Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, three countries in the South Caucasus once ruled by the former Soviet Union, still operate in the shadow of what is now called Russia.
The three states are located between Iran and Turkey on the western side and Russia to the north. What happens in them affects Russian interests in the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, over the last 18 years, has maintained strong political, military and economic relations – sometimes welcome, sometimes not – with these countries and their leaders in an attempt to keep them on Russia’s side. Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war and its growing alliances with Iran and Turkey makes maintaining influence over the South Caucasus states even more enticing for Putin. He wants to be the guy in charge.
So when a head of state from this region resigns after a weeklong protest that draws a million people, as happened this week in Armenia, commentators are quick to proclaim that the sky is falling on Putin’s sphere of influence.
One said, “Consumed by cynicism, the Russian ruler and his clique are incapable of accepting that spontaneous political uprisings by outraged publics are possible.”
I lived in the Caucasus for several years, as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer and later as an academic. What I think most analysts get wrong about Armenia is just how fiercely independent its people are. I believe Serzh Sargsyan’s forced resignation is less a story of Armenians repudiating Putin and more a story of Armenians getting fed up with a leader running roughshod over their political system.
Toppling was straightforward politics
The Armenians also endured genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Armenians are the world’s most displaced people and millions more live abroad than in Armenia itself.
Serzh Sargsyan resigned as Armenia’s prime minister on April 23, after over 25 years as a mainstay in Armenian politics. He served as the country’s president for the last 10 years and was only recently appointed prime minister by the Armenian Parliament after constitutional changes transferred most executive power to his new office.
In extending the rule of Sargsyan, Armenia followed the Putinist model of government.
Yale history professor Timothy Snyder astutely calls the Putinist model the “politics of eternity.” Such leaders disregard critical political moments and movements and leave little chance for peaceful transition of power or legitimate opposition. The grand bargain of this model is the promise of political stability in exchange for closed-door politics.
As a result, countries who adopt this model are rife with government corruption and have little to no political freedoms. In addition, most important sectors of the economy are owned by oligarchs. Armenia is no exception.
While he was still president, Sargsyan initially announced that he did not have any ambition to serve as prime minister. Eventually, he retreated on that promise. The protests became so potent because their request was simple: Somebody else should be prime minister. That goal succeeded.
The Armenians’ strong instinct for self-determination makes me question those who now claim that outside agitators such as billionaire George Soros, who funds pro-democracy efforts across the globe, have come to Armenia to topple the Putin model of government.