Demonstrators Arrested Amid Armenian Protests

On Friday, April 30th, 37 activists were detained due to their involvement in protests against the appointment of the former Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan as Prime-Minister. This number included the leader of the anti-Sargsyan movement “Reject Serzh.” The protests have been encouraged and organized by MP Nikol Pashinyan, who has called for a peaceful revolution against the ostensible injustice of Sargsyan’s re-appointment as head of state.

Pashinyan spoke before protesters, claiming that “[t]he authorities use [arrests] to calm down the people and extinguish [the] movement.” Some sources claim that the number of people detained by authorities has now risen to between 180 and 200. The arrests appear to have been made on grounds pertaining to obstruction of roads and other vital infrastructure, a rationale that demonstrators claim to be politically motivated.  

The movement began on April 9th when Armenia’s ruling Republican Party announced the nomination of former president Serzh Sargsyan for the post of Prime-Minister. Following the announcement, approximately 500 protesters gathered in the Freedom Square in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, a number that quickly grew into “tens of thousands” over the coming days following the actual appointment of Sargsyan as Prime Minister. Clashes between police and demonstrators have occurred, reportedly leaving 46 wounded, including 6 police, on April 16th. Despite the rapid escalation of the demonstrations, events have not reached the level of violence present amid protests that occurred in April 2008, in response to Sargsyan’s initial election as president. These demonstrations left 10 people dead and approximately 250 wounded.

In the present circumstances, light-noise grenades have been used to control protesters, a move claimed by Armenian activists to have the potential to cause fatalities. Furthermore, Armenian security forces have threatened to use tear gas in controlling demonstrators. It is uncertain whether this threat was made against those that may resort to violence, or whether it applies to any form of anti-government demonstration. Some of the previously mentioned injuries are reported to have been inflicted by light-noise grenades, however, the cause of the majority of injuries is uncertain.

The appointment of Sargsyan to Prime-Minister has caused controversy due to the country’s transition to a parliamentary system in 2015. Under the previous constitution, the nation was a presidential republic, a system where the president was the head of state. The 2015 referendum diminished the powers of the president to a ceremonial role, meaning the Prime-Minister became the effective leader of Armenia. The shift in the position to who acts as head of state allowed Sargsyan to hold onto power irrespective of any term limits that may have been exceeded under the previous constitution, arousing anger in the Armenian populace.

The implications of the protests remain uncertain. If the government manages to continue containing them, as they have previously, the most that is likely to occur is the introduction of economic reforms to appease the opposition. However, if the protests were to become sufficient in scale, Armenia may see a transition in government similar to Ukraine’s 2014 revolution. Some analysts have suggested that the weakening of government may prompt Azerbaijan to make attacks in contested Nagorno-Karabakh, however, this is unlikely to affect current territorial lines as Russia guarantees the region’s Armenian-administered status.

Gayane Ghazaryan, a Yerevan student, told Al Jazeera that “Armenia is gradually turning from a democracy into a totalitarian regime,” citing economic woes and widespread corruption as her motivation to protest. It is hoped that the protests will result in the implementation of policies that better address the economic and political grievances of the Armenian constituency.