Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan said on April 23, he was resigning to help safeguard civic peace following almost two weeks of mass street protests that have plunged the impoverished Armenia into political crisis.
Sargsyan, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, had served as Armenia’s president for a decade, had been named Prime Minister under a revised constitution. The Prime Minister how holds most of the power, while the Presidency has become largely ceremonial.
Pressure on the 63 year old to quit had increased sharply, when unarmed soldiers in the capital Yerevan joined the anti-government protests, which first erupted on April 13. Though peaceful, the tumult has threatened to destabilize Armenia, a key Russian ally in a volatile region driven by its decades long low level conflict with Azerbaijan, Moscow, which has two military bases in Armenia, was closely watching events. He said he was bowing to protesters’ demands and wanted his country to remain peaceful.
Former Armenian Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan, an ally of Sargsyan from his ruling pro-Russian Republican Party, was named as acting Prime Minister.
Armenia’s political parties in parliament now have seven days to put forward the name of a new prime minister. Sargsyan’s allies remain in key positions in the government and it remains unclear whether his resignation will herald any real change. Protesters loudly celebrated Sargsyan’s resignation. Some hugged policemen in the streets amid repeated cries of “Hurrah”, others beeped car horns, and some residents of Yerevan were even seen dancing outside.
The protests which toppled Sargsyan lasted for 11 days and saw tens of thousands of protesters march through Yerevan and other towns, blocking streets and staging sit-ins that disrupted daily life. On Sunday, police had detained three opposition leaders and nearly 200 protesters, drawing a rebuke from the European Union. Police released Nikol Pashinyan, a lawmaker regarded as the main opposition leader. Asked about the crisis before Sargsyan’s resignation, the Kremlin called Armenia an “extraordinarily important country” for Russia, but dismissed the idea it might intervene, calling the crisis a domestic matter.
The previous week, Putin rang Sargsyan to congratulate him on becoming Prime Minsiter. As President, Sargsyan took Armenia, a country of about three million people, into a Russia backed economic bloc and bought weapons from Moscow.
The protesters’ complaints were mainly domestic and focused on pervasive corruption and poverty in a country that won independence from Moscow in 1991 but has been hampered by its conflict with Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh and other issues. But critics have also accused Sargsyan of moving landlocked Armenia too close to Russia at the expense of better ties with the West and increased prosperity, and it was unclear whether his political demise could lead to a change in foreign policy.
In what may have been a turning point in the protests, soldiers wearing military marched through Yerevan with the protesters. Images broadcast on the internet and social media showed the soldiers hugging protesters and waving the country’s national flag in a development the Armenian Defense Ministry condemned as illegal and promised to harshly punish.
Opposition leader Pashinyan had told Sargsyan that his time was up in a tense meeting on Sunday.
Reporting by Hasmik Mkrtchyan in Yerevan, Writing by Andrew Osborn and Editing by Gareth Jones.