Armenia: the revolution continues
Matteo Tacconi 14 June 2018

Following massive street protests in April against then premier Serzh Sarksyan, leader of the old regime, a general strike on May 2nd and then the election of Nikol Pashinyan, leader of the democratic movement as head of the government a week later, the Armenian revolution has vanished from daily headlines. As the centre of gravity has moved from the streets to the palace, and the focus of politics from protests to the new government, press enthusiasm has cooled, at least in the West.

The revolution continues nevertheless. Nikol Pashinyan has appointed his cabinet, filling it with members of the parliamentary alliance he leads, the Yelk. On June 7th, the new government presented its programme and, as expected, the new prime minister emphasised the need to dismantle the oligarchic and corrupt system that has until now paralysed the country, strangling its competitiveness and spirit of enterprise. At the same time, Pashinyan has explained that the preservation power in the old order was made possible by periodical manipulation of the electoral process, favoured by a judicial system that bowed to the interests of the powerful.

This is not a government that will last. Pashinyan himself has said that new elections will have to be held within a year, because parliament’s current set up no longer reflects the country’s wishes. The group with the highest number of MPs is the Republican Party, the old regime’s driving force. Pashinyan’s ascent to power was made possible by these very same Republicans, who turned against Sarksyan when they realised that the entire country, including the army and the police, backed the protests. To this, one must add another limitation imposed on Pashinyan; his government is based on an agreement with Gagik Tsarukyan, leader of the parliamentary group that bears his name (the Tsarukyan Alliance). Tsarukyan may be a kingmaker but he is, above all, an important oligarch.

Pashinyan’s objective, then, is to introduce a few signal changes over the coming months, while administering new elections in a transparent way, with the hope that the revolution’s momentum will see voters turn out in sufficient numbers to give him and his Civil Contract party a clear mandate to govern. This will not be easy but is not impossible. The April protests have reawakened the whole country. Like a wave that starts small then steadily grows and crests, the protests spread rapidly, releasing explosive power onto the streets.

The current rupture was prompted by Armenia’s 2015 constitutional reform, which transformed the country’s presidential system to a parliamentary one, moving power from the head of state to the prime minister. Opposition groups interpreted this as strategic move, aimed at allowing Serzh Sargsyan to complete a second presidential term (Armenia’s presidency has a two-term limit) then move to the parliament and continue to dominate the political stage as prime minister.

At the time, Sargsyan promised that he would not assume the prime ministership. Then, at the beginning of 2018, insistent rumours started to circulate that he was about to reverse course. The rumours triggered the “Reject Serzh” campaign, a movement that joined the Armenian Front and Pashinya’s party, Civil Contract, in championing widespread, continuous and very acerbic–albeit jovial–protests. Humour and imagination were front and centre of the banners and slogans, following the example of previous “velvet” street revolutions, such as those in Serbia in 2000 and in Czechoslovakia in 1989. This was also about reassuring the population, as well as the police, that the protests would not turn violent.

Maria Karapetyan, an important member of Reject Serzh whom we met in Yerevan, revisits the various stages of this victory. “Our first street meeting was held on March 24th”, she recalls. “We protested with banners that aired the problems that Armenia was suffering through during the ten years in which Sargsyan was in power. For example, when Sargsyan became president, Armenia’s debt stood at 2 billion dollars; this figure has now risen to 6 or 7 billion.” Karapetyan goes on, reminding us of the serious demographic decline in Armenia and the fact that this revolt was also the result of serious financial frustrations: “During this same period, 400,000 people left the country”.

The March 24th protests were not very well attended. “There were 120 of us,” Karapetyan recalls. “Reports in the media: zero, or almost zero. But that was to be expected.” She highlights the power of the regime in repressing dissent: “In spite of the country’s grave problems and people’s economic and political dissatisfaction, over these ten years the regime worked efficiently to keep everything under control, creating a fake opposition and leaving the independent media largely alone, so as to show that power could be criticised.”

In spite of this, the Reject Serzh activists did not give up. “We knew that this was the right time to remove Sargsyan from power through people power. And we also knew that the decisive moment for achieving this would be the timeframe between the end of the second presidential term (April 9th) and the beginning of the prime minister’s term (April 17th). Those were days during which Sargsyan could not issue any repression orders as that power was entrusted solely to the police.”

In this period in April, the police never charged into the crowds and never used force against the protesters, whose numbers in the meantime increased. One decisive moment came when Pashinyan’s caravan of supporters arrived in Yerevan on April 13th. Over the previous days the new premier had travelled through the length and breadth of the country, stopping to sleep in tents. His arrival in Yerevan and his meeting with the protesters gave the movement new impetus and drive; a leader finding his people and the people recognising a leader.

The second turning point came after Sargsyan was sworn in, more specifically on April 23rd, the day on which Pashinyan and some of the protest leaders were stopped by the police. This was a last-ditch attempt by Sargsyan to protect his power. “That evening the number of people who took to the streets to listen to the requests of a movement that at the time could not rely on Pashinyan – or on any other important personality for that matter –  almost doubled. The authorities had hoped that no one would take to the streets, but the opposite happened.”

A few hours later there was a coup de theatre, and Serzh Sargsyan resigned. It would take a few more days before Nikol Pashinyan was appointed prime minister. At the May 1st parliamentary session, no agreement was reached. The Republican Party would not surrender. The following day, Pashinyan called for a general strike and for all the country’s main roads to be blocked, including the road between the airport and the centre of Yerevan. There was total participation. Photographs of that day – as well as those of previous days – show citizens and soldiers milling about together, united by a desire for change. The Republicans were persuaded that there was nothing more to be done and this paved the way for Pashinyan to take the reins of government.

Important as events in the capital were – especially in Yerevan’s Republic Square – the revolution didn’t just take place there. It echoed throughout the country – even in Debet, a rural village in the north, with about one thousand inhabitants, not far from the border with Georgia. There are no great economic prospects there. People work the land, breed sheep and cows, and cut stone in the district’s various quarries. In the local elementary school, the Children of Armenia Fund, an NGO funded by the large Armenian diaspora, has sponsored a programme for dental hygiene, a serious problem in rural Armenia. This same NGO has also built a very modern ‘smart centre’ just outside the village, to provide local young people with technological competence and a chance to socialise. It was there that we met 16-year-old Luiza Ghazarya. On May 2nd, the day of the general strike, she and many of her peers and school friends, also attending the smart centre, had the first political experience of their lives. They went to a nearby road tunnel and blocked all access. “Neither my parents nor my headmaster had given me permission to go there. But it was too important and in the end my friends and I went anyway,” Luisa tells us, emphasising how in the rural Armenian provinces this kind of youthful exuberance is not approved of.

Luiza, who was introduced to Pashinyan’s activism on Facebook, says that “all citizens have the responsibility of being active members of society and I want to be part of this movement to improve my country.” In the large central hall of the smart centre, she shows us a video uploaded to YouTube of the students blocking the tunnel. “Nikol Pashinyan, Nikol Pashinyan,” she and the others chant together, in what was a day of protests but also carefree amusement, as is perhaps right for youngsters aged 15 or 16, who during those days experienced something different and new, feeling they could contribute to an important change. This was one of many images of a revolution that infected everyone and everything.

It will not be easy to ensure this revolution is triumphant. There is little room for manoeuvre. The Republicans could still surprise everyone with a counterattack, while the holders of economic power could find moves to combat corruption threatening. Even the international context makes things difficult. One would do well to remember that Armenia is weighed down by a long conflict with Turkey, which refuses to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, and by a 30-year-old controversy with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. In order to implement reform, fuel the economy and change society there must be change, possibly in terms of dialogue on both fronts. But every move implies a risk.

Finally, there is Russia. Moscow is the historical guarantor of Armenian security, has succeeded in dragging Yerevan into is Eurasian Union and is notoriously troubled by all the regime change that has taken place in the post-Soviet era. Some have said that Moscow does not approve of Pashinyan’s ascent to power. However, for the moment he has reassured the Russians that there will be no sudden changes in foreign policy.

Credit: Vano SHLAMOV / AFP

Translated by Francesca Simmons