After more than a week of sustained protests over increasing electricity prices, Armenian activists have demonstrated a new sense of empowerment in the face of an increasingly embattled government. But it is actually the broader implications of this unrest in Armenia that is much more significant, for two distinct reasons.
First, although this wave of protests is clearly rooted in a set of underlying problems reflecting the unique socioeconomic and political conditions of Armenia, the discontent and dissent in Armenia have already reverberated well beyond the borders of this small, landlocked country.
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More specifically, the trajectory of the protests have already exceeded the confines of the initial focus of anger over the Armenian government’s decision to impose a price rise for electricity.
The fact that it was a price rise that was sought by a Russian-owned energy firm in Armenia sparked a renewed sense of outrage over Russia’s general arrogance towards Armenia.
For years, Armenia stood alone in the South Caucasus as the only reliable partner for Russia in the region. Armenia is the host of the only Russian military base in the region. This partnership also included ceding control of two of Armenia’s borders to Russian border guards.
And beyond even that basic infringement on sovereignty, the terms of the Russian military base agreement are rather insulting, as the host government not only forgoes any “rental” payment for the land, but is also required to incur all operating costs of the base itself.
This was generally seen as a necessary trade-off for a Russian security guarantee for Armenia, which is considered an imperative in the face of heightened military tension with neighbouring Azerbaijan – due to the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Yet the terms of this trade-off are now being challenged due to three recent developments. The first challenge stems from the long-term trend of Russia’s emergence as the number one arms provider to Armenia’s rival Azerbaijan. There has been a serious escalation in ceasefire violations. These violations are no longer measured in bullets fired, but rather by bodies of victims. For many Armenians, it’s impossible to ignore that the weapons killing their people are directly supplied by their “partner” Russia.
Russian security guarantees
As Russian rule loses stability in the region, the seeds of unrest are bound to spread and grow.
A second development is the disappointment over Russia’s reaction to these attacks on Armenia. There was a general lack of response in the face of the Azerbaijani attacks which has deeply shaken Armenian faith in Russian security guarantees.
Yet, it was the third development that has profoundly inflamed and personalised public anger in Armenia. In January, a tragic murder of an entire Armenian family by a rogue Russian conscript, stationed at the Russian base, sparked a series of protests. But in this case, it was not merely the tragedy itself, but the mishandling of the murder by both Moscow and Yerevan that only exacerbated the situation.
While the Armenian government’s response was slow and minimal, the Russian reaction was widely seen as arrogant and demeaning, as it initially insisted on ignoring demands for an Armenian trial of the confessed murderer.
The combination of these recent developments resulted in an eruption of public outcry and organised protests, not necessarily over the strategic partnership between Armenia and Russia, but challenging the asymmetry and lack of respect inherent in the terms of that relationship.
Within that broader context, the current unrest in Armenia stands as a significant test of relations and reliance on Russia as a partner and patron for not only Armenia, but for several other post-Soviet states. And so far, Moscow seems grossly inept and grandly ignorant of the deeper repercussions of what is now becoming a crisis in Armenian-Russian relations.
With an equal degree of resonance, the waves of dissent and underlying resentment in Armenia has revealed new cracks and weaknesses in the post-Soviet model of authoritarian rule. In the case of Armenia, which has been plagued by a deeply entrenched trend of authoritarian governance with little legitimacy and even less popularity, years of apathy and a deceptive degree of stability have now been replaced by activism and protest.
New generation of activists
Empowered by the emergence of a new younger generation of activists much less timid and remarkably less fearful, a broader cross-section of the Armenian population have taken to the streets in a show of support and solidarity with these recent demonstrations.
These demonstrations are different from the ones in Armenia’s past, and these differences are rooted in both context and content.
The context is different because this wave of unrest stems from a deadly combination of political dissent and economic discontent. And unlike earlier examples of political protest, the recent downturn in the Armenian economy has deprived the government of any capacity to placate or pacify a disgruntled population.
The content of this unrest is also different, as the protest has succeeded in mobilising an accumulated frustration with a government that relies more on ruling and less on governing the country. The government is increasingly vulnerable from a lack of legitimacy grounded in a lack of elections and an absence of public trust.
While the outcome for Armenia is far from certain, the shock of a resilient challenge to the traditional post-Soviet authoritarian model should worry a number of neighbouring countries. As Russian rule loses stability in the region, the seeds of unrest are bound to spread and grow.
Richard Giragosian is the founding director of the Regional Studies Center, an independent think-tank in Yerevan, Armenia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.