A revolution like velvet

by Karen Tovmasyan

Guilt (Issue II/2019)


In the weeks following his inauguration as Prime Minister on 14 January 2019, Nikol Pashinyan, set the first course to make Armenia more democratic and fair. He launched a major anti-corruption campaign. In the future, oligarchs will have to pay taxes like everyone else, whereas in the past they had often sidestepped taxes due to their proximity to politicians. Health care was given an overhaul to improve access for more vulnerable sections of the population. Meanwhile, preliminary economic reforms mean that start-ups are being promoted. Pashinyan's goal is to transform more Armenians into businessmen. And so far, the population's confidence in the former opposition leader has remained steady. Following his arrival, authorities have abandoned their authoritarian leadership style and have inched closer to the citizens.

Exactly one year ago, at the end of April 2018, the small inland country with two and a half million inhabitants on the border between Europe and the Middle East swung into the world's gaze. The so-called “Velvet Revolution” transformed a former authoritarian successor state of the Soviet Union without a single shot being fired. What happened?

The trigger for the revolution was President Serzh Sargsyan's decision to become Prime Minister of the country in April 2018 after his second term in office. Sargsyan, who, like his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin was a former KGB officer and who had successfully undermined political opposition, morphed the country into an authoritarian regime: Election results were faked, demonstrations were quashed, journalists and political activists were regularly attacked and dissenters were imprisoned.

In 2015, Sargsyan strived for constitutional reform and said he wanted to transform the semi-presidential system into a parliamentary one, stressing that in future the head of state should be prime minister. At the same time, he promised that he would not run again as a candidate for the presidency and would not allow himself to be nominated as prime minister. Then, three years later, he changed tack and announced that he would run for prime minister, after all.

Initially, the protests were small: on 24 March 2018, only three dozen people demonstrated against Sargsyan's plans in the city centre of Yerevan. A few days later, Nikol Pashinyan, who, at that time was a critical journalist and former political prisoner, was among a group of thirty people who marched from the second largest city in Armenia, Gyumri, to Yerevan. Pashinyan's 14-day protest march ended on April 13 with a gathering of 4,000 people in the capital. Increasing numbers turned up for the demonstrations. Even when 200 political activists were detained on one day, the protests did not stop.

Demonstrators were not aggressive, instead the mood on the ground was happy and at times euphoric. The arrests turned into a kind of flash mob affair, with young people playing a cat-and-mouse game with the police. Out of fear of international criticism, the authorities released the detainees after a few hours, hoping that they would not reconvene. But the activists returned to flood the streets, undeterred. One of the main reasons for the continued success of the protests was the announcement by Pashinyan to carry out the rallies and actions against Sargsyan in a decent and peaceful manner. Pictures of the protests and blockades spread virally via livestream on Facebook, spurring more and more people to join the crowds on the streets.

Almost daily the activists blocked the main roads and bridges of the cities with their buildings, formed human chains or erected obstacles which the police had to remove. A slogan of the opposition was “Honk if you are against Sargsyan”. The concert of horns, the noise of the vuvuzelas, clapping and drumming resounded all day long. Only in the late afternoon did the activists clear the streets so that their supporters could drive to the Republic Square in Yerevan, where a major demonstration took place every evening at 7 pm. Here Pashinyan gave instructions for the next day. Out of fear of the security forces, the opposition called on its supporters not to take to the streets at night. From 11 p.m. a “symphony of protest” sounded in the neighbourhoods where people expressed their anger by hitting pots and pans.

The parliament nevertheless elected Sargsyan as prime minister, further fuelling the protests, paralyzing the entire country. On 22 April, Sargsyan had to acknowledge that talks with the opposition were inevitable. During the three-minute meeting, Pashinyan declared that he would only enter into negotiations if Sargsyan vacated his office as a Prime Minister and initiated a peaceful change of power. On the same day, the security forces arrested Pachinyan and two of his parliamentary colleagues.

The following day, 250,000 people took to the streets in Yerevan and demanded the resignation of Sargsyan and the release of opposition leaders. The Peace Battalion of the Armenian Army joined the demonstrations unarmed. Sargsyan was forced to release Pashinyan and his parliamentary colleagues and resign from office just minutes later.

On 8 May 2018, Nikol Pashinyan was elected Prime Minister of Armenia by parliament. But after his election, the Republican Party, which had a majority in parliament, tried to sabotage the new government. On 2 October, 2018, the Republicans attempted to pass a law that would determine the focus of Pashinyan’s government strategy and would make early elections virtually impossible. Pashinyan immediately turned to the people via Facebook, calling on them to take to the streets again and to surround the parliament building. Minutes later tens of thousands surrounded the parliament building and put pressure on the members of the former regime.

Only a few days later, Pashinyan resigned in order to bring about early elections. At the 9 December ballot his alliance gained 70.2 percent of the votes. With 4.7 percent, the Republican Party was just under the five-percent threshold and failed to make it into parliament.

The fact that the peaceful revolution in Armenia took place without a single shot being fired arose due to a number of factors. First of all, a breach of words in the Armenian society is considered deeply immoral. Sargsyan's public statement that he had no ambitions whatsoever for the office of prime minister, and his subsequent U-turn, was seen as a big affront. In addition, the timing of the protests was favourable. The demonstrations began on the eve of the commemoration of the Armenian genocide on 24 April – ten years after several people had died in protests. This bloodshed has burned itself deeply into the public memory. If the security forces had shot at the demonstrators like ten years ago, this would have triggered an outcry not only in Armenia, but in the entire Armenian diaspora.

The tactics of the opposition to decentralise the protests and to turn the marches and demonstrations into a non-aggressive festival of freedom also drove more and more people onto the streets.

In addition, great powers such as Russia and the USA restrained themselves. The protests were seen as an internal matter for Armenia and not as “interference by the West” or “actions against Russia”. In addition, the new government has repeatedly declared that it will not turn its back on foreign policy, and Russia is still Armenia's most important political partner.



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