Armenians Want What They Need, After Getting What They Wanted

With the resignation of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, many Armenians got what they wanted. Now, as politicians hold talks on how to proceed, those same Armenians are looking to get what they need.

The political optics of Sarkisian taking advantage of constitutional changes to move from his position as president to a new, more powerful role as prime minister sparked 11 days of street protests that ended up pushing Sarkisian to resign.

But more deep-seated animosity toward the 63-year-old over his handling of the economy and corruption has been building for a decade, with almost one-third of the country’s 3 million people living below the official poverty level, according to the Asian Development Bank.

A poor country, Armenia is hobbled by severe trade restrictions from Turkey along its western border, imposed by Ankara in solidarity with Azerbaijan, which sits to the east of Armenia.

Its economy is hugely dependent on remissions from its far-flung diaspora in Russia, Western Europe, and the United States, as well as trade with Russia, more broadly.

Iran is also an important trading partner.

“Sarkisian wasn't running Armenia like a country, he was running it like his own personal fiefdom,” Varazdat Mkrtchian, the 51-year-old commander of the Eagle 30 Battalion that fought in the four-day war in April 2016 in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, told RFE/RL in Yerevan.

“His people were doing fine, while the rest of us were being stretched more and more each year,” he added.

Sarkisian has held senior government positions since Armenia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, including president from 2008 until earlier this month, when he stepped down after meeting the two-term limit set out in the constitution.

During that period, the country’s economy, deeply intertwined with Russia, rode a roller-coaster, including a 14.1 percent contraction in 2009.

While there have been signs the economy is strengthening -- GDP jumped an annual 7.5 percent last year following a measly 0.2 percent expansion in 2016 -- few beyond a handful of people considered close to Sarkisian are seeing any real benefits.

Unemployment has stubbornly remained high, hovering around 17 to 19 percent. Meanwhile, the average monthly wage is just under $400.

Many protesters, already upset with his moves to extend his rule in the revamped and more powerful role of prime minister, accused the pro-Russian Sarkisian of keeping them in poverty while he enriched those around him.

“I would like to see us living in a better country and feeling that the situation is getting better day by day and not the other way round, not that we continue living in the same situation,” said Mikayel Ghukasian, a 23-year-old computer programmer.

Take a walk south from the protests on Republic Square in the capital and you enter the industrial area of Gortsaranayn.

In Soviet times, its factories were bustling with activity, employing thousands as they hummed with production. Now, the factories mainly lay silent, broken windows pockmarking the facades where managers once mingled with floor workers.

Prostitutes walk broken sidewalks at night, avoiding piles of garbage as they ply their trade in the dimly lit streets.

When an RFE/RL photographer tried to take pictures of the buildings, a murky character emerged and tried to intimidate the journalist, even though it’s a public street.

Others point to the Pak Shuka market, which was transformed into a modern shopping mall by its owner, Samvel Aleksanian, a businessman and lawmaker with Sarkisian’s Republic Party of Armenia, despite a public outcry for the officially historic building to remain intact.

"Corruption and injustice are suffocating the country. If you want to open a small business, you need to bribe an official. Tax officers want bribes, teachers want presents. It is impossible to tolerate any more," said Mushef Hachatrian, 52, an unemployed protester.

"Who is responsible? Serzh Sarkisian, of course," he added.

During his time in power, Sarkisian tried to walk the fine line between East and West.

Though Armenia spent two decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union on a westward path, Sarkisian secured closer trade and political ties to Moscow.

He allowed Russia to extend its military presence in Armenia and joined Russian President Vladimir Putin's Eurasian Economic Union.

The deeper Kremlin ties have left Armenia’s economy vulnerable to Russia’s economic struggles due to fluctuations in energy prices and Western sanctions on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

“The protests reflect accumulated grievances towards government policies of at least the last decade,” according to Anahit Shirinian, an expert on politics in Armenia and the South Caucasus with the U.K.’s Royal Institute of International Affairs.

“People are unhappy with the underperforming economy, lack of a sense of justice, emigration, and [they] also feel like past election results have not really been reflective of their vote,” she added.

For his part, leading opposition activist Nikol Pashinian says that the old system of government must change and any new administration that emerges from the protests should be one that enshrines an equal playing field for everyone so that all citizens benefit from an improving economy.

He has also tried to calm fears of reprisals among entrepreneurs that they will face consequences for how business used to be done.

“I am appealing to the business sector that was concerned with this movement, afraid of vendettas, who were ready to leave and take their wealth with them," said Pashinian after Sarkisian stepped down on April 23. "I am telling you that there will be no revenge, [no] vendettas -- we will build a country of equality, national unity.”

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service