Armenian prime minister quits after mass protests against him

Serzh Sargsyan says he ‘got it wrong’ when staying in power after decade as president

Yerevan residents celebrate Armenian prime minister’s Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation on Monday. Photograph: Karo Sahakyan/PAN Photo via AP

Yerevan residents celebrate Armenian prime minister’s Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation on Monday. Photograph: Karo Sahakyan/PAN Photo via AP

 

Armenia’s newly appointed prime minister Serzh Sargsyan stepped down on Monday after almost two weeks of protests against his rule in the impoverished former Soviet country.

Opposition supporters had accused Mr Sargsyan of clinging to power when he accepted the job of premier last Tuesday after serving for 10 years as president of Armenia.

“The street is against my appointment. I am fulfilling your demands,” he said in a statement posted on his website on Monday afternoon.

Mr Sargsyan’s resignation as premier crowned a day of dramatic political events in Yerevan that began as a group of uniformed military officers joined demonstrators flocking into the Armenian capital’s central square.

In a move to defuse tensions, Armenian lawmakers dropped plans to strip Nikol Pashinyan, an opposition parliamentarian who has led the protests, of legal immunity.

Mr Pashinyan had been detained by police after talks with Mr Sargsyan broke down in acrimony on Sunday, but was then released and returned to streets to meet jubilant crowds of supporters. “I won’t say it later, it’s already clear, isn’t it? We have won,” he said.

Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan: “I am quitting the country’s leadership and the post of prime minister of Armenia.” Photograph: Johan Spanner/The New York Times
Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan: “I am quitting the country’s leadership and the post of prime minister of Armenia.” Photograph: Johan Spanner/The New York Times

Towards evening the Armenian government announced that Karen Karapetyan, the deputy prime minister, would replace Mr Sargsyan as premier on a temporary basis. It was not clear what role, if any, Mr Pashinyan and other opposition leaders would have in the new administration.

Russia, which maintains a large military base in Armenia, said it was closely monitoring events in Yerevan on Monday, but would not interfere in Armenian domestic affairs. Some pro-Kremlin media outlets have suggested that western powers were encouraging the Armenian protests to promote a repeat of the so-called colour revolutions that swept former Soviet Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan during the last decade.

Constitutional reforms

While serving as president in 2015, Mr Sargsyan promoted constitutional reforms that transformed Armenia from a presidential to a parliamentary republic where power was concentrated in the hands of the prime minister. His appointment as premier last week was widely seen in Armenia as a premeditated move to retain authority as his two terms as president expired.

Opposition leaders have criticised Mr Sargsyan for taking Armenia into the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic trading bloc that has done little to alleviate dire poverty in the country. They have also accused Russia, which supports Armenia militarily but supplies armaments to Azerbaijan, of fuelling the decades-long conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus.

Mr Sargsyan’s resignation came on the eve of the annual Genocide Memorial Day, when Armenians commemorate the mass executions and deportations of their compatriots by the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Political commentators said law enforcers, who fired on protesters after Mr Sargsyan’s inauguration as president in 2008, would have hesitated to crack down on protests so close to the April 24th anniversary that is seen as a symbol of Armenian national unity.

Giorgi Gogia, the South Caucasus director of Human Rights Watch, welcomed Mr Sargsyan’s decision to step down. “A very decent move considering how many ways this could have gone bad,” he wrote on Twitter. “Congratulations to the people in the streets.”