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Armenians vent anger at authorities in 'victory for civil society'

YEREVAN (AFP) - 

Protesters in Armenia who forced the resignation of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian on Monday were united by his bid to stay in power and concerns about the country's struggling economy and rampant corruption, analysts said.

Pro-Moscow Sarkisian was elected prime minister by lawmakers last week soon after ending a 10-year stint as president, sparking outrage on the streets.

"The emotional catalyst was the decision of Serzh Sarkisian to stay in power... He promised not to stay, then said he was staying, because 'the situation changed,'" said Armenian-based political analyst Vigen Hakobyan.

Constitutional amendments approved in 2015 transferred powers from the presidency to the prime minister. By switching office, Sarkisian was effectively extending his chokehold on power.

"People feel humiliated. The impudence, the lawlessness that is characteristic of oligarchic rule," said Hakobyan.

Thousands of protesters celebrated on the streets Monday after spending the last few days demanding Sarkisian step down.

"In Armenia's 27 years of independence, not one president has ruled more than the permitted two terms or has rewritten the constitution to suit him," said Grigor Atanesian, a political observer and Fulbright scholar at the University of Missouri.

"Serzh Sarkisian's resignation is a victory for civil society," he added, noting that all sectors of society protested against him.

- 'Oligarchic state' -

Economic woes in the landlocked country of 2.9 million, known for its worldwide diaspora and ancient Christian faith, also sparked the public's anger.

Currently around a third of people live under the poverty line, said Atanesian, adding that many detest the influence of powerful oligarchs.

Armenian analyst Arman Boshyan was sceptical, however, that the opposition movement will reduce the power of tycoons.

"Armenia has been an oligarchic state since 1991," he said, referring to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"Unfortunately I don't think that this movement will fight the oligarchs."

Atanesian echoed this caution, saying Sarkisian's resignation "will not lead automatically to an ideal liberal democracy," citing a lack of an independent judiciary and key television channels controlled by oligarchs close to Sarkisian.

For Yury Navoyan, who heads a Moscow-based Russian-Armenian association of journalists and analysts, the crisis came as "most of the population had no trust either in the authorities or in the current political system in general".

"For a long time now there have been two polar opposites: the authorities and the citizens."

Following Sarkisian's resignation, a provisional government will either call early elections or the different parties will unite around protest leader and opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan, Navoyan said.

- 'No change' for Russia ties -

As for Armenia's close ties with Russia, including hosting a Russian military base, analysts said that the political crisis will not affect its relationship.

"Russian-Armenian relations won't see great change. The Russian military base will stay in its usual place," said Navoyan.

Russia earlier ruled out action ahead of Sarkisian's resignation.

"Why should Moscow interfere? This is exclusively Armenia's internal affair," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

"Armenia, Russia is always with you," foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Facebook, praising Armenians for "keeping respect for each other despite categorical disagreements".

The crisis had a "total lack of any geopolitical factor," argued Hakobyan.

"This is a matter of Armenian domestic politics. Neither the West nor Russia supported either side," he said.

© 2018 AFP