Armenia: Fight for transformations

Richard Giragosian, Regional Studies Center (Yerevan, Armenia)

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For the first half of the year, the dominant focus in Armenia was the completion of the country’s long-awaited transformation from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary form of government. Based on the new Armenian constitution, the full change was due to be completed by April 2018, with the selection of a new prime minister as the new operational head of state after an indirect election for a new, largely symbolic president in March 2018.

Domestic Policy: The right man at the right time

Under the terms of the revised Armenian constitution, the new president is a largely symbolic head of state, similar to the examples of Georgia, Israel, and some European states. The presidency lost its legislative veto power and handed over the position as commander-in-chief to the next prime minister, with the figure head role concentrated around ceremonial duties. For both positions, president and premier, there will no longer be national direct elections. Rather, the president is elected by the parliament and the next prime minister is approved by a small “electoral college” composed of parliamentarians, regional governors, and a few other state officials.    

For the Armenian government, the country’s transformation to a new parliamentary form of government was largely seen as a predetermined passage of power. That scripted transformation opened on April, 9 with the inauguration of Armen Sarkissian, assuming the new post as a president, with no opposing candidate.  

But it was the second, closing chapter in Armenia’s political transformation that was a far more powerful trigger. In a move that was widely expected, incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian ended his second, final term as president by moving swiftly to assume the post of prime minister. He yet again became the functional new head of state on April, 17 as the sole candidate for the parliament’s consideration. And while neither element of this transformation came as any real surprise, the reaction was anything but expected.  The combination of astute political tactics by the opposition and the government’s complacency in underestimating the degree of dissent and discontent quickly redefined the political calculus in the country.

In fact, throughout April 2018, the continuation of Sarkisian as the head of state was much more powerful trigger than expected and drove tens of thousands of peaceful protesters into the streets. After mounting pressure and resolute momentum by the demonstrators, Armenia’s long-time president-turned-prime minister, Serzh Sarkisian, resigned smoothly and surprisingly after a decade in power.

This rare success of “people power”, defined by a campaign of peaceful and principled civil disobedience, was not only unique for Armenia but seemed to follow a broader trend in Georgia and Ukraine earlier.

Yet it must be noted that newly elected prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has been correctly seen as “the right man at the right time”. An “alignment of stars” in Armenia’s political galaxy, involving a potent new form of public activism, a largely discredited and deeply unpopular ruling elite and a gift for charismatic populist political leadership combined to energize and empower Pashinyan and his youthful team.


With mounting expectations and anger dangerously high, the real challenge of governance is only beginning


The real question now, however, is what lies ahead. After such polarization and dissent, the launch of parliamentary politics seems under threat and undermined by an inherent lack of trust or public confidence. Moreover, there are fears and concerns over the power of the ruling Republican Party, which is seen as potentially even more dangerous as it undermines the necessity for consensus and compromise by relying on one-party dominance.  

Thus, snap elections are now crucial, especially to reflect the new Armenian political reality. And despite the Armenian government’s misreading of the intensity of dissent and the impressive tactics of the protests, what is needed is a sober power-sharing reconfiguration. Yet such consensus and compromise seem very far away, and with mounting expectations and anger dangerously high, the real challenge of governance is only beginning.

Economy: The same track

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s cabinet will carry on with the structural reforms that were launched by the previous Armenian government. The new leader has prioritized an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign, which has already done much to appease public expectations.

Foreign Policy: No geopolitics

An impressive element of Armenia’s so-called “velvet revolution” was that at no point in the dramatic demonstrations did geopolitics play any part.  This was especially impressive given the dual reality of Armenia’s “strategic alliance” with Russia and, even more startlingly, the unusually permissive Russian reaction. Neither Armenian opposition leaders nor embattled government officials sought to inject any context of international geopolitics. And the fact that a loyal and submissive leader of a small country firmly locked within the Russian orbit was neither defended by Moscow nor driven to appeal for Russian support was a significant surprise.

Thus, unlike Ukraine or Georgia, the Armenian model of regime change did not imply any strategic U-turn.  And while the demonstrations were driven and defined by a local, rather than a geopolitical agenda, geopolitical considerations will undoubtedly exert pressure and influence over any new leadership in Armenia.

This inescapable fact stems from two main factors.  After all, regardless of its leadership, Armenia remains deeply dependent on Russia, for guns, gas, and goods.  It’s the only host of a Russian military base and the only member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the region. Furthermore, the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict necessitates Armenian reliance on discounted weapons from Russia, especially as Armenia is compelled to keep pace with years of massive defense spending and an arms buildup by Azerbaijan. Equally important, Armenia is structurally dependent on subsidized Russian natural gas and remittances from workers in Russia, as well as the more recent impediment of membership in the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union. Against that backdrop of limited options and little room to maneuver, the outlook for Armenia’s tenuous position within the Russian orbit seems to be defined as a delicate and difficult balancing act.

The more detailed outlook for the prospects of developments in Armenia is provided in this issue’s analytical piece “The dawn of new Armenia”.