Today the mood in Armenia is that of elation – many people are cheering and dancing to loud music in the streets of the capital, Yerevan, and around the country as they celebrate the resignation of Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan following 11 days of massive public protests.
My mood is relief, considering how many ways the authorities’ response to the protests could have gone wrong. In March 2008, June 2015, and July 2016, I documented how authorities used excessive force to break up largely peaceful demonstrations by chasing and beating protesters and the journalists covering the action. Then, authorities slammed protest leaders and participants with excessive criminal charges.
This time around, there were sporadic clashes between police and protesters, and authorities arrested hundreds, often arbitrarily. Most detainees have been released.
Public grievances run deep in Armenia. Tens of thousands of people have flooded Yerevan since April 13, protesting Sargsyan’s shift from president – he just finished his second term – to prime minister. Many felt cheated, because Sargsyan had promised he would relinquish power as the country moved to a parliamentary system of governance, approved in popular referendum in 2015. In acts of civil disobedience, the protesters blocked government buildings in the city center and paralyzed major streets and bridges.
People are also angry about election manipulations in Armenia, including vote buying and pressure on public servants to deliver results for the ruling party, which have been documented by local and international observers. This also brought people to the streets. Other grievances include rampant corruption, overwhelming poverty, and the economy’s domination by oligarchs who are close to political leadership. Then there is the lack of accountability for abuses committed by law enforcement, lack of judicial independence, and other human rights issues.
One man stepping down from his post – albeit a key one – won’t restore public trust. The authorities have some hard work ahead of them to address the legitimate grievances that brought the public out to protest. They should ensure democratic elections, accountable government, and create independent and strong state institutions that can resolve grievances before they spill into the streets.