Democracy Derailed: How Armenia Has Become the Post-Soviet Region's Model Dictatorship

On December 7, 2015, Armenia held a landmark referendum on constitutional reform. The results were resounding. Over 63% of Armenians voted in favor of reforms that would greatly increase the power wielded by the Prime Minister and render the president's role in the Armenian political process ceremonial.

Even though decreased presidential power in CIS countries is typically associated with democratic consolidation, liberal Armenians expressed severe discontent with the referendum's outcome. Opposition MPs in Armenia and European politicians accused regime officials of electoral fraud and criticized the lack of meaningful open political debate on constitutional reform prior to holding the vote. Four thousand Armenians protested the government's handling of the referendum in the streets of Yerevan immediately after the results were announced, confirming the predictions of Armenia experts that the regime would be destabilized yet again by mass unrest.

Despite these protests and the fierce rhetoric emanating from established opposition groups in Armenia, it is intriguing that the current wave of demonstrations have not escalated to the levels witnessed in the summer 2015 Electric Yerevan protests. This failure is a testament to the success of Serzh Sargsyan regime's authoritarian consolidation efforts. Even though the July protests were largely motivated by popular discontent with Armenia's relationship with Russia, Sargsyan successfully deflected these concerns to benefit of his regime security. The Armenian regime has effectively addressed the domestic undercurrents of the protests while simultaneously exploiting crises in Turkey and Nagorno-Karabakh to receive more extensive support from the Kremlin.

Why Sargsyan's Response to Electric Yerevan was Effective

Even though Armenia has a long tradition of popular protests forged from the transition experience and the instabilities associated with authoritarian consolidation in the post-1991 period, the summer 2015 protests in Yerevan posed a distinct challenge to Sargsyan's regime security. Unrest occurred outside the context of an election cycle and the extensive participation of previously apolitical youth and urban professionals in the protests highlighted the extent to which civil society in Armenia had matured in recent years. The anti-Russian undercurrents of the Electric Yerevan movement fueled many comparisons with the Euro-Maidan revolution in Ukraine, especially amongst Russian observers. At points, Sargsyan's long-term future appeared uncertain, with chorus of premature political obituaries drumming louder as unrest worsened day-by-day.

Sargsyan effectively defied these naysayers by demonstrating that he had learnt the lessons from Viktor Yanukovych's ignominious demise in Ukraine. Instead of resorting to mass violence to restore order, Sargsyan attempted to appease the protesters with concessions demonstrating his ostensible concern for their economic plight and demands for a less corrupt judicial process.

Six days after the protests began, Sargsyan made a public statement insisting that the 17% hike in electricity costs was necessary to ensure Armenia's power grid was operational. But to alleviate the financial burden, he announced that the government not households would cover the excess costs until an independent audit of the price hike was completed. To prevent opposition movements from snowballing in retaliation to gratuitous police brutality, Sargsyan launched a police investigation into officers involved in the June 23 crackdown. A senior regime-affiliated member of the police force was demoted and police officers involved in the repression were reprimanded.

Sargasyan's deft accommodation of the Yerevan protesters' grievances prevented the electricity protests from escalating into a national popular revolution. The absence of unified leadership amongst the Armenian opposition and the increasingly abstract nature of their agenda following the government's concession on the electricity issue ultimately defused the protests completely.

To prevent a more cohesive challenge to the Republican Party's 16 year long hegemony over Armenian politics from emerging, Sargasyan has attempted to stimulate the economy by borrowing from international lenders and by presenting Armenia as an economic bridge between China and Europe. He also launched an ambitious constitutional reform agenda weakening presidential power to present a more credible façade of democracy to the international community, while providing a gateway to a potential run for a third presidential term.

When opposition movements resisted these measures by claiming that Republican Party was trying to institutionalize a one-party system in Armenia, Sargsyan devised a divide-and-conquer strategy to marginalize the opposition and exploit its disunity. Amidst allegations of bribery and by courting Russian assistance, the Prosperous Armenia bloc supported the regime's proposed reforms, dissolving the opposition troika formed several months earlier.

As a result, opposition blocs like the Heritage Party who opposed the Sargsyan reforms became increasingly hostile towards those who acquiesced and experienced defections amongst their own ranks. The regime's clever political machinations ensured that the December 7 referendum was met with much more muted opposition than one would have expected on the heels of Electric Yerevan.

Armenia and Russia: A Tightening Partnership

The second prong of Sargsyan's authoritarian consolidation strategy is a counter-intuitive one: deepening Armenia's partnership with Russia. The Electric Yerevan protests highlighted Russia's eroding soft power in Armenia and diminished popular support for integration with Putin's Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) during a period of economic recession. Sargsyan's channeling of public anger away from Russia and towards Armenian domestic policy by appearing to crack down on government mismanagement and police brutality was a risky move. But in the long run, it has crystallized Russia's support for Armenia, at a time when Azerbaijan has been attempting to thaw relations with the Kremlin.

Russia's increased support for Armenia once again upholds its reputation as the leading guardian of authoritarianism in the CIS region. The head of the Federation Council's Foreign Relations Committee Konstantin Kosachev described the summer 2015 protests in Armenia as bearing "all the hallmarks of a colored revolution." Elites close to Kremlin insinuated that Western-backed NGOs had a hand in fomenting instability in Yerevan.

Sargasyan's new found sense of vulnerability implored Russia to tighten its alliance with Armenia. In late October, the Russian government proposed the creation of a joint air defense mechanism with Armenia as part of a broader plan to create a CSTO aerial umbrella extending to Central Asia. Armenia also received a $200 million loan from Russia, which would be used to purchase long-range weapons and military hardware vital for the modernization of its military.

The sale of arms at discounted prices during a period of economic crisis in Russia and a brewing debt crisis in Armenia is a telling sign of Putin's commitment to preserving the bilateral relationship. It also repaired the strains created by the January slaying of an Armenian family by a Russian soldier, an event that caused Regional Studies Center director Richard Giragosian to speculate that an end to Armenia's security dependence on Russia was near.

In addition to stoking fears of uncontrolled popular revolutions that could diffuse to Russia, Armenia has curried Russian patronage by exploiting regional crises. The recent inflammation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been at least partially attributed to Armenian provocation. Azerbaijan's defense ministry on October 1 accused Armenia of violating the ceasefire 80 times a day by using heavy machine guns and mortar shells.

In tandem with these escalations, Russia has become increasingly confrontational in its rhetoric about the Karabakh conflict. Russian ambassador to the OSCE Aleksandr Lukashevich recently described Turkey's unconditional support for Azerbaijan as detrimental to long-term prospects of peace and an infringement on OSCE responsibilities. The economic aid and coercive capabilities the Armenian regime has received from Russia depend in part on Armenia facing credible security threats. Creating an atmosphere of perpetual crisis in the South Caucasus therefore plays right into Sargsyan's hands.

Armenia's scathing condemnation of Turkey's recent downing of a Russian jet over its airspace, and solidarity with Russia's counter-terrorism campaign has also strengthened the Sargasyan regime's ties to Russia. Sergei Mironov, the chairman of the upper house of the Russian parliament, submitted a bill on "holding to account" deniers of the 1915 Armenian genocide. The prospect of a major Russian military buildup on the Turkey-Armenia border has also become more realistic.

Yet unlike Yanukovych who made integration with Russia or the acceptance of the EU association agreement a mutually exclusive choice, Armenia has been able to balance increased Russian support with a multi-vector foreign economic policy. Armenia has actively co-opted Chinese investment, received 30 million euros from the EU to improve fiscal governance, and has reopened negotiations on a broad-based bilateral framework agreement with Europe. Sargsyan's successful free-riding off regional crises has given him flexibility and leverage that Ukraine's elites lacked in 2013, and has put Putin in a position in which escalating support for the Armenian regime is the only way for Russia to maintain its leverage in the South Caucasus.

Sargasyan's mixture of shrewd concessions, deflection of blame away from Russia to domestic institutions and exploitation of international crises to curry Russian support demonstrates that he has learnt the lessons of Maidan. His successful experience could also provide a powerful role model for other authoritarian Russian allies like Belarus or Kazakhstan, in combatting future mass protests and neutralize the effects of liberal civil society development.