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Opinion Armenians deliver a blow to Putin’s political model

People wave an Armenian national flag in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 23 as they celebrate Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation.
People wave an Armenian national flag in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 23 as they celebrate Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation. (Aram Kirakosyan/AP)
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SERZH SARGSYAN, who ruled Armenia as president from 2008 until this month, was a faithful client of Vladi­mir Putin. In 2013, after meeting with the Russian president, he abruptly dropped negotiations with the European Union and instead joined Moscow-led economic and security organizations. During a visit to Washington a couple of years later, he frankly told us that his small Caucasian country of roughly 3 million people had little choice, since Armenians working in Russia supplied one-fifth of the country’s gross domestic product and Russian companies monopolized its energy supplies. “Armenian cognac can’t really be sold in Paris,” he explained.

Mr. Sargsyan underestimated his own citizens, however, when he attempted to emulate a classic Putin maneuver. Limited by the constitution to two terms as president, he pushed through a constitutional amendment transferring most executive powers to the prime minister, and then — having denied for years that he would do so — had the parliament name him to that post. The result was 11 days of mounting mass demonstrations that, on Monday, prompted Mr. Sargsyan to give up the position. “I was wrong,” he said in a statement.

It’s not clear whether Mr. Sargsyan’s departure will prompt a genuine change in Armenia’s government or its servile stance toward the Kremlin. Thanks to manipulated elections, the ruling party has a commanding majority in parliament, while the leader of last week’s protests, veteran dissident Nikol Pashinyan, controls just nine of 105 seats. The popular revolt nevertheless is a blow to the authoritarian political model promoted by Mr. Putin, which has spread not only to other former Soviet Bloc states in Russia’s orbit but also to Turkey, where ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hoping to complete the transition from prime minister to all-powerful president in June.

No doubt Mr. Putin will misunderstand the rebuff. Consumed by cynicism, the Russian ruler and his clique are incapable of accepting that spontaneous political uprisings by outraged publics are possible. They assume that they must be, like Russia’s own interventions in Western democratic elections, the result of state-directed conspiracies. Mr. Putin blamed the CIA and other intelligence agencies for the revolts that overturned pro-Moscow governments in Ukraine and Georgia, and when thousands of Russians protested election fraud and his own shuttle from prime minister to president in 2012, he held Hillary Clinton personally responsible.

In truth, it’s safe to say that the Trump administration had nothing to do with events in Armenia. The only U.S. response to the demonstrations was a weak statement from the embassy in Yerevan asking the government for “restraint” while calling on the protesters to “prevent an escalation of tensions.” What drove Armenians to the streets was not foreign provocations but the fact that Mr. Sargsyan’s bet on Russia failed to deliver. During his decade in office, the economy stagnated. About 10 percent of the population abandoned the country, while 30 percent of those who remained fall below the official poverty line.

Mr. Putin can be expected to squeeze whoever succeeds Mr. Sargsyan as prime minister; in addition to its economic levers, Russia maintains a military base in the country. That, however, won’t improve the lives of Armenians. More likely it will increase their resistance to the thuggish, corruption-ridden and economically failed model that is Putinism.

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