Power and Prospects of the Protest Movement in Armenia

Testimony of Stephen b. Nix, IRI Regional Director for Eurasia to U.S. Helsinki Committee

POLITICAL BACKGROUND

Armenia made the controversial transition to a parliamentary republic following the disputed constitutional referendum on December 6, 2015. As a result of these changes, the majority of the president’s political decision making powers were transferred to the office of the prime minister, much in the way that Russia did in 2008 and Georgia did in 2012. As with those regional analogues, opposition political forces and local NGOs in Armenia alleged that the referendum was merely an opportunity for then-President Serzh Sargsyan to maintain his hold on power beyond his constitutional term-limit as president, which was set to expire in April 2018. In response, President Sargsyan pledged that he would not become prime minister if the constitution was successfully amended. Despite this pledge, opposition politicians and civil society organizations labeled the package of amendments as “Sargsyan’s Project.”

On Referendum Day (December 6, 2015), key opposition leaders alleged massive ballot stuffing, pressure tactics and vote buying by the ruling party in order to reach the requisite threshold of 25 percent of all registered voters. Tactics included putting pressure on journalists and election observers as well as opposition leaders and voters. The final tally recorded 64 percent “yea” votes based upon roughly 50 percent turnout. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) described the campaign as “a somewhat low-key campaign with little public debate… reflect[ing] the fact that the referendum was driven by political interests instead of the needs of the Armenian public and was perceived by many citizens as a vote of confidence in the government rather than on the many proposals for change.”

On April 17, Sargsyan assumed the office of Prime Minister. Protests began immediately. On April 22, Sargsyan ordered the arrest of opposition MP and protest leader Nikol Pashinyan, along with more than 230 other protesters. This only led the demonstrations to escalate, and by the morning of April 23 members of the armed forces had joined the protesters on the streets in solidarity. The next day, Sargsyan ordered Pashinyan to be released and resigned, with former prime minister Karen Karapetyan named as interim PM. Karapetyan is a former Mayor of Yerevan and was the incumbent PM prior to Sargsyan’s appointment by new President Sarkissian (no relation) and is considered to be an ally of Sargsyan.

Sargsyan’s Republican Party had held a parliamentary majority with 65 out of 105 seats. Yesterday, the party’s coalition partner, Dashnaktsutyun (the Armenian Revolutionary Federation), declared its intention to leave the coalition. This leaves the ruling party with only 58 seats with which to choose a prime minister. Before April 25, two opposition parties were in parliament.: the Tsarukyan Alliance (Prosperous Armenia) which has 31 seats, and the Way Out Alliance (Pashinyan’s party), which holds nine seats. Both are pro-European parties, and both are generally centrist in orientation. Despite the sizeable opposition presence in the National Assembly, all leadership, including the acting Prime Minister and the president are key allies of Sargsyan, and Sargsyan maintains his position as the Republican Party’s leader.

The obvious concern that any new government would still be under Sargsyan’s control has meant that the resignation of Sargsyan and appointment of Karapetyan has not placated the protesters. As of Wednesday, talks broke down between interim Prime Minister Karapetyan and lead opposition MP Pashinyan. Protesters demanded that Sargsyan’s Republican Party be removed from power and stand for new elections. Pashinyan’s Way Out Alliance has been joined on the streets by their fellow parliamentary opposition party the Tsarukyan Alliance and by the non-parliamentary Heritage Party and Social Democrat Hunchakian Party. The Republican Party appears intent on relying upon their 58-seat majority to retain control of parliament if they can find a politically and socially viable way to do so.

CONSTITUTIONAL REQUIREMENTS AND POSSIBILITIES

The Constitution of Armenia, as amended, specifically outlines the process that must be followed in this current political crisis. The parliament has seven days to appoint a new prime minister. Any party with representation can name a candidate, and any candidate with the support of more than one-third of parliament will be put before the full body for a vote. A simple majority will elect the new Prime Minister. If the National Assembly is unable to elect a Prime Minister on the first vote, they will have seven more days to hold a new vote. If no candidate receives a majority on the second balloting, the National Assembly must dissolve and call new elections.

With only two parties representing more than one-third of parliament each (the Republicans and Tsarukyan), it is likely that there will only be two candidates, making it more than likely that one of the two candidates will receive an outright majority. The newly-elected prime minister will have 15 days to form a government, which includes the three deputy prime ministers. Failure to do so will not trigger new elections, as there are constitutional provisions to appoint a government “by virtue of law.”[3] The new government then has 20 days to propose a new governmental program (agenda). If that agenda is not accepted by a majority of the National Assembly the body must dissolve and new elections will be called.[4] In the event that emergency elections are called voting must be conducted within 30–45 days of dissolution.

As of April 24, interim Prime Minister Karapetyan issued a statement that he had been in discussions with President Sarkissian about next steps, and that those steps may include anything up to and including new elections. On April 26, Karapetyan announced that the National Assembly would vote on a new Prime Minister during a special session on May 1. Based on this, it would appear that the National Assembly is hoping that a consensus candidate can be found that might placate the opposition and potentially avoid the need to dissolve parliament. With this in mind, there are really only three possible outcomes:

The National Assembly goes through the constitutional process to appoint a new prime minister, who successfully adopts a program, and no emergency elections are called.

The National Assembly goes through the constitutional process to appoint a new prime minister, who is unable to adopt a program within 20 days, and emergency elections are called 30–45 days later.

The National Assembly is unable to appoint a new prime minister, and emergency elections are called 30–45 days later.

These scenarios present several possible timelines. For the first outcome, a new government will be fully-formed and operational no later than June 11. For the second outcome, emergency elections would have to take place no later than July 11–26. For the final outcome, emergency elections would need to be called no later than June 6-June 21.

Given the Republican Party’s majority in the National Assembly, it is doubtful that a deal could be made with the opposition without endangering that majority. It is even more doubtful that the street protesters, having achieved initial success, will be willing wait beyond the initial week required for appointment of a new prime minister. Opposition leaders have demanded that Pashinyan be named the new prime minister. It remains to be seen if the government will accede to this demand. While the Republicans have the seats in parliament and the constitutional mandate to push forward with approving a unilateral choice for prime minister, and for approving a unilateral program, at this point it is likely that this would only intensify the current impasse.

SUGGESTED NEXT STEPS

Despite Armenia’s membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union and its relatively warm relationship with Russia, Armenia also has strong ties to the West thanks to large diaspora populations in the United States and France. The United States has a history of democracy work in the country, including providing assistance to political parties and NGOs from 1992 until the mid-2000s. During that period, the International Republican Institute (IRI) formerly conducted regular public opinion surveys which were shared with politicians from both sides of the aisle. It would be in the best interest of the U.S. and Europe to help Armenia resolve this crisis in a constructive and democratic manner by reviving this kind of assistance to help shore up the country’s democratic institutions.

Notwithstanding early elections, there is much that the U.S. can do to help Armenia resolve this crisis. There been very little democracy promotion and governance work in the country in the last decade, but the last two weeks have proven that there is an appetite for both among the opposition and civil society. While the scope of such work must depend on the priorities of the USAID mission in Yerevan, at the very least, nonpartisan work with youth and/or women could provide an opportunity to share lessons in democratic values and good governance. Such efforts would be focused on building skills in areas such as debate and policy formation and not in partisan activities. Such efforts would also seek to involve the full spectrum of political parties, including the governing party.

In the increasingly likely event that elections are called and lead to significant gains by the opposition, opportunities will open up to work with the new government on policy development, administrative skills, political party strengthening and internal party democracy. This will also increase opportunities to work with local officials on increasing efficiency and improving service delivery.

The opportunities for political party strengthening are manifold. Like other countries in the region, Armenia has several long-established political parties. However, the current opposition parties have been in opposition since the late 2000s, as the nationalist Republican Party has dominated the political space since Serzh Sargsyan’s selection as prime minister in 2007. Although these parties have parliamentary representation and strong popular support, the transition from political opposition to government can be difficult. IRI stands ready to provide the necessary party building and policy development assistance should it be requested.

Given the required time frame between the dissolution of government and new elections — which could be any time between May 30 and July 14 — it is unlikely that an international observation could be assembled in a timely manner. IRI has staff based in the region, primarily in Georgia, and is confident that a smaller, staff-level assessment could be a plausible and cost-efficient option. IRI staff with expertise on the political situation of the Caucasus would be able to deploy on relatively short notice in order to monitor the situation and lay the groundwork for further work.

It is crucial that Armenians have access to high-quality polling so that decision makers and the general public can receive unbiased information on political questions and concerns. Periods of intense change also lead to divergent public narratives, and accurate and unbiased polling is vital to distinguishing citizen needs from the misleading information propagated by dishonest actors. IRI has conducted high-quality public opinion surveys in the country and in the region at large for more than 15 years. This included regular polling in Armenia prior to Sargsyan’s election in 2008, and IRI hopes to once again resume this effort.

Armenia faces the prospect of transformative change in its government and policies. The United States must do more than observe and analyze — it must be part of helping Armenia to move from crisis to progress. This crisis represents a unique opportunity to help Armenia as it continues its democratic journey, and demonstrate to the Armenian people that the West and the U.S. in particular is a reliable partner in the country’s growth and development. Democracy assistance organizations like IRI will be vital partners to this effort in Armenia, as they have been throughout the region.

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