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‘There Will Come a Time When Protests in Armenia Become Serious’: Thomas de Waal

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan made the decision to join the Customs Union and sped up this process because he felt under pressure from his predecessor, Robert Kocharian, said Thomas de Waal (pictured), a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing primarily in the South Caucasus, in an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian service (Azatutyun) on Sunday.

"I think society is less pro-Russian in Armenia than the political elite. I think society obviously people want to see Russia as the security provider for Armenia, they want links with Russia, but I think you're seeing over the last 10 years Armenian society growing up and saying Armenia is Armenia and Russia is Russia, and not wanting this kind of rather colonial relationship with Russia, which the Customs Union provides. 

"However, the political elite, as we know, is quite pro-Russian, even looking at former president [Levon] Ter-Petrossian is making some very pro-Russian statements in the last year or two. And I think Serzh Sargsyan felt pressure: he felt pressure from Prosperous Armenia, from Gagik Tsarukyan, and from his predecessor, Robert Kocharian, and one of the reasons he made this decision, as it were, to kind of not to face a kind of pro-Russian domestic threat inside Armenia, to get the support of the Kremlin," he said.

According to him, this is not a present-day threat, but a threat about which Serzh Sargsyan, who "is a chess player, he likes to try and think several moves ahead," if not in terms of the strategic vision of the country, then in terms of politics, saw. "And I think he's looking ahead to 2018. He sees that his own power base will be threatened in 2018," he said.

"Possibly, and maybe it's too early to talk about this, he wants to change the Constitution, and keep some kind of power, inside Armenia. And obviously a very good insurance policy for doing that is to get the support of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. But obviously this is all speculation," he added.

Regarding concerns of Armenia's joining the Customs Union, three of the members of which are considered autocratic regimes, de Waal said: "It doesn't improve Armenia's prospects for full democracy, and obviously, the European model implies joining a club of democracies, whereas the Customs Union part means joining a club of authoritarian regimes. 

"But having said that, I think that Armenia still has elements of democracy, in parliament. The media is not completely free, but you hear different voices in the media. Society is quite active. So I think it's not possible for Serzh Sargsyan to put a lid on Armenian society, even if he wants to. And he still wants to keep his options open, as well; he doesn't want to close the door to Europe, and to the United States, and he knows that if he becomes more autocratic then he gets in trouble with Brussels and with Washington, and he has problems with Diaspora. 

"So […] I think the problem of being any Armenian leader, and this is obviously true of Serzh Sargsyan, he's trying to ride different horses at the same time, and he's afraid of falling off," he said.

Asked by RFE/RL's Armenian Service Director Hrayr (Harry) Tamrazian about the likelihood of "social outbursts" and  "revolts" in 2014, de Waal said:

"I think, Armenians don't traditionally revolt over social issues, and also, immigration is also a kind of safety, releasing the safety valve […] some of the people who would revolt are just leaving the country rather than staying to protest on the streets. So I think we will see protests in Armenia. And like in any society, it's hard to know what could cause them, but I don't think it will be a social issue. It will be something political that would get people out on the streets. 

"And I think we can predict the unpredictable, because I think basically most of the population is unhappy with the status quo, but the mainstream opposition hasn't been able to mobilize the people. But we could see something organic happen, something unpredictable, some issue which gets people out on the streets. And then I think there could come a moment when those protests become serious. Will that happen in 2014? Maybe not. But one day it could happen in Armenia."