A HOT ARMENIAN SUMMER – An interpretation of the protests

Originally posted on August 26, 2015

Since the Italian press and media didn’t cover much of the events, I’d like to provide a short analysis of what happened in Armenia in June 2015.

A revolt over the energy price increase, an “electric Maidan”, a new Gezi Park, a failed coup d’etat, a CIA plot, all these things combined. These are just some of the interpretations for the riots that took place at the end of June in Erevan, capital of the small Caucasus country.

Sources report that between 5000 and 7000 marched towards the presidential palace to protest against the energy price rise demanded by the Russian energy company Inter-Rao, which the government approved with a swift resolution. While this was the main reason the protests started, they soon escalated into a general criticism of the government.

In Erevan the manifestation took the form of a sit-in organized by the movement No To Robbery!, while at the same time extending to Gjumri, the second most-populous city, and Vanadzor, both located in the north. The protests lasted about a week, from 22 to 28, although the lack of first-hand sources makes it difficult to provide accurate dates.

Predictably, the protests were soon labelled a “Western coup d’etat” by the most radical exponents of the government and the media. The true aim of the protesters would be to stir malcontent amongst the population and instigate them against a democratically-elected government in the hope of distancing the country from Russian influence. UK and US embassies denounced excessive use of force by the police and asked for thorough enquiries, while the Kremlin stated that Russia “will keep an eye on the current events and hopes that everything will be solved according to the law”.

Some analysts already drew parallels between these declarations and the protests that ultimately resulted in the Ukrainian crisis of 2013-14. Sure enough, some of these similarities deserve a separate analysis.

First off, Armenia found itself economically isolated after the closing of its borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan because of disputes over, respectively, the Kars territory and Nagorno-Karabach. It also recently formalised its adherence to the Eurasian Economic Union, an economic union which comprises Belarus, Kazakhstan, and the Russian Federation. First developed in 1991, the idea was recently re-proposed by Vladimir Putin with the aim of creating a free trade area amongst these countries, while at the same time pushing away projects of deeper economic ties with the European Union (indeed, this would have been the main purpose of the EU’s Deep And Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement).

As with Ukraine, the European Union blatantly adopted the wrong strategy: firstly, it set far too high standards for Armenian commodities to be able to enter the European market; secondly, it made the mistake of offering the same deal to Armenia’s long-time nemesis, Azerbaijan, thus making it less than appealing or “comprehensive” to the former. Last but not least, the EU was already busy trying to solve other internal crises, such as Greece’s public deficit, and it’s still going through a retrenchment phase over international matters such as the refugees crisis and international terrorism. Russia, on the other hand, used energy supply as leverage to keep a firm grip on the Caucasus, a region towards which it always had a paternalistic attitude and over which it still has economic and political influence.

From an internal point of view, the signing off of the deal was met with mixed opinions by Armenian society and its political class. While well-received by many, it was also widely criticised by the protesters, tired by a never-ending economic crisis and a president who, ultimately, doesn’t seem capable of bringing its country out of it.

President Serzh Sargsyan constitutes one of the similarities with the 2013 Istanbul riots: already Minister of Defence and Prime Minister of Armenia, he’s been part of the Committee of the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabach (officially part of Azerbaijan, de facto controlled by Armenia). Despite liberal reforms during his first term and feeble attempts of reconciliation with Turkey, Armenia’s recent years under Sargsyan have been difficult: the country has been hit hard by the economic crisis of 2008-2009 and its performance has been one of the worst in the world since then. His re-election in 2013 was widely criticised, with opposition parties going as far as deciding not to run for presidential elections. Those same elections had been cause of concerns by OSCE observers especially because of the widespread habit of vote trading, although they were carefully approved by the European Union, Armenia’s main trading partner at the time. Obviously, the situation was quite different from today.

Sargsyan’s second term is currently undermined by the country’s economic instability, for which there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. This is also one of the reasons why his Republican Party of Armenia, a self-described national conservative party, is steadily losing support. Because of this, the protests seem to have brought together opposition parties and common citizens alike, tired of enduring the corruption of their political class, of their plummeting standard of living, and, lastly, of living on the outskirts of an economic and political system that doesn’t seem to care about them.

After initially trying to downplay the protests, Sargsyan only managed to unite all of the opposition against him, and was ultimately forced to suspend the resolution that would have brought the new energy fees into effect.

armenia proteste

What happened in Armenia is a singular event, but it bears a striking resemblance to those mentioned above because, in the end, they are all part of the same game. The one involving the developing countries within Europe (in its broadest sense), their relations with one another, the EU itself, and the Russian Federation, all while a not-so-neutral NATO watches from a distance. In this situation, domestic policy issues have started to have a resonance on a country’s foreign policy.

One of the crucial points is just exactly how much of a country’s domestic policy can still be considered so, and in that case do its citizens still have a say on it? This involves not only Armenia but each and every country in today’s Europe. Furthermore, it is an invitation to reflect on the very concept of democracy itself and on how much an economic power such as the European Union can influence internal dynamics in areas such as the Caucasus.

Looking for comparisons is futile. Instead, it might be more useful to look at the value of a protest whose participants succeeded in making themselves heard and in standing up against a government that tried to impose profit-based decisions and bypass democracy itself.

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