Huge protests topple Armenia’s prime minister but crisis deepens

Protests in Yarevan, Armenia (Wikimedia Commons)

After days of huge opposition protests, Armenia’s Prime Minister Serzh Sargysyan was forced to resign on 23 April. His resignation has been followed by a fierce contest among parliamentary blocs to elect a new prime minister. spoke to Eddie Abrahamian, a British socialist of Armenian descent. Eddie, who speaks and reads Armenian fluently, follows political development in Armenia and the Caucuses.

After ten days of mass protests, on 23 April Armenia’s Prime Minister Serzh Sargysyan was forced to resign. His resignation has been followed by a fierce contest among parliamentary blocs to elect a new Prime Minister. What is the background to these developments?

Elected President of Armenia in 2008, Serzh Sargsyan, leader of the dominant and most corrupt faction of the Armenian ruling class by in 2018 had completed the maximum two terms allowed for the position by the Armenian constitution. But in a long-prepared and cynically executed manoeuvre, Sargsyan’s Republican Party secured a change in the constitution that diminished the president and raised the role of the prime minister. And in April, this year, in a Putin-style bid to prolong its control of the Armenian state, Sargsyan’s Republican Party with its parliamentary majority elected him as Prime Minister. The move displayed a disgusting contempt for the people. Repeatedly Sargsyan had assured the country that he had no intention of becoming prime minister!

Sargsyan’s brazen grab almost instantly fired a revolt of the masses enraged by ruling class indifference to their plight. However in the absence of an organised working class political movement, in the absence of any genuine socialist forces, Nigol Pashinyan, leader of the Yelk (Exit) Party, has emerged as the charismatic and dominating populist leader now struggling to replace Sargsyan as prime minister.

What has driven such unprecedentedly massive protests against the Republican Party and its leader Serzh Sargsyan?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Armenian Soviet Republic, a tiny Armenian capitalist ruling class has accumulated vast riches. It privatised and appropriated all national and public wealth, the land’s raw material, what remains of its industry, its banking and finance sector and its import-export business. This tiny clique of billionaires and millionaires secures its positions and continues to accumulate wealth through a vast network of corruption and brute force organised through its control of the state apparatus.

Meanwhile, the lives and the social and economic conditions of the working class continue to deteriorate, rapidly and drastically. Since 2008, among the country’s 2.6m population the official poverty rate has almost doubled, rising from 17% to 32.4%. As with all official statistics, this severely underestimates the extent of poverty. The unemployment rate is nearly 20%, with youth unemployment touching 35%, according to 2014 figures. Fifty per cent of the country’s population lives on housing estates that suffer appalling gas, water and sewage services, whose quality deteriorates, year on year, as do the conditions of the estates. A constant water supply, for example, is still a luxury reserved for the very rich and tiny middle class.

So, in the face of this latest attempt by ruling class factions to retain control of ill-gotten gain, an accumulation of popular anger, of discontent and hatred for the oligarchy erupted. Such anger has been seething beneath the surface for a long while. In 2015 there were mass social street protests against a rise in electricity prices.

This latest movement and the previous upheavals are all manifestations of mass popular disenchantment with the social order that was built on the ruins of the collapsed Armenian Soviet Republic. The people have gained nothing. Hundreds of thousands have been thrown into poverty, their lives wrecked and hopes for their families and communities destroyed. As a result, hundreds of thousands have been forced out to the USA, Europe, Russia, and Turkey, in search livelihood. Previously it was foreign Ottoman and Tsarist imperial domination that led to forced migration. Now it is the ‘modern’ and ‘free’ Armenian ruling classes who drive their own people from their homelands.

The size of the protests, which included working class people, seems to show that the mass movement was not just controlled by the pro-EU opposition figure, Nikol Pashinian. Is that the case?

The movement does include a large contingent of the Armenian working class. In its earliest phase, it was composed primarily by sections of the urban middle class, students, and the intelligentsia. But very rapidly sections of the common people, the working class and the poorer sections of the population entered the stage. And not just in the capital, Yerevan, but through the provinces. It was this that critically changed the balance of forces between the protestors and the prime minister. And by Monday 23 April, unarmed soldiers, as well as members of what is a privileged Church clergy, joined the demonstrations.

But despite the critical role of the working class in removing Sargsyan, it does not, at the moment, have an independent organised voice. Nigol Pashinyan does not represent the people. His party, with 7.7% of the parliamentary vote, represents a small pro-EU-US wing of the Armenian ruling class. He has used populist anti-corruption and anti-Sargsyan rhetoric to galvanise support. If he manages to secure a majority in parliament he may even pass certain anti-corruption measures. But these will not address the fundamental causes that have led to popular anger.

There is a real danger that Pashinyan and his allies will use and exploit popular anger only to advance the interests of their particular faction of the ruling class. In none of his pronouncements, so far, has there been any indication of any real radical or democratic measures to tame the ruling classes and transform the lives of the people for the better. Pashinyan is not a social-democratic politician in the best sense of that term. He certainly is charismatic, he certainly can whip up anger against the abuse and the indifference of the Sargsyan regime. But he has not advanced a programme that will cleanse the Augean stables of the Armenian ruling class.

Indeed in his 1st May campaign to win a parliamentary vote to become prime minister, Pashinayan secured sponsorship from quite a number of MPs who represent the Armenian ruling class, among them from the political faction of one Tsarukyan, a most notorious member of the Armenian ‘oligarchy’. It is notable that on 1st May, having failed to win sufficient votes to be elected prime minister, Pashinyan called for a general strike. But he called it not to support a progressive programme of social, economic and political reforms but only to secure himself the post of prime minister! However, being assured that on 8 May he will secure a majority of the parliamentary vote (many from the opposition Republican Party) Pashinyan has called for an end to street protests. The popular movement has much work still to do!

In the absence of mass party that expresses the interests of the working class, what can the opposition offer?

Left-wing political forces are extremely small in Armenia. A self-conscious working class political movement will have to be rebuilt almost from scratch. A starting point, of course, will be the independent self-organisation of working class communities where they work and live. The conscious political elements among them will have to also begin working out a political programme and take the first steps to build a working class political party that can express working class interests and fight for these whether through parliament, workplaces, communities, school, colleges or on the streets.

As with the international working class, the Armenian working class too is paying a heavy political price for the disaster of Stalinism in the USSR, and imperialist social democracy in the west. But for the Armenian people and the people of the Caucuses one could venture to say that, at the moment the biggest danger confronting them is that of nationalist chauvinism. This is a phenomenon that has swept not just Armenia but the Caucuses, as a whole, and finds acute manifestation in the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute over the Armenian populated region of Nagorny Karabagh.

National chauvinism is the major obstacle to the class struggle in Armenia and the region. It is an obstacle to any united battle against predatory ruling classes across the region. In Armenia itself, in the name of the struggle against a ‘foreign Azerbaijani and Turkish enemy’, Armenian workers are urged to maintain unity with their ruling classes.

Armenia is geographically located in the Caucasus, between eastern Europe and the war-torn Middle East. What does the current crisis mean for developments in the region?

Any regional impact of the current Armenian political upheaval will depend on the outcome of the contest between factions of the Armenian ruling class. There is already some speculation that Pashinyan, if he becomes MP, may be preparing for a more vigorous drive for negotiated settlements with Turkey, on the one hand, and Azerbaijan, on the other hand. Hitherto the movement has had little regional impact. But things may change. The Azerbaijani government, for example, may seize the opportunity to press forward with its intention to militarily reconquer Nagorny Karabakh.

But one thing is clear: bourgeois and nationalist political forces across the region offer no positive, democratic resolution to the long-standing and often violent and savage national conflicts that have marked Armenian-Turkish and Armenian-Azeri relations for more than a century.

Yet still the national question and nationalist political forces seem to dominate the region. Can you give us some background on this?

There was never a hard and fast line between Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian or Azerbaijani territories. For example, in terms of the modern Armenian and Azerbaijani national states, Armenian and Azeri peoples were dispersed right across both regions. Yerevan, the Armenian capital, had a huge Azeri population, while the Azerbaijani capital Baku had its huge contingent of Armenians. Tragically during the Stalinist-era the regimes of both republics engaged in what can only be described as ethnic cleansing. So a degree of artificial national homogeneity was established in each republic at the price of bitter resentments.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought the resulting simmering, unresolved national hostilities to the surface. A tide of extreme chauvinist nationalism swept across Armenia, Azerbaijan and through the region. A virulent nationalism is exploited by factions of all regional ruling classes. These factions are fighting to advance their own interests and keep reactionary control of their working classes, whose natural interest would be cross-national solidarity and organisation.

Nationalist antagonisms exploited by the ruling classes threaten yet more bloodshed and killing. They will not be overcome without a completely new political dispensation, one that goes beyond the individual nation states to an international federation of peoples; only a socialist movement can begin to supply ideas and answers.

Only a socialist outlook, one that underlines the common interests of the Armenian, Kurdish, Turkish and Azerbaijani workers and peasants, could overcome nationalist conflicts that rage in the region, as each national bourgeoisie seeks primacy or gain.

But the task is immensely difficult. The tide of chauvinist anti-democratic nationalism is hugely strong and dangerous throughout the region. And the support for socialism is still low. Although hard, almost impossible, the task of building a common socialist front of all peoples in the region is the only way forward – a way forward that blocks bloody and savage war and attends to the common needs of the people of the region, whatever their nationality.

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May 2018