shift to parliamentary government should also be seen as a positive move. Even though Serzh Sargsyan clearly saw it in part as a way to perpetuate his rule, there’s little doubt that parliamentary regimes on democracy’s borderlands have generally held up better than presidential ones, and that a shift to presidentialism has often been associated with a drift towards authoritarian rule (neighboring Turkey is a leading exhibit).

There is a lot of unfinished business in the Caucasus. Whoever ends up on top in Armenia will have to continue a delicate balancing act between the competing pressures of Russia, Turkey and the European Union. But a new parliament with real democratic credentials would be a good start.

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