The 2017 Constitution Day march in Yerevan

Moscow cautiously permissive of 'revolution' in neighboring Armenia

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In 1965, Yerevan, the capital of the then-Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, was the site of the first large-scale anti-regime protests in the Soviet Union. Demanding the construction of a monument to the Armenian Genocide on its fiftieth anniversary, protestors forced a reluctant Moscow to permit the establishment of the poignant Tsitsernakaberd memorial in Yerevan, erected in 1967.

A founding republic of the Soviet Union, Armenia has long been dependent on its powerful neighbor. Since gaining independence in 1991, Armenia has chosen to remain closely aligned to Russia, joining Russian-led international organizations of post-Soviet states, including the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military alliance, and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

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Fifty-three years after the 1965 Yerevan demonstrations, mass protests have once again caused an earthquake in Armenian politics. In April, a campaign of civil disobedience led by opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan forced the resignation of two-term president Serzh Sargsyan, who had been attempting to skirt constitutional term limits by being named prime minister.

On Tuesday, the #RejectSerzh movement (the slogan rhymes in Armenian) celebrated a further victory as the Armenian National Assembly confirmed Pashinyan as the country’s new prime minister.

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Sargsyan’s tactics echoed those of a neighboring ruler, Vladimir Putin, who was also named Prime Minister of Russia when his presidency came up against the two-term limit in the Russian constitution in 2008. The constitution was promptly amended, and Putin again acceded to the presidency in 2012, following an election widely considered fraudulent. This year, he won another term in office with a sweeping 77 percent of the vote.

Kremlin-watchers argued that this year’s Russian elections were notable in particular because they excluded Alexei Navalny, a fiery anti-corruption activist, from the race. The opposition leader, viewed as the most serious opponent to Putin’s rule, has demonstrated an ability to consistently turn out thousands to his protests in the face of harsh repression by the authorities, including on the eve of Putin’s inauguration.

Navalny’s allies have reported looking to Armenia as an example to emulate, leading some to question whether the Kremlin fears the precedent of a popular protest movement toppling an established leader in a Russian-aligned post-Soviet state, and to what extent it is willing to act on those fears.

According to Seva Gunitsky, a professor at the University of Toronto, “what happened in Armenia goes against the official Kremlin line that protests equal chaos. Putin can’t be very comfortable seeing a successful protest movement toppling a leader right next door.”

On the other hand, Yuval Weber, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, cautions against drawing too many parallels between the potential for popular revolt in Armenia and Russia. “The only [Russian] politicians with nationwide recognition are very unpopular with huge swathes of the population, as with Ramzan Kadyrov [the leader of Chechnya], suppressed at every turn, as with Navalny, or are inside [Putin’s] system.”

Nonetheless, the Kremlin has been unusually permissive of the precedent set by Pashinyan in part because he has succeeded in convincing it that he does not represent a threat to its influence, according to Richard Giragosian, the director of the Yerevan think-tank the Regional Studies Center. “Regardless of its leadership, Armenia remains deeply dependent on Russia, for guns, gas and goods,” he told WikiTribune.

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Indeed, since the beginnings of the movement, Pashinyan had been scrupulously careful to avoid voicing any criticism of Russia and any suggestion that Armenia could move out of Russia’s orbit. He has stated that Armenia should remain in the EEU and CSTO, despite having in the past questioned the value of CSTO membership. Diana Yayloyan, a PhD student at Ankara University who was in Yerevan during the protests, said in an echange with WikiTribune that Pashinyan set aside his criticism of Russia partly because there is generally little negative perception of Russia in Armenia, even if “some Armenians complain that Armenia is too close to Russia and unable to determine its own path”.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that both Pashinyan and Sargsyan were in contact with Russian officials as the revolt unfolded, reassuring them that Russia’s influence was not being put into question by either side. Grutinsky said that Pashinyan had agreed with Moscow that his partisans would not fly European Union flags, a symbol likely to antagonize Russia. For his efforts, the new Premier even received a message of congratulations from Putin following his confirmation.

Giragosian says that Russia is not as jittery as it was during pro-Western protests in the post-Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine. He told WikiTribune that the frozen conflict over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh gives Russia significant leverage over Armenia. The region, internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, has been controlled by Armenia since the fall of the Soviet Union, following a war between the two countries.

“[Armenia] is the only host of a Russian military base and the only member of the CSTO in the region, and the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict necessitates Armenian reliance on discounted weapons from Russia,” Giragosian said.

“Armenia is compelled to keep pace with years of massive defense spending and an arms build-up by Azerbaijan.”

William Echols, a journalist specializing in Russian affairs, agrees that Moscow, while keeping an eye on events, is not overly worried. “Russia holds a leash around both Armenia and Azerbaijan in the form of Nagorno-Karabakh. It’s a perpetual stalemate through which Russia has perennial leverage over both states,” he says.

Giragosian points out that the new Prime Minister has been consistent in signaling to Russia that he does not seek a U-turn in relations with the West. “No matter how disingenuous this may be, the perception of Armenia as a consistent, loyal ally of Russia is more important than the reality, both to avoid prompting any Russian interference and provoking any Russian moves to undermine a new government.”

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