On June 19, 2015, protests broke out in the Armenian capital of Yerevan as demonstrators expressed opposition to President Serzh Sargsyan's decision to raise electricity prices by 17% to 22%. Over the course of the next week, this initial episode of unrest blossomed into what many have described as a Maidan-style revolution, featuring marches on the presidential palace, all night sit-ins around the capital and police crackdowns. Many Western and Russian observers alike have argued that these protests will lead to a colored revolution-style demise of the Armenian regime (albeit outside the conventional electoral protest path), and cause Armenia to pivot away from the Russian sphere, provoking a forceful Russian retaliatory response.
The idea that instability in Yerevan would cause alarm in the Kremlin is based primarily on the extensive history of and contemporary linkages between Russia and Armenia. The 102nd Russian military base is stationed in Armenia, causing Russia to mobilize troops jointly with the Armenian military. Russia regards a forceful military takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan as act of aggression that would constitute a casus belli for Russian military involvement. Additionally, Armenia rejected the EU association agreement in late 2013 in favor of membership in Putin's Eurasian customs union, reaffirming the close ties between Russia and the Sargsyan regime. Russia's connection to the electricity price hike due its ownership of Armenia's electricity network, suggests that recent events in Yerevan may reflect public dissatisfaction with Russian involvement in Armenia that Putin is keen to ameliorate.
To counter this perception, Sargsyan has insisted that the Armenian protests are not a reflection of anti-Russian sentiment. While that assessment belies visceral dissatisfaction towards Russian-backed policies on the ground, the overarching cause of the current unrest is domestic discontent with Armenia's dysfunctional political institutions and deteriorating economic conditions. Armenia's dependence on Russia is such that even a successful overthrow of the Sargsyan regime will not likely alter its core foreign policy alignments. Should a regime change occur, I believe it is much more likely to resemble a pyrrhic turnover of power, similar to that observed in Kyrgyzstan in 2005; rather than Maidan 2.0 or a revolution that arguably changed foreign policy greater extent than domestic institutions (Georgia 2003 and Ukraine 2004).
How the Sargasyan Regime has Retained Power
On the surface, the Armenian regime appears to be in a relatively strong position to withstand the current wave of unrest. Much like Shevardnadze in Georgia prior to his demise in 2003, Serzh Sargsyan presides over a non-ideological catch- all party, the Republican Party (HHK). Armenia's governing HHK party is nominally conservative, but in practice is an extensive patronage coalition, combining wealthy business elites possessing political connections with career civil servants and senior bureaucrats. The close synergy between business oligarchs and politicians in Armenia's ruling coalition has created a competitive authoritarian structure. Oligarchs intimidate voters during election cycles into supporting the regime in their respective regions, and Sargsyan's alliances with Armenian elites ensure overwhelming favorable news coverage for the governing party. The HHK's dominance over the Armenian political system has deterred elite defections, and the close interdependence between business wealth and state power, have made the cost of an elite schism prohibitive for all involved.
Crucially for Sargsyan, these abuses of power have not been met by scathing criticism from the West. The OSCE and many EU countries praised the 2008 and 2013 elections in Armenia as meeting a suitable threshold for fairness and congratulated Sargsyan on his electoral victories. The West's unwillingness to criticize Armenia's political rights violations can be attributed to its desire to resolve the Karabakh crisis through negotiations with incumbent politicians. In 2013, the elections coincided with the EU's offer of an association agreement to Armenia, and maintaining favorable ties with Armenia's elites was integral to Western efforts to restrict the spread of Putin's Eurasian Economic Union.
Potential Weakness Points for the Sargasyan Regime
High levels of elite cohesion and Western complicity have been the essential pillars of Sargasyan's survival and have provided him with the capacity to disperse mass protests such as those that broke out in 2008 and 2013 with minimal damage to his authority. Armenia's rejection of the EU association agreement in favor of a closer alliance with Russia has made the West's benign non-involvement strategy towards the Armenian regime decidedly more conditional. For instance, the EU delegation in Armenia recently expressed opposition to the regime's gratuitously repressive response to the recent electricity protests.
Russian MP Igor Morozov expressed the bluntest statement regarding potential US opposition to the Sargasyan regime by claiming that the current crisis in Armenia closely resembles the Maidan coup, the US embassy in Armenia is disproportionately large for a country of Armenia's size, and that Sargasyan's survival depends on him learning from Yanukovych's mistakes. Currently, there is no evidence for US involvement in the protests or signs of a proactive US role on the immediate horizon. Nevertheless, Armenia's pro-Russian alignment means that Sargasyan needs to be much cautious in his repression of the current protests to avoid a complete loss of legitimacy in the West, US support for opposition movements or further economic isolation for Armenia.
Tighter practical limits on Sargasyan's repressive capacity have been imposed simultaneously with the burgeoning of Armenia's civil society. Like in many CIS regions, personal authority (Armenia's founding president Ter-Petrosyan in 2008) and factionalism (Heritage Party supporters in 2013), combined with the overt trigger of possible electoral fraud, led to anomic demonstrations in the immediate aftermath of presidential elections. The transition towards political protest in a non-election period, much like Ukraine in Maidan, reflects a substantial development of civil society in Armenia. Mger Simonyan, President of the Fund for the Development of Eurasian Cooperation, attributes this new civil society to the explosion of US-backed NGOs since Armenia joined the Eurasian Union. The Russian official explanation for foreign NGOs driving Armenian civil society is incomplete at best. The popularity of the #Electric Yerevan hashtag and the non-partisan No to Robbery organization's ability to mobilize 10,000 people on the streets of Yerevan, including many students, underscores a groundswell of domestic discontent. This discontent makes the Armenia 2015 protests much more like an Armenian Spring, than another colored revolution.
Outlook for the Political Situation in Armenia
The confluence of poor economic conditions, tighter practical limits on repression, and liberal civil society development indicate that the current protests are more likely to result in a regime turnover than comparable episodes of unrest in the post-1991 period. The Armenian regime has acted swiftly with concessions, agreeing on June 27, 2015 to suspend the electricity price hike, prompting rumors of a nationalization of the Armenian electricity network. Continued mass protests in Armenia signify a rejection of these concessions, which highlights the regime's eroding credibility and weakened popular legitimacy.
Armenia's economic dependence on a Russian economy crippled by Western sanctions also counts against the regime. The IMF has projected no growth in Armenia in 2015 due to a steep currency devaluation, declining trade and a 1/3 decline in Russian remittances which make up 21% of Armenia's GDP. Admittedly, Sargasyan weathered the storm of the 2008 financial crisis effectively, when Armenia suffered the fifth worst output decline in the world and a doubling of its poverty rate from 2008-2013. Nevertheless, the electricity price hike has brought these poor economic conditions even further into the public consciousness and eroded public tolerance for the malaise Sargasyan has presided over.
Despite these negative factors, it appears as if Sargasyan will be able to survive in the short to medium-term, albeit with a much greater sense of vulnerability. Mass elite defections have not occurred in due to the close exchange of benefits within the ruling patronage coalition. Any wave of defections would likely occur en masse during an election cycle (as an alternative party that can preserve their privileges could emerge), rather than while Sargasyan is a lame-duck president. The marginalization and death of many members of Yanukovych's elite coterie in Ukraine since 2014, provides a very relevant negative precedent that will also likely deter defections.
The optimal strategy for Russia would be to refrain from direct involvement in the Armenian crisis, as displaying unconditional support for Sargasyan could alienate public opinion further against the economic costs of rejecting the EU. Russia's ability to create counter-NGOs to the United States and develop pro-Russian civil society organizations is limited. While a military intervention in Armenia is implausible, a Russian incitement of episodic violence in the Karabakh region to trigger a nationalist rally around Sargasyan and distract Armenians from their economic grievances is a possible consequence of these protests.
While the trajectory Armenia will take still remains unclear, Sargasyan's best hopes for survival depend on using limited repression and to deter an aggressive Russian response by emphasizing the domestic undercurrents of the current protests. Such a response combined with necessary concessions and a clearer blueprint fro economic recovery will be much more effective in appeasing demonstrators and ensuring Western non-involvement than a repetition of Yanukovych's violent, Russia-baiting approach in Ukraine. Ultimately, the extent to which Sargasyan has learnt the lessons from Maidan and past turnovers will determine his future, but Armenia's unique contextual circumstances suggest that the current unrest is the start of a new chapter in the history of popular protest in the CIS region.