Armenia’s Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian stepped down on Monday after ten days of unprecedented street protests against his attempt to extend his decade-long rule.
“[Opposition leader] Nikol Pashinian was right,” he said in a written address to the nation. “I was mistaken. There are several solutions to the existing situation but I will not opt for any of them. They are not to my liking.”
“I am resigning from the post of prime minister, leader of the country,” he declared.
“The movement in the streets is against my tenure. I am fulfilling your demand. I wish our country peace, harmony and common sense,” he said.
The announcement sparked jubilant scenes in the streets of Yerevan filled with hundreds of thousands of people demanding his resignation. The sound of car horns and fireworks reverberated across the Armenian capital.
Jubilant crowds were converging on the city’s central Republic Square where Pashinian, who launched the campaign on April 13, was due to address supporters later in the day. Some of them sang, danced and clapped their hands.
“I have grown so used to [Sarkisian’s] lies that I just can’t believe he has resigned,” one woman told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Everyone is euphoric now but the hardest part starts now.”
“We have achieved our goal and everything will be alright from now on,” said another, younger woman.
It was not immediately clear whether Sarkisian’s exit will be followed by fresh parliamentary elections. Armenia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Karen Karapetian will likely serve as premier at least in the interim.
Sarkisian publicly rejected the demands for his resignation as recently as on Sunday morning. At a televised meeting with Pashinian, he accused the opposition leader of blackmailing “the legitimate authorities of the state.” “A faction that got 7-8 percent of the vote [in the April 2017 parliamentary elections] cannot speak on behalf of the people,” he said, referring to the opposition Yelk bloc, of which Pashinian is a leader.
Pashinian was detained more than an hour after that tense meeting while holding a fresh demonstration in Yerevan. The arrest only added to popular anger with Sarkisian, with tens of thousands of people flocking to Republic Square on Sunday night.
The protests resumed in Yerevan and other Armenian cities the following morning. Pashinian was set free in the afternoon shortly after Karapetian visited him in custody.
Sarkisian, 63, is a native of Nagorno-Karabakh who was one of the disputed region’s top military commanders during the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan. He was appointed as Armenia’s defense minister in 1993 and went on to hold other key security positions in Yerevan.
Sarkisian was first elected president in a hotly disputed 2008 ballot marred by opposition allegations of fraud and a deadly post-election government crackdown on protesters in Yerevan. His reelection in 2013 was also denounced as fraudulent by Armenia’s leading opposition groups.
In 2014, Sarkisian initiated a controversial constitutional reform that turned Armenia into a parliamentary republic. He stated at the time that he “will not aspire” to the post of prime minister after completing his second presidential term on April 9, 2018.
Sarkisian downplayed that pledged last month when he signaled his plans to become prime minister and thus remain the country’s most powerful man. He cited the increased risk of renewed war in Karabakh and other security challenges facing Armenia.
Opposition parties accused him of breaking his pledge to cling to power. But only one of them, Pashinian’s Civil Contract, moved to scuttle Sarkisian’s plans with street demonstrators.
Pashinian, 42, began his nonstop protests in Yerevan after a two-week walking tour of Armenia’s northern and central regions. His movement has proved particularly popular with young Armenians, who have taken to the streets in unprecedentedly large numbers.