The champagne is flowing, flags are waving and the people of Armenia are dancing in the streets after news that Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan has resigned in response to widespread public protests.
Tens of thousands of Armenians took to the streets for 11 straight days to demonstrate against the continued premiership of Sargsyan and the unlawful confinement of over 200 demonstrators, including opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan.
Recognizing his untenable situation, Sargsyan capitulated on Monday, quitting his post and freeing political prisoners. “The street movement is against my tenure. I am fulfilling your demand,” Sargsyan said in a statement.
Moments before the outgoing prime minister’s announcement, Pashinyan was released from a detention facility after spending less than 24 hours in custody for demanding that Sargsyan resign in a televised address.
In a public statement appearing on his website, Sargsyan said he was “addressing all citizens of the Republic of Armenia… for the last time as leader of the country.” He hinted that he could have taken another course but was willingly responding to democratic calls for his abdication.
“Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong,” he wrote. “The situation has several solutions, but I will not take any of them … I am leaving office of the country’s leader, of prime minister.”
Ignoring the promise of severe punishment, hundreds of uniformed soldiers joined thousands of civilian protestors in chanting, “Nikol! Nikol!” yesterday at the Republic Square in Yerevan. News of Sargsyan’s resignation and Pashinyan’s freedom hit the crowd like a thunderbolt as outrage turned to jubilation on the eve of Remembrance Day, when Armenians everywhere honor the victims of ethnic cleansing at the turn of the 20th century perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey.
Like Russia, Armenians voted in a referendum to end their presidential system and switch to a parliamentary-style government, stripping executive authority from the president and transferring power to a new prime minister. Sargsyan, who won a contentious election in 2008 and was re-elected in 2013, had promised that he would “not aspire” to the prime ministerial position.
However, duplicating a move that Russian President Vladimir Putin used to extend his grip on power, Sargsyan confirmed his people’s fears when the new parliament announced last week that he would assume the prime ministership. Protestors were already prepared for the bad news, having occupied the streets days earlier in anticipation of the decision, and the crowds ballooned in size as Sargsyan appeared unwilling to surrender his long-held authority.
Yet, after days of demonstrations that Sargsyan referred to as a “non-violent Velvet Revolution,” prayers were answered by a peaceful resignation. Greeted with chants of “victory” following his release from prison, Pashinyan later addressed his supporters from Facebook:
You have won, proud citizens of the Republic of Armenia. And no one can seize this victory from you. I congratulate you, victorious people.
Armenia’s new chief executive is former prime minister Karen Karapetyan. Less optimistic observers have pointed out that Karapetyan is a former ally of Sargsyan, and does not represent a true change from the established order in Armenia.
Still, the significance of a peaceful coup in a former Soviet satellite cannot be overstated. The people of Armenia stood up to a power-obsessed tyrant and, without bloodshed, democracy won the day.