It looks like the typical “color revolution.”
Pro-democracy crowds take to the streets in the capital of some post-Soviet republic to peacefully protest the political manipulations of their Moscow-friendly ruling elite and demand sweeping reforms to the corrupt, oligarchic economic system they've grown to despise.
That's what's happening right now in Armenia. For over two weeks, huge, mostly youthful crowds have been holding rolling demonstrations in the center of Yerevan and other Armenian cities, reacting to an attempt by two-term President Serzh Sargsyan to extend his grip on power. Most previous “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union have been similarly triggered by fraudulent elections or other duplicitous abuses of power.
But unlike those previous cases, the massive popular upsurge in Armenia went almost unnoticed in Western capitals for 10 days, until Mr. Sargsyan suddenly bowed to the street and stepped aside last Monday. Moreover, Russia, which is home to more than 2 million Armenians and has been obsessed with the supposedly dire threat of “color revolutions” for years, was more alert but surprisingly calm.
Things are still up in the air on the streets of Yerevan, and the tense drama may well end up striking a major blow for democracy and the power of civil society. But there are few, if any, geopolitical stakes in Armenia. While the government might become more democratic, Armenia's reliance on Russia for trade and security will not change. And that is the main reason for the almost disinterested shrugs on all sides.
“We may await wide-scale changes in domestic policies. New people may come to the top, with a whole new attitude,” says Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the independent Caucasus Institute in Yerevan. “But this revolution has an entirely internal genesis. Foreign policy isn't even a subject for discussion.”
'Russia will not intervene'
The tiny, landlocked republic of Armenia is a traditional Russian ally, a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union and military Collective Security Treaty Organization, and wedged between its long-standing enemies Turkey and Azerbaijan. So, it depends heavily on Russia for its national security.
Though chronically poor by Western standards, over half of Armenians have post-secondary education. Large numbers go abroad for permanent or temporary employment. There are huge Armenian diasporas in Russia, North America, and Europe, and contacts are intense. The country of around 3 million people has enjoyed about 7 percent annual growth in recent years, but its GDP of around 11 billion is modest and heavily dependent on around $500 million in annual remittances from Armenians working abroad, mostly in Russia.
The recent street revolt came in response to Sargsyan's attempt to “pull a Putin” by changing the constitution to vest the lion's share of authority in the parliament, then getting his ruling Republican party to name him prime minister. Though his party did appoint him prime minister, he only lasted six days before resigning under popular pressure.
The largely spontaneous eruption ended up with Nikol Pashinyan, whose Civil Contract party holds just 8 percent of the seats in the parliament, as its leading symbol and most likely beneficiary. He is demanding that the parliament choose a “people's candidate” who is not from the ruling Republican Party when it meets to decide on a new prime minister on May 1. Beyond that, he demands new elections and sweeping political reforms.
He hasn't suggested any changes to Armenia's complex relations with Russia. “I had a meeting with an official from Moscow and got reassurance that Russia would not intervene in Armenia's internal affairs,” Mr. Pashinyan told a rally in central Yerevan earlier this week.
That's a marked break from the Russian reaction to similar events which unfolded over the past decade and a half in Georgia, twice in Ukraine, and even twice in distant Kyrgyzstan. But in this case, the Kremlin has indeed repeatedly insisted that there is no cause for alarm. The fiery Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, even took to her Facebook page to declare “Armenia, Russia always stands with you!”
But in fact, Russia has not shown much interest in blocking Armenia's dalliances with democracy, including those with the European Union. In 2017, without any apparent objection from Moscow, Armenia signed a revised Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the EU, and announced its intentions to keep developing its relations with both Russia and the EU, even though its main trading partner is Russia.
Armenia needs Russia
That boils down in large part, analysts say, to the immutability of Armenia's security needs – even if it becomes more democratic.
“Armenia is in a complicated geopolitical situation, but the bottom line is that it doesn't have many alternatives,” says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Institute for the Commonwealth of Independent States, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “It is very connected with its diaspora around the world, who are very influential. It always has maintained good relations with both Russia and the West. But, given that it is locked in [a frozen] war with Azerbaijan over [the Armenian-populated territory of] Nagorno-Karabakh, and has NATO member Turkey on its other border, it needs Russia and is not likely to change its geopolitical position no matter who comes to power.”
As a sharp example of a post-Soviet country whose population chafes at Russian-style “managed democracy” and corrupt crony-oriented economic policies, Armenia's pro-democracy revolt seems another in a familiar series rocking the Putin-era ex-Soviet region. But as a Moscow vassal tearing itself free and rushing into the West's embrace, not so much.
“It bears all the hallmarks of a 'colored revolution,' but it's completely driven by domestic politics,” says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow business daily Kommersant. “Armenia's agreement with the EU is mostly symbolic, since it remains highly dependent on Russian loans, arms, and trade. Indeed, there's very little the West could offer Armenia, even if there was a Ukrainian-style mood to change sides on the streets in Yerevan today. But there isn't. And I doubt the events in Armenia even register very much on US or European agendas at all as these very dramatic events unfold.”