Few post-Soviet leaders have stepped down peacefully, so Sargsyan’s decision to do so is laudable. The situation remained tense to the end, but he ultimately refrained from using brute force to quell the protests, unlike his immediate predecessor Robert Kocharian, who ordered troops to fire on protestors after the 2008 election, killing 10 people. Instead, Sargsyan followed former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze’s example: He stepped down in the face of public protests, rather than use force on unarmed non-violent civilians.
Armenia showed the world that people power still has purchase. Yet it will face challenges like a struggling economy, endemic corruption, and strained relations with all its neighbors, meaning that preserving this shining moment for democracy will entail tremendous effort both from people inside the country and the international community.
Something that will help Armenia as it faces its new future is its surprisingly robust civil society. The country is unique in the former Soviet space in that it is neither fully authoritarian nor fully democratic, but a hybrid of sorts. Unlike in some of its neighbors, Armenia’s social-media space remains free. While the ruling party and entrenched economic elite have a strong hold on power, NGOs are free to criticize them from within the country, and a rising generation of Armenian youth now demands more from its political class.
The Armenian government, it seems, failed to keep up with its demands. Under pressure from Russia in 2013, it backed away from signing an Association Agreement with the European Union, which would have facilitated a closer trade and political relationship with the bloc. It had no choice but to join Putin’s alternative to the EU, the Eurasian Economic Union, bringing many of Russia’s post-2014 economic problems along with it. Recognizing that many Armenians felt drawn to Europe, as well as his country’s increasing trade ties with the EU, in 2017 Sargsyan negotiated a substitute deal with Brussels to replace the Association Agreement he abandoned four years earlier. The balancing act between east and west was difficult.
Rising nationalism has also been a problem for a government that tied the country’s economic fortunes and security to Russia—a relationship that has brought few tangible benefits to average Armenians. For nearly 30 years, Armenia has also been in a state of war with neighboring Azerbaijan over an Armenian-dominated territory called Nagorno-Karabakh. During a brief confrontation in 2016 with Azerbaijan on Sargsyan’s watch, Armenia lost a small slice of occupied Azerbaijani territory it had held for nearly a quarter century. The loss was partly blamed on corruption in the military, and partly on Russian arm sales to Azerbaijan. Whoever takes over for Sargsyan will have to prove his bona fides on this issue, making peace more elusive.