Why Didn’t Putin Interfere in Armenia’s Velvet Revolution?

His Support for Authoritarianism Abroad Has Limits

Supporters of Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan react after his bid to be interim prime minister was blocked by the parliament during a rally in central Yerevan, Armenia, May 2018.  Gleb Garanich / REUTERS

This April, Serzh Sargsyan, the pro-Russian autocratic leader of Armenia, confronted massive opposition protests reminiscent of the wave of “color revolutions” that took place in eastern Europe in the first decade of this century. Like past political revolutions in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, and Ukraine in 2004, the protests in Armenia shut down the capital and drew heavily on disenchanted youth as well as humor to challenge entrenched autocratic elites.

Led by the former journalist and political prisoner Nikol Pashinyan, demonstrators sought to unseat Sargsyan and his Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), which have dominated Armenian politics for nearly two decades. Sargsyan was first elected president in 2008, succeeding Robert Kocharian, who came to power in 1998. To sidestep Sargsyan’s impending term limit, the RPA orchestrated a transition from a presidential to a parliamentary system with the intention of selecting Sargsyan as prime minister. Sargsyan’s election to the position on April 17, however, sparked tens of thousands of people to take to the streets against his rule.

Such protests seemingly presented a fundamental challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin is terrified by the potential diffusion of mass anti-dictatorial movements to his own country and has long been obsessed by the threat of “color revolutions” in the region. Partly as a result, he has a history of interfering to protect autocrats in Russia’s neighborhood. Putin backed the dictatorial Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who faced protests in Ukraine in 2013–14 and intervened in a wide range of elections throughout the region, including presidential elections in Belarus in 2006 and in Ukraine in 2004 and 2014. (And of course, Putin has also recently sought to disrupt the democratic process in the United States and Western Europe.)

Several Russian commentators worried that the Armenian protests were part of a Western conspiracy to foment student revolution at Russia’s doorstep and that the opposition might turn Armenia against Russia. Sargsyan has been a constant ally of Russia. In 2015, giving into Russian pressure, he brought Armenia into the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic

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