Serzh Sargsyan, who occupied a number of high-ranking state positions starting from the first years of Armenia’s independence, became the third president of the Republic of Armenia after the February 19, 2008 election and stayed in office for about ten years.
According to his official biography, Sargsyan was born in Stepanakert in 1954 and graduated from Yerevan State University’s department of philology. Sargsyan began his political career as a member of the Communist Party during Soviet times. In 1990, he was elected as a deputy to the Supreme Council of Armenia. In 1992, after Armenia’s independence, he led the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Self-Defense Forces Committee, which would later become the basis for the NKR Defense Army.
Sargsyan first served as Armenia’s Defense Minister from 1993-1995. He later also served as Minister of Interior and National Security, Chief of Staff to President Robert Kocharyan and as Secretary of the National Security Council. Sargsyan again served as Armenia’s Defense Minister between 2000-2007. He became a member of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) in 2006.
Following the sudden death of Prime Minister Andranik Margaryan in 2007, Serzh Sargsyan was appointed as Armenia’s Prime Minister, a position he held until his election as president in 2008. He also succeeded Margaryan in becoming the leader of the RPA, a position he still holds today.
Following the bloodshed of March 1, 2008, Sargsyan, who was still the Acting Prime Minister and had not yet been sworn in as President, in addition to taking customary meetings, also initiated an alternative means of communicating with the people. On March 10, his blog appeared online, where he said he is ready to answer even anonymous, unpleasant and pointed questions.
On March 13, Public TV aired a pre-recorded two hour interview with Sargsyan where he answered around 80 questions. The transcript of the interview was later published on his blog in installments. The questions were about the events of March 1, how much Sargsyan and his family owned, their behavior and his plans for the country.
Q: Do you feel responsible for the events of March 1-2?
A: Of course, and I’ve talked about that more than once. We talked about it during the campaign, I talked about it, my team talked about it, the other candidates talked about it but we were not able to preempt these developments and therefore we carry responsibility, we are responsible. But today, we should not be measuring guilt. We should be thinking about how to overcome this tragedy. I think the best way to do that is through work, through the implementation of reforms in society. The best way is for the people to feel reassured that they have made the right choice when they see our initial principled initiatives.
Q: You are considered one of the wealthiest people in Armenia given your real estate and liquid assets. How do you explain that fact?
A: I have already stated that my wealth is not that massive. This is a truly honest answer. I do not steal.
The last blog entry was on March 26, 2008. Meanwhile, Sargsyan and his coalition partner Arthur Baghdasaryan, the head of the Country of Law Party, co-authored an op-ed in The Washington Post:
“The two of us were competitors in the presidential election. But we are united in our desire to end the current crisis and put Armenia back on track. Cooperation is the way forward.”
On April 9, 2008, Serzh Sargsyan was sworn in as President.
One of Sargsyan’s first major moves was to initiate the process of normalizing Armenia-Turkey relations. He first announced his political plans during a meeting with the Armenian-Russian community at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Moscow on June 23, 2008.
“Our position on the matter is clear: there should not be closed borders between neighbors in the 21st century. Regional cooperation can be the best means for the establishment of stability. The Turkish side is suggesting to create a commission to study historic facts. We are not opposed to the creation of such a commission, but only after the borders between our countries are open. Otherwise, it might become a way to prolong and manipulate the issue for years,” Sargsyan said in his address. He also added that he intended to invite his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, to Yerevan to watch the football match between the Armenian and Turkish national teams. The approach was dubbed “football diplomacy”.
On September 6, Gul arrived in Yerevan. Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Nalbandyan greeted him at Zvartnots Airport, after which Gul got into a Mercedes with a Turkish license plate. On the road to Yerevan and on Baghramyan Avenue, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (a government coalition member at the time) was protesting by chanting “Recognition” and holding up posters that read, “I’m from Sassoun,” “I’m from Ardahan,” “I’m from Van,” “No to Genocide,” “Recognize the truth,” etc.
Gul returned to Turkey after the soccer game, which ended in a 2-0 victory for Turkey.
Only days before the match, the Armenian Football Federation changed its logo. The new one no longer featured Mount Ararat. The iconic mountain was also removed from the Armenian National team’s jerseys. Later, the head of the football federation apologized “for the oversight” and promised that Mount Ararat would be put back on the logo.
On April 23, 2009, the Foreign Ministries of Armenia and Turkey, along with the Federal Department of the Swiss Foreign Ministry, announced a “Road Map” for the normalization of Armenia-Turkey relations “without preconditions”. On August 31, the Foreign Ministries of Armenia and Turkey published two preliminary protocols (the “Protocol on the establishment of diplomatic relations” and the “Protocol on the development of bilateral relations”) and an announcement that they would be holding political consultations for six weeks before signing the protocols. This meant that the protocols were to be signed by the end of October 2009.
The protocols stipulated that, within two months of ratification, the sides would open the border and establish working groups, headed by the foreign ministers, tasked with coordinating the work of interstate commissions and subcommittees.
The ambiguity of certain formulations in these protocols caused discontent and radical opposition. The section that said that the sides have agreed to “an unbiased scientific study of historical documents and archives” was interpreted as throwing the Armenian Genocide into doubt.
Before signing the protocols, Sargsyan visited the U.S., France, Lebanon and Russia to meet with the Armenian communities there and hold discussions. His visits were met with large protests.
On October 9, thousands also came out for a protest in Yerevan. Armen Rustamyan, the representative of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which had organized the rally, said “While we are not against the opening of the border and the normalization of relations, we say no to these protocols that threaten the security of our state, the generations to come and our dignity, and demand that they not be signed.”
Nevertheless, on October 10, the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Turkey signed the protocols in Switzerland.
The second match between Armenia and Turkey took place on October 14. Sargsyan received an invitation from Gul to watch the game in Bursa. Even though Sargsyan had announced that he would attend the match only if the borders were open by then, or on the verge of opening, Sargsyan ended up attending the match in Bursa while the borders were still closed and have remained closed to date. Turkish fans booed Armenia’s anthem at the start of the game, which Turkey won 2-0.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued to insist that Armenia retreat from Nagorno-Karabakh as a precondition to opening the border and the normalization of relations, saying “Azerbaijan’s interests have always been important to Turkey.”
On January 12, 2010, the Constitutional Court of Armenia decided that the Armenia-Turkey Protocols did not contradict the constitution of Armenia. The high court also noted:
- Mutual obligations assumed by the protocols… are of an exclusively bilateral interstate nature; they may not relate to or through various references be attributed to a third party or to the relations of the signatory sides to a third party.
- The further establishment and development of relations between the two countries in different spheres will be anchored in concrete, written agreements between the two countries, which will be regulated by international law, and the constitutionality of these assumed obligations will be assessed through independent examination.
- The protocols cannot be interpreted and applied in a way that contradicts the provisions of the preamble to the Armenian Constitution and the requirements of Article 11 of the Declaration of Independence of Armenia [on pursuing recognition of the Genocide].
Days later, the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced that there were preconditions and restrictive provisions in the decision of the Constitutional Court of Armenia, which were not acceptable for Turkey. From that point, Turkey’s efforts toward normalization stalled.
On April 22, 2010, in a televised address, Serzh Sargsyan announced that Turkey was creating delays to purposely fail the process. He said, “from this moment on, we consider the current phase of normalization exhausted.”
A “friendship statue” had been erected in Kars. In 2011, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the monument symbolizing Turkish-Armenian friendship a “freak” and ordered its demolition. They started to dismantle the statue on April 24 of the same year.
The Armenian National Committee of America labeled the protocols as a manufactured excuse to allow U.S. President Barack Obama, who had said he would recognize the Armenian Genocide during his presidential campaign, to renege on his promise in the interest of reconciliation between the two sides.
In 2014, during the 69th UN General Assembly, Serzh Sargsyan responded to Turkey’s accusations that Armenia is refusing to ratify the protocols as follows: “Official Ankara openly declares that it will ratify the protocols only if the Armenians hand over Nagorno-Karabakh, and hand over a free Artsakh to Azerbaijan. In Armenia and Artsakh, ordinary people often respond to such preconditions very simply: ‘The hell with your ratification.’”
On March 1, 2018, Serzh Sargsyan signed a decree terminating the course of the ratification of the protocols. Speaking on the matter at a sitting of the National Security Council, he noted that Turkey violated internationally-recognized practice by overtly refusing to ratify the protocols and setting preconditions that had nothing to do with the protocols themselves.
Negotiations on signing an Association Agreement with the European Union began in July 2010. It was expected that the document would be initialed by November 2013.
However, on September 3, 2013, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin signed a joint statement in Moscow stating that the Republic of Armenia would be joining a new customs union and later participate in the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union.
The very next day, EU President, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius announced, “We respect the choices of the countries but they can not, at the same time, become a member of two different organizations given that there are different tariff requirements.” This effectively halted Armenia’s chances of signing a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union.
On September 5, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fule announced, “it is difficult to imagine the initialling of the Association Agreement with Armenia in Vilnius in November.”
During the October 2 Plenary Session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Serzh Sargsyan had said, “From the very beginning of the negotiations, we were constantly telling our European partners, our partners from the European Commission, that our policy pursues coordination of interests, not setting one against the other… We are still ready to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. Unfortunately, after our announcement regarding joining the Customs Union, our partners in the European Commission said that there is a direct contradiction between the Customs Union and the Free Trade Agreement; the rules are different. We proposed that, in that case, let’s sign the Association Agreement, which mainly implies political reforms, and we are ready, and not only ready but resolute, to implement these reforms in our country. You know, it would be pointless to speak about pressures. I am telling you quite frankly, and I cannot publicly say something that is not true, not a single official from the Russian Federation or the Customs Union said even a word about Armenia’s mandated membership. We expressed that desire because we based it on a very simple reality: for more than twenty years, we have been a member of the military and security structure where countries which today form the Customs Union are composite parts.”
Despite such reassurances, there are justifications that point to Russia pressuring Armenia, such as the supply of large quantities of weapons to Azerbaijan, Putin’s visit to Baku, a ban on the export of Armenian fish products to Russia, changes in migration policy and more.
However, four years later, on November 24, 2017, Armenia and the EU signed the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement in Brussels. The document entered into force on March 1, 2021.
Suspending Diplomatic Relations With Hungary
On August 31, 2012, Ramil Safarov was extradited from Hungary to Azerbaijan and immediately pardoned and celebrated upon his arrival. Safarov had been found guilty of murdering Armenian Lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan during a 2004 NATO Partnership for Peace program in Budapest.
That very same day, President Serzh Sargsyan invited a special meeting of the heads of the diplomatic missions of the UN member states accredited in Armenia and the heads of international organizations operating in Armenia to announce that Armenia was suspending diplomatic relations and all official ties with Hungary.
During the meeting, Sargsyan said, “With their joint actions, the authorities of Hungary and Azerbaijan have opened the door for the recurrence of such crimes. With this decision, they convey a clear message to the murderers. The slaughterers hereafter are well aware of the impunity they can enjoy for murder driven by ethnic or religious hatred. I cannot tolerate that, the Republic of Armenia cannot tolerate that. The Armenian nation will never forgive that. I officially announce that, as of today, we suspend diplomatic relations and all official contacts with Hungary.”
It was the first time that Armenia suspended diplomatic relations with another county. Diplomatic relations between Armenia and Hungary remain suspended.
The Centenary of the Armenian Genocide
April 2015 marked the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. A global socio-political Forum “Against the Crime of Genocide” was held in Yerevan on April 22-23, with the participation of more than 600 parliamentarians, politicians, diplomats, scientists and prominent genocide scholars from about 50 countries. At the end of the forum, a declaration was adopted.
On April 12, Pope Francis delivered a Divine Liturgy in the Vatican dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, calling it “the first genocide of the 20th century.” Pope Francis also visited Armenia the following year as part of a “three day pilgrimage to the first Christian nation.”
War and Border Clashes
Summer 2014: First Serious Escalation
Border incidents and tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan started to increase year by year during the presidency of Serzh Sargsyan. The first serious escalation after the 1994 ceasefire agreement happened in the summer of 2014, although ceasefire violations and casualties were reported throughout the whole year.
As a result of Azerbaijani subversions from July 31 until August 4, the Armenian side suffered five casualties and four wounded soldiers during skirmishes. Azerbaijan suffered 17 casualties and nine wounded.
The following incidents also took place in 2014:
– On July 9, Azerbaijani saboteurs entered the territory of Karvachar, killing Armenian officer Sargis Abrahamyan and wounding Karine Davtyan. It was later revealed that they had also kidnapped and killed 17-year-old Smbat Tsakanyan. A few days later, one of the Azerbaijanis who entered Artsakh was killed as a result of search operations. Another two, Shahbaz Guliyev and Dilham Askerov, were arrested.
– On August 7, Chinari village resident 31-year-old Karen Petrosyan crossed into Azerbaijan by mistake and was taken hostage. Azerbaijani civilians served him tea and talked to him, recording parts of the conversation. It was evident that Karen was not armed and dressed in civilian clothes. However, Azerbaijan later claimed that he was an armed saboteur. The next day, news about his death was announced.
– On November 12, the Azerbaijani side shot down an Armenian Mi-24 helicopter that was conducting flight training. The entire crew, consisting of Major Sergei Sahakyan, Senior Lieutenant Sargis Nazaryan and Lieutenant Azat Sahakyan, was killed.
2015: “This is war, there is no longer a ceasefire.”
2015 was also a restless year. As a result of Azerbaijani attacks, the Armenian side suffered casualties among its civilian population as well, with six killed and 5 wounded.
On September 26, for the first time after the ceasefire, Azerbaijan used heavy artillery (122 mm D-30 howitzers). As a result of the ceasefire violation, the Armenian side suffered four deaths and dozens were wounded.
The same day, Serzh Sargsyan issued the following statement:
“Even our ancestors said that nothing good can come out of war. During over 20 years of enforced ceasefire, which we were never able to turn into peace thanks to the authorities in Baku, we have done everything to avoid another confrontation. We will do that now as well, and there will be punitive action so that the opponent does not think that they will get away with their impudent behavior. We will hold Azerbaijan’s government accountable in front of its people for the suffering it has caused them.”
On December 22, Artsrun Hovhannisyan, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense, revealed that Azerbaijan had moved its tanks closer to the border days before. He detailed the heavy weapons used by Azerbaijan during that year and the new situation on the ground. He suggested that reporters no longer use the term “ceasefire violation”, saying “This is war, there is no longer a ceasefire.”
2016 Four Day April War
Artsakh’s Defense Army announced the first casualty of 2016 on January 9. In February, a civilian was killed by an enemy sniper.
At 8:18 am on April 2, the Artsakh Defense Army announced that the adversary had taken overt offensive actions overnight in the southern, southeastern, and northeastern directions of the Line of Contact using artillery, armored vehicles and air force.
Heavy clashes continued until midday on April 5. It was later reported that a bilateral ceasefire agreement had been reached. However, border incidents continued to occur during the following days as well. On April 7, according to a press release by the Artsakh Defense Army, besides using firearms of different calibers and mortars, Azerbaijan also launched two sabotage and intelligence operations. Two Armenian soldiers were killed on April 8 as a result of a ceasefire violation by Azerbaijan. Sabotage attempts continued on April 14 and 17. There was also active shelling on April 25-28 in the direction of civilian settlements.
One of the first casualties of the war was 12-year-old Vaghinak Grigoryan, who was on his way to school with his two brothers when the enemy attacked. There were other casualties among the civilian population as well. On the second day of the war, Hetq published a photo depicting Azerbaijan’s atrocities—the execution of an elderly couple in the village of Talish, whose ears had been cut off.
The four day war once more demonstrated Azerbaijan’s state-sponsored hatred toward Armenians. The Human Rights Defender of Artsakh published a report about war crimes committed against 31 people, including torture, execution and mutilation of bodies.
Armenia suffered 106 deaths during the four-day war and subsequent clashes in April. During the four days of the war, Armenia suffered 75 casualties; four of them were civilians.
Armenia also suffered territorial losses during the war. Serzh Sargsyan spoke about the loss of 800 hectares of land during a meeting with reporters on May 17. However, in 2020, during a video message, he corrected himself saying that it was closer to 400 hectares. “What I said after the war was that they were able to take 800 hectares out of the 800 thousand hectares security zone, which accounts for 0.1 percent. I did not insist during the war that our army take back that land because I prioritized the life of our soldiers and I was resolute in my decision.”
Bellingcat, an investigative journalism platform specializing in investigations in the military sphere, wrote at the time that, although Azerbaijan concentrated its entire military potential to capture most of the territory in a blitzkrieg, it failed.
On May 16, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Vienna with the participation of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs and the Foreign Ministers of their respective countries. As a result of the meeting, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries issued a joint announcement affirming that there can be no military solution to the conflict, emphasizing the importance of maintaining the 1994 and 1995 ceasefire agreements.
At the same time, it was stated that the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan had agreed on finalizing the formation of OSCE investigation mechanisms in the shortest possible time, to expand the existing office of the Special Representative of the OSCE acting president, and to continue the information exchange about missing people under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
On June 20, during the meeting of the presidents of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in St. Petersburg, the sides reaffirmed the agreements of May 16. However, the process subsequently stalled once more. Serzh Sargsyan and his team members pointed out several times that the new government did not follow up on this issue and abandoned this important agreement, to the detriment of the Armenian side.
“With the mechanism of investigating incidents, we lent a degree of international acceptance of the existing Line of Contact. Those who are more or less familiar with the negotiation process should have understood this. And Azerbaijan understood that, subsequently, the use of force would have had serious consequences and tried to avoid it in any way possible,” Sargsyan said.
Sargsyan’s Approach on Artsakh
There were no groundbreaking changes in attempts to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict during Serzh Sargsyan’s presidency. After assuming office in 2008, he started negotiations based around the Madrid Principles.
He announced many times that he was ready to sign the Kazan document in 2011, which was derived from the Madrid Principles, but Azerbaijan refused to sign it at the last moment.
After the 2020 Artsakh War, Serzh Sargsyan spoke about what was negotiated during his presidency, about the Kazan document, and his understanding of the solution to the conflict.
“I was ready to be labeled as a traitor, but solve the problem,” Sargsyan said during his interview to the BBC on June 24, 2021. He added that he assumed the role of Prime Minister in 2018 so that the negotiation process could be brought to a point where a leadership transition would not derail it.
He envisioned the solution of the conflict as follows: “The Azerbaijanis, of course, would be obliged to recognize that the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh would be decided through the free will of the people of Karabakh, which would undoubtedly have legal force and the agenda was not limited, without setting a date for the referendum. This would have been our lowest threshold. We would be obliged to return the five territories to Azerbaijan. We would tightly bind the return of the remaining two territories with the day the referendum would take place, excluding the corridor which provides a land connection with Armenia. Peacekeeping forces would have been deployed and the reconciliation process would have started.”
According to Sargsyan, Aliyev had practically agreed to this approach.
Serzh Sargsyan’s presidency started with post-election demonstrations and clashes, and ended in the same manner. There were also protests throughout his two presidential terms.
We Will Not Pay 150 Drams
On July 20, 2013, protests started in Yerevan against raising the bus fare from 100 to 150 AMD (20 cents to 30 cents US). Many public figures joined the movement, including actor (and now Mayor of Yerevan) Hayk Marutyan. Five days later, on July 25, Yerevan Mayor Taron Margaryan announced that the public transportation fees would not be increased.
In October 2013, the government announced that, starting on January 1, 2014, a mandatory accumulative pension system will be implemented. As a result, everyone born in 1974 and after (around 250,000 people) would have to make mandatory contributions to a pension fund. The monthly payment would be 10% of the gross salary, with 5% paid by the employee, and another 5 percent by the state.
IT sector employees initiated the “I Am Opposed To Mandatory [Contributions]” movement, to advocate against the mandatory component of the program, later joined by a broader segment of society. Open letters were published, marches and car rallies were organized and silent protests were carried out. The protesters cooperated with the parliamentary opposition to raise their voice of protest and later to dispute the constitutionality of the law.
Although the mandatory aspect of the law was delayed, it was enforced later. Even after the 2018 revolution when “I Am Opposed” activist Mane Tandilyan was appointed as Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, the government did not remove the mandatory aspect of pension payments.
The largest social protest movement started on June 22, 2015, and lasted for around two weeks. Again, it had to do with a pocketbook issue, as demonstrators demanded a reversal to the June 17 decision of the Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC) that increased the electricity tariff by 17% from 42 to 49 AMD/kWh (84 to 98 cents US).
Initially called “No To Plunder”, a civic initiative arranged a rally at Freedom Square on June 17 and gave the government five days to fulfill their demand of reversing the decision. When the five days expired without a response, the demonstrators marched to Baghramyan Avenue on June 22, where the Presidential Palace is located. But police forces prevented them from moving forward. The demonstrators began a sit-in protest on Baghramyan Avenue, blocking the crucial artery into Yerevan’s city center and paralyzing traffic.
In the early morning hours of June 23, police forces tried to disperse the protesters using water cannons. 237 people were detained and 25 were hospitalized. Some reporters were also attacked by police. The use of force only strengthened the movement, causing more people to gather on Baghramyan Avenue with signs saying “The more you water us, the more we will grow.”
Although the government did not cancel the decision to raise the electricity price, it declared that it will provide a one-year subsidy to subscribers using less than 250 kWh per month and to small- and medium-sized businesses using less than 500 kWh per month. Eventually, the movement dispersed.
The Sasna Tsrer Police Station Takeover
In the early morning hours of July 17, 2016, a group of 31 armed men calling themselves the Daredevils of Sassoun [Sasna Tsrer] stormed a police station in Yerevan. During the attack the deputy commander of the regiment Artur Vanoyan was killed and four other policemen and a member of the group were wounded. One of the wounded police officers, Gagik Mkrtchyan, died in hospital on August 13. Those who worked at the police station, along with Yerevan’s Deputy Chief of Police Valeriy Osipyan and Armenia’s Deputy Chief of Police Vardan Yeghiazaryan, who had gone to negotiate with the group, were taken hostage.
The armed group demanded the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan and the release of their previously detained leader Jirair Sefilian.
The police blockaded all the streets near the police station and surrounded the building. Mediated negotiations between the government and the armed group took place. Meanwhile, supporters and family members of the terrorists were detained.
The armed group called on the people to support their call for the resignation of the president and significant public demonstrations did take place. Police used force to disperse demonstrators, hundreds of people were detained, and some of them were charged for participating in a riot.
On July 19, residents of the Sari Tagh neighborhood started their own protests against cutting off their gas supply and street closures that were hindering their free movement. A serious clash with police took place then as well.
On July 20, people gathered near the police station on Khorenatsi Street contacted police to address the issue of providing food to the terrorists but were denied permission. In response, they began to throw stones and bottles at police, and were met with tear gas. 51 people sought medical assistance, 29 of them police officers; 136 people were detained.
Serzh Sargsyan publicly addressed the issue for the first time on July 22 during a consultation with the heads of law enforcement: “The hostages must be freed. The armed group must put down their weapons. The issue will be disentangled through strict observance of Armenia’s Constitution and laws. Revenge attacks will be prevented by the full force of the law. Yes, many people are unsatisfied in Armenia. However, no one should believe that they can exploit any occasion or reason to destabilize our statehood.”
All the hostages were freed on July 23. A group of reporters and film crews were allowed to enter the police station on that same day, which was still being occupied by the terrorists. Daredevils of Sassoun member Pavlik Manukyan called on the people to take to the streets and to start fighting against the authorities.
On July 25, Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) called on the armed group to surrender and presented conditions for avoiding criminal charges. Providing food for the group remained an issue. The police announced that members of the group removed two vehicles from the premises of the police station and set them on fire. Crossfire erupted as a result of which two members of the group were taken to hospital.
On the early morning of July 26, civilian Artur Sargsyan loaded his car with food, rammed the police barricade and took food to the group. He later became known as the “Bread Bringer”. Two members of the armed group surrendered to the police. During an exchange of fire with police, group members Gevorg Iritsyan, Pavlik Manukyan and his son Aram, as well as a policeman were wounded.
On July 27, police announced that the group had taken the ambulance workers hostage. The armed group presented the situation differently: “Two people are wounded. The boys want the doctors to always be there taking shifts.” The police dispersed protesters gathered on Khorenatsi Street by force; some of them were detained.
On July 29, members of the armed group Arayik Khandoyan, Armen Lambaryan and Artur Melkonyan were wounded during an exchange of fire and taken to the hospital.
The infamous events of Sari Tagh took place on that day. After a rally at Freedom Square, protesters moved toward Sari Tagh, where they clashed with police. They were met with smoke and stun grenades. A fire started in the area as a result. At the same time, police also dispersed the protesters on Khorenatsi Street using force. Around 80 people sought medical help. 16-year-old Sayad Harutyunyan lost one eye as a result of police violence. Reporters were also subjected to violence and hindered from doing their job. Around 200 people were detained.
On July 30, police announced that 30-year-old Yura Stepanosyan was killed as a result of shots fired from the police station. The NSS issued a statement that “all sensible opportunities for reaching a peaceful solution of the situation with the terrorists have been exhausted.” They gave the armed group until 5:00 p.m. to surrender, otherwise “the police was authorized to open fire without warning and to neutralize any armed person in the police station or outside of it.” The Daredevils of Sassoun decided to surrender before the deadline.
The next day, they put down their weapons and left the police station. The NSS announced that the police station had been liberated and 20 people were detained.
On February 24, 2021, 10 members of the Daredevils of Sassoun finally received their sentence: ten years in prison. These cases are currently being appealed, while the initial trial of the other ten members has not yet concluded.
High-Profile Criminal Cases
A number of high-profile crimes were committed during 2008-2018 which garnered much public attention. Here are a few examples:
– In 2013, Armenian presidential candidate Vardan Sedrakyan was arrested on charges of ordering the murder of another presidential candidate, Paruyr Hayrikyan. He was sentenced to 14 years of imprisonment.
– Civic activist Shant Harutyunyan organized an Anonymous March [inspired by the film V for Vendetta] on November 5, 2013. Clashes with police took place on Mashtots Avenue, leading to the arrest of Harutyunyan and his colleagues on charges of hooliganism. 13 people were sentenced to prison, among them Harutyunyan to six years in jail.
– In the afternoon of May 17, 2014, shots were fired in the Vernissage market in central Yerevan. Former MP Karo Karapetyan’s son-in-law Gor Arakelyan was accused of attempting to murder Valerik Hovhannisyan and Nerses Melkonyan, after arguing with them at the entrance of an underground parking lot, during which he opened fire, severely injuring those passing by. The next day, Arakelyan turned himself in to police, and was later sentenced to 6.5 years in prison. In 2017, Serzh Sargsyan pardoned him. A year later, he was found dead.
– On November 25, 2015, the National Security Service announced that an armed group had been arrested in the suburb of Nork Marash. The group of 20 people, headed by Artur Vardanyan, had planned to seize power from the government, more specifically, to strike the President’s plane during its flight, to attack the Presidential Palace, the National Assembly, the Constitutional Court, the Government Building, the Public Television headquarters and buildings of other institutions. In addition to Vardanyan, the defendants of the case included former Deputy Minister of Defense Vahan Shirkhanyan and priest of the Gyumri Catholic Church Anton Dikran Totonjyan. The trial is still ongoing.
– In 2017, decorated National Hero of Artsakh Samvel Babayan was arrested on charges of smuggling an Igla anti-aircraft missile system into Armenia. The court found him guilty and sentenced him to six years in prison. On July 15, 2018, after the Velvet Revolution, Babayan and the other defendants were released from custody. The Court of Cassation overturned the lower court’s decision and ordered a new examination of the case. “Serzh Sargsyan had given an order; they had fabricated the case,” said Samvel Babayan.
– On January 12, 2015, the Armenian public was shocked by the news that Valery Permyakov, a serviceman of the Russian military base in Gyumri, trespassed into the home of the Avetisyan family in the early morning, shooting six people and stabbing their 6-month-old baby, who died in hospital seven days later. Large protests took place in Gyumri following the crime, demanding that Permyakov and his investigative case be handed over to the Republic of Armenia. The trial took place in Armenia, but the Russian tribunal sentenced Permyakov to life imprisonment, which he is serving in Russia.
The Global Financial Crisis and the Armenian Economy
The global economic crisis of 2008 also heavily affected the Armenian economy, resulting in a 5.9% contraction, compared to the previous double-digit growth of 13.7% the year before.
The National Statistics Committee’s “Poverty in Armenia Between 2008-2018” survey states that the construction of residential buildings suffered the most as a result of the drastic changes in the economic environment. The decline continued in 2009, with a 14.1% contraction of GDP. In 2010, economic growth returned at a stunted rate of 2.2%. The following two years posted 4.7% and 7.2% growth, but it was still not enough to recover to pre-crisis levels. In 2013, GDP grew by 3.3%, down from the previous year due to a decline in the construction sector.
It is during this period that former President Robert Kocharyan publicly criticized incumbent Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan for the decline in construction volumes caused by emigration, poor mortgage conditions and public apathy.
In the second half of 2014, global oil prices began to collapse. The Russian ruble lost value, impacting remittances to Armenia. Eventually, the Armenian dram also underwent a devaluation. It took until 2017 for the Armenian economy to adjust.
In the first years of Serzh Sargsyan’s presidency, the level of poverty greatly increased, according to the Statistical Committee․ In 2008, the number of the poor constituted 27.6% of the population, reaching its maximum level of 35.8% in 2010. It then gradually started to decrease: 35% in 2011; 30% in 2014; 25.7% in 2017; 23.5% in 2018. The extreme poverty rate also decreased from 1.6% in 2008 to 1.0% in 2018.
The population has declined since independence. In 2008, according to official data, there were 3,097,000 people in Armenia. By 2018, the population had decreased to 2,986,000 according to the same source․ During the ten years of Sargsyan’s presidency, 370,000 residents emigrated, an average of 37,000 people each year.
According to the Statistics Committee data, Armenia’s foreign debt greatly increased during Sargsyan’s administration. In 2008, foreign debt amounted to 585 million AMD; in 2009, it almost doubled to almost 12 billion AMD, then continued to increase more slowly, reaching almost 33 billion by January 1, 2018.
A few state structures were constructed during Sargsyan’s presidency, including new buildings for ministries, the Investigative Committee, the Academy of Justice and others. Several hydropower plants, some sections of the North-South Highway and the Vardenis-Martakert Highway were constructed. UWC Dilijan College, Ayb School and the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies were opened, in addition to a few modern medical centers.
Corruption and Monopolies
On September 15, 2012, President Serzh Sargsyan during a government session addressed corruption issues in the sphere of managing the state budget and public procurement. He instructed government members to “hold the bigshots accountable.”
Although some high-ranking officials were arrested after this announcement, throughout Sargsyan’s tenure, officials at the center of corruption scandals went unnoticed. For example, Mihran Poghosyan, the head of the Judicial Acts Compulsory Enforcement Agency, was highlighted in the 2016 Panama Papers revelations. The companies registered under Poghosyan’s name in Panama were shareholders of Best Realty LLC registered in Armenia, which undertook real estate and movable property appraisal for the Judicial Acts Compulsory Enforcement Agency (headed by Poghosyan). He was not held accountable during Serzh Sargsyan’s presidency.
Additionally, numerous journalistic investigations were published that explicitly pointed out corruption risks in the management of the state budget, public procurement, incomes of high-ranking officials and conflicts of interest between them, which were never addressed.
After the 2016 Four Day April War, when public discussions on corruption issues began, starting with the defense sector, the government began to take some steps. For example, it began actively working with civil society on anti-corruption legislative reforms. The effort led to improved scores in 2017 and 2018 on the Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International.
In 2016, the government also addressed the need to dismantle monopolies. At the June 2, 2016 sitting of the Government, Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan instructed the Ministry of Economy to develop guidelines for the import of ten essential products to the market within a month’s time. These included sugar, flour, wheat, oil, rice, buckwheat, butter, margarine, bananas, oranges, baby food, poultry, medicine, diesel and gasoline. He noted that, even though these markets are not formally monopolized, they are perceived by the public as such.
The next prime minister, Karen Karapetyan, also spoke about the fight against monopolies in front of the National Assembly, saying that he would create a fair and transparent environment․ “When you encounter such an obstacle, call me personally,” he responded to an MP’s question.
It later became clear that some businessmen were trying to enter the monopoly market, among them Vahram Mirakyan, who started importing bananas․ “We are working to increase imports. Now, who is dominant, who is not, is not particularly of interest to us, because it does not particularly hinder us,” Mirakyan said. Opponents do not consider small importers to be competitors for bigger ones, he noted, adding that small importers generally cannot make tangible changes in monopoly markets.
Elections and Referendums
During Serzh Sargsyan’s presidency, two parliamentary elections, one presidential election, a number of local elections and one constitutional referendum were held.
2012 Parliamentary Election
The 2012 parliamentary election was held on May 6. Sargsyan, the leader of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), personally ran the party’s campaign, also attending regional meetings. According to the results of the elections, the RPA secured a majority with 69 of the 131 parliamentary seats. Prosperous Armenia secured 37; the Armenian National Congress, seven; the ARF Dashnaktsutyun and Orinats Yerkir secured six each; and Heritage, five seats. One independent candidate, Edmon Marukyan, also received a parliamentary mandate in the district of Vanadzor.
The final report of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) referred to numerous irregularities.
2013 Presidential Election
The 2013 presidential election took place on February 18. According to the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), Serzh Sargsyan received 58.64% of the votes, and Raffi Hovannisian, the leader of the Heritage Party, received 36.74%. Hovannisian and his supporters questioned the veracity of these results and started the “Barevolution” protest movement.
At a rally in Freedom Square on February 22, Hovannisian announced his “Fight Until the End” campaign and kicked off his regional tour. Meetings were held with the ambassadors of foreign countries, representatives of international bodies and political forces in Armenia. On March 10, he announced a hunger strike, demanding Sargsyan’s voluntary resignation. After a 22-day hunger strike, he continued his visits to the regions.
Considering himself the true winner of the 2013 presidential election, Hovannisian organized an alternative swearing-in ceremony at Freedom Square on April 9, on the 2013 presidential inauguration day. A1+ news agency wrote: “Raffi Hovannisian urged the high-ranking officials of the Armenian law enforcement system to either resign or arrest him. On that day, Hovannisian called on citizens to defy the police and go to Tsitsernakaberd to protest against electoral fraud; instructing them to to march through Baghramyan Avenue, across the National Assembly and the President’s Residence. As protesters tried to enter Baghramyan, Chief of Police Vladimir Gasparyan managed to get Hovannisian to Tsitsernakaberd via an alternative route, bypassing Baghramyan Avenue. A joint prayer was said there.”
After April 9, the wave of protests gradually subsided.
In its final report, OSCE/ODIHR assessed these elections as generally positive. Meanwhile, on February 19, the day after the election, a group of young people organized a protest at the press conference of the representatives of the OSCE/ODIHR international observation mission. The group entered the hall to announce their protest against the observers’ “muddled assessment.” Among them was activist Lena Nazaryan, who would later become an MP and Deputy Speaker of Parliament.
2013 Constitutional Referendum: From Presidential to Parliamentary Governance
In September 2013, Sargsyan signed a decree on the establishment of a special commission on constitutional reform under the president’s authority. About a year later, the concept of a new constitution was published, which envisaged the transition of government from a presidential to a parliamentary model.
The change was interpreted by the public as a method for Sargsyan to stay in power beyond the presidential two-term limit. In response, in February 2015, Sargsyan said, “These reforms are meant to address very important issues. They are not about individuals or, as some have said, the reproduction of power. That is absurd, just absurd, nonsense.”
In the meantime, Armenia’s rank in democracy indices began to deteriorate. Freedom House interpreted the developments to mean that Sargsyan did not want to relinquish power. The Economist Intelligence Unit considered Armenia to be “authoritarian” in 2016.
On December 6, 2015, a referendum on constitutional amendments was held. According to the CEC, 63.37% of the population voted for the amendments to the original legislation and 32.32% against.
Observer groups and opposition members reported unprecedented election violations, though the government reported that they did not affect the final results.
2012 Parliamentary Election
On April 2, 2017, the first parliamentary elections were held under the new Constitution. Four political forces were elected to parliament: the Republican Party of Armenia (49.12%), the Tsarukyan Bloc (27.32%), the Way Out electoral alliance (7.77%) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (6.57%); securing 58, 31, 9 and 7 seats respectively. The RPA retained its parliamentary majority.
In its final report, OSCE/ODIHR stated that the 2017 parliamentary elections “were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected. Despite welcomed reforms of the legal framework and the introduction of new technologies to reduce the incidents of electoral irregularities, the elections were tainted by credible information about vote-buying, and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies. This contributed to an overall lack of public confidence and trust in the elections. Election day was generally calm and peaceful but marked by organizational problems and undue interference in the process, mostly by party representatives.
Attempt to Retain Power: Serzh Sargsyan, From President to Prime Minister
As Sargsyan’s presidential term reached its end, government members started to announce that he was an irreplaceable leader and politician. On March 5, 2018, in reference to the well-known statement that Sargsyan would not become Prime Minister, the head of the RPA faction in parliament Vahram Baghdasaryan said, “Serzh Sargsyan does not make decisions alone. Decisions must be made by the team, and the individual has to obey.”
On April 14, 2018, the RPA announced that the party’s executive body has decided to nominate Sargsyan for the post of Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, and that on April 16, the faction will officially nominate him for the post.
Contrary to public dissatisfaction, Sargsyan’s nomination as Prime Minister remained on the agenda. On April 17, he was elected Prime Minister by the National Assembly with 77 votes in favor and 17 against. In his new position, he held a government session for the first and last time on April 19. It was during this session that he announced that he had given up his Kond summer house, which was given to him free of charge by a government decision: “Mr. Gevorgyan [Deputy Prime Minister Armen Gevorgyan], please instruct those concerned to prepare a draft decision to be adopted at the next sitting. Now is not the time to solve the housing problem of the third president of the Republic. It is possible to address this issue later, when another prime minister will be sitting in this chair.”
On April 23, 2018, Serzh Sargsyan resigned from the post of Prime Minister as a result of mass protests and public pressure that was coined the “Velvet Revolution”.
On December 4, 2019, Serzh Sargsyan was charged with embezzlement. The indictment says that Sargsyan, in his capacity as President, influenced the decision to grant a government fuel contract to a particular company that cost the state 489 million drams (around $1 million) in subsidies. The case is ongoing, Sargsyan is not allowed to leave Armenia.
Independence | N11
The Republic of Armenia marks the 30th anniversary of its independence on September 21, 2021.
As the Soviet Union was collapsing, the Supreme Council of the Armenian SSR adopted a Declaration of Independence on August 23, 1990. On September 21, 1991 a nationwide independence referendum was held. Independence was officially declared by parliament two days later.
Marking a milestone independence should be celebratory, but in the shadow of the 2020 Artsakh War, it is one that will be marked with mixed feelings and uncertainty about the future.
EVN Report’s 11th magazine issue entitled “Independence” looks back over the four administrations of independent Armenia, revealing their major challenges and hurdles, their setbacks and successes. The issue will cover Armenia’s first President Levon Ter-Petrosyan (1991-1998), second President Robert Kocharyan (1998-2008), third President Serzh Sargsyan (2008-2018) and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan (2018-2021). As bleak as the future seems today, understanding the past is the first step to forging a brighter path for the fourth decade ahead.