Analysts: Armenia street protests pose no danger to Kremlin

Armenian people participate in an opposition rally in Yerevan, Armenia, 26 April 2018. [Vahram Baghdasaryan/EPA/EFE]

The Kremlin is famous for its hatred of “colour revolutions” but Armenian protests present no danger to Moscow because the rallies eschew anti-Russian slogans and Yerevan is hugely dependent on Moscow’s military and economic aid.

Over the past days Moscow has conspicuously sought to distance itself from a political crisis in Armenia which saw the country’s leader Serzh Sargsyan ousted this week from his new post of prime minister after serving a decade as president.

Armenia PM resigns after days of mass protests

Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan said on Monday (23 April) he would resign to help maintain peace in the ex-Soviet republic following daily street protests since before he took up the post on April 17.

Even on Thursday (26 April), as top Russian officials led by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed Armenian officials for talks in Moscow, the Kremlin insisted that the crisis remained the South Caucasus country’s domestic affair.

Analysts said that no matter who eventually comes to power in Armenia, he will maintain close ties to Russia.

“The Russian leadership proceeds from the fact that Armenia will stay with Russia under any political regime,” Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Political Expert Group think tank in Moscow, told AFP.

“Armenia’s key problem is a security problem, the threat of major war with Azerbaijan,” he said, adding that Armenia would be closely tethered to Russia until a territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh was solved.

“And it will never be solved,” he added.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have for decades been locked in a bitter dispute over Nagorno- Karabakh, a breakaway statelet with an Armenian ethnic majority that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.

Frequent exchanges of fire along Karabakh’s volatile frontline has been a persistent problem and the risk that Azerbaijan could use the crisis in Armenia to its advantage has not been lost on politicians in Yerevan and Moscow.

In Russia’s orbit

The Russian foreign ministry pointedly said Lavrov and his Armenian counterpart Eduard Nalbandyan discussed Karabakh on Thursday.

Last year, ex-Soviet Armenia signed a partnership agreement with the European Union, aiming to strengthen ties with the Western bloc, but it remains firmly in Russia’s orbit.

It is one of Moscow’s closest allies and is a member of Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation.

Armenia hosts a Russian military base in Gyumri and Russian border guards patrol the South Caucasus country’s border with Turkey and Iran.

Armenia’s economic dependence on investment, aid and gas imports from Russia is equally strong. The country’s opposition says some 290,000 people have left the country over the past decade, many of them for Russia.

“The protests were not about East versus West, or Russia versus EU,” said Maximilien Lambertson, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“The driving factors were deep-seated domestic features: popular distrust of Sargsyan and the government coupled with dissatisfaction at stagnant living standards.”

Protests in Armenia stand in stark contrast to rallies in Ukraine in 2013-2014 and Georgia in 2003 which brought pro-Western governments to power and shredded ties with Moscow.

Russian television — which critics accuse of selective news coverage to suit the Kremlin agenda — covered “acts of civil disobedience” in Armenia, with Moscow praising the Armenian opposition and authorities for “keeping respect for each other.”

“Armenia, Russia is always with you,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

While holding talks with the Armenian authorities in Moscow, Russian officials also met with protest leader Nikol Pashinyan.

‘Not a rejection of Russia’

Both Kremlin-friendly and Western observers said they did not expect the Armenian crisis to have wide-ranging geopolitical repercussions.

“No one is using anti-Russian slogans,” Kremlin-friendly political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko told AFP, so Moscow “is not inclined to shoot from the hip.”

Thomas de Waal, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the protests “are decidedly not a rejection of Russia.”

“Sometimes,” he wrote in Foreign Policy, “government-toppling protests are just government-toppling protests.”

In Moscow, opposition supporters praised the protest movement in Armenia, with Putin’s bête noire Alexei Navalny pointedly saying it was days of sustained protests that forced Sargsyan out.

Some Armenian demonstrators described Sargsyan’s political transition as “pulling a Putin”, a reference to the manoeuvres of Kremlin leader, who also switched between the roles of prime minister and president.

But observers in Russia said any such comparisons were inappropriate, with Putin remaining popular after winning a fourth Kremlin term with a record vote in March.

“It’s unlikely that the events in Armenia will inspire anyone,” said Minchenko.

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