YEREVAN, (Reuters) - In the days before protesters overthrew Armenia’s veteran leader, Russian officials had high-level phone contacts with the protest leaders and the ruling elite that was clinging to power, according to three people briefed on the discussions.
Weeks of protests against corruption and cronyism culminated on Tuesday in Nikol Pashinyan, the protest leader, becoming prime minister, in a dramatic rupture with the cadre of officials who have run this ex-Soviet state since the late 1990s.
Breaking the mould of previous ex-Soviet popular revolts, especially a bloody uprising in Ukraine in 2014, Moscow did not back the ruling elite or their right to use force to crush the protest movement.
Unlike his counterparts in Ukraine, Pashinyan said he had no plans to pull Armenia out of Moscow’s orbit, and he took steps to reassure Moscow on that score, including via direct contacts, two of the sources said.
During the protests, Pashinyan spoke to the Russian embassy in Yerevan, and to an official in the Russian foreign ministry in Moscow, according to one of the protest leaders, Armen Grigoryan, and a businessman close to Pashinyan’s circle who did not want to be identified.
“We worked with them,” said Grigoryan, referring to Russian officials. He said protest leaders explained to Moscow the nature of their movement and that Russia’s interests would not be served by blocking them.
Russia’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on any contacts it had with people in Yerevan during the crisis.
In the streets, Pashinyan’s supporters were encouraged to display only Armenian national symbols - a conscious break from the Ukraine revolt which angered Moscow by adopting the European Union flag.
On the other side of the stand-off, Serzh Sarksyan, Armenia’s ruler for a decade, was in touch with Russian officials as he fought for survival, according to a diplomatic source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In the 24 hours before Sarksyan quit as prime minister on April 23, he had telephone calls with officials in Moscow, the diplomatic source said. He did not reveal the content of the calls.
Russia’s influence was not the only factor in Armenia’s revolution. Missteps by Sarksyan and the energy of the protest movement played critical roles.
But the contacts with Russia help explain how Armenia was able to sweep its rulers away without violence or a prolonged standoff with the police.
Reuters has found no evidence that Russia actively intervened in the events in Armenia. Indeed, Moscow’s decision not to do so could have been enough to tilt the balance in favor of the protesters.
The contacts also underline how President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy, focused on stopping the West encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence, has turned the Kremlin into de facto kingmaker in parts of the former Soviet Union.
Moments after he was installed as prime minister, Pashinyan said he hoped to meet Putin for talks soon, and he was sent a telegram from the Russian leader congratulating him on his appointment, the Kremlin said.
Sitting in an art cafe in central Yerevan, Pashinyan associate Grigoryan recalled how, when the protests started, few imagined they would lead to a revolution. Not more than 150 people showed up for the first rally against Sarksyan in Yerevan, on March 21, he said.
The movement adopted some innovative approaches. It was not tied explicitly to a political party. It used social media to organize. It attracted young people, many not previously involved in politics.
It used humor and satire. For example, the movement organized a spoof fund-raising campaign to create a retirement fund for Sarksyan. It circulated a caricature of Sarksyan photo-shopped to look like a dim-witted character from a Soviet-era children’s cartoon.
It also used direct action. “You don’t need many people to block a road, and that’s how we started,” said Grigoryan.
Crucially, it kept the focus on domestic concerns and steered away from the kind of geopolitical themes that dominated Ukraine’s “Euromaidan” anti-Moscow uprising in 2014.
“We learned from Euromaidan that a revolution should not have an international agenda,” said Grigoryan.
He said no explicit instructions were given to supporters not to wave the EU or U.S. flags at rallies, but he said: “It was generally understood that it would be just Armenian flags at our protests.”
By April 22, the protests had snowballed, driven by public anger that Sarksyan was switching from the presidency to the job of prime minister to get around constitutional term limits and extend his grip on power.
Tens of thousands of people marched through Yerevan, blocking streets and staging sit-ins. Sarksyan had no plans to quit at that point.
He walked out of talks with Pashinyan after a few minutes, saying he would not give in to “blackmail.” The same day, police detained three opposition leaders, including Pashinyan, along with nearly 200 protesters.
Yet the next day, Sarskyan changed direction, and resigned as prime minister.
In the intervening 24 hours, Sarksyan had intensive discussions with his own allies and officials. They discussed the possibility of implementing a state of emergency, which would give security agencies greater powers to use force against the protesters.
“We had two options: parliament could introduce a state of emergency in the country or Serzh Sarskyan could resign,” said Eduard Sharmazanov, a lawmaker with the ruling Republican Party and deputy speaker of parliament.
“Introducing a state of emergency would not solve the problem, but postpone it.”
In the same time period, while the internal discussions were going on, Sarksyan was in touch with Russia about what do to next, said the diplomatic source.
“He weighed all the pros and cons and, as far I know, he also had some talks with people in Moscow,” the diplomatic source told Reuters.
The businessman close to Pashinyan said his contacts in the Republican Party told him Sarksyan had conversations with Russian officials during this period.
Soon afterwards, Sarksyan quit, opening the way for his opponents to take power. In his resignation statement, Sarksyan said: “I got it wrong.”
Additional reporting by Hasmik Mkrtchyan; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Giles Elgood