A new relationship between citizens and their government gives democracy in Armenia a fighting chance
By Dan Halton
In the wake of April’s historic Velvet Revolution, a mood of hope and optimism has swept across Armenia. The will of the people, manifested in peaceful protests throughout the streets of Yerevan, unleashed a wave of change that forced the resignation of a prime minister and in the process redefined the relationship between Armenian citizenry and its government. As Nikol Pashinyan told the crowds gathered in Republic Square after his election, “your victory is not that I was elected as prime minister of Armenia. Your victory is that you decided who should be prime minister of Armenia.” Empowered by a newfound sense of individual agency, for the first time Armenians now feel they have a role in deciding the future of their country. A promising new path toward democracy has opened in Armenia. However, the political climate remains very fragile, and ordinary citizens are well aware the remarkable change they helped create could be short-lived, depending upon the outcome of the country’s future parliamentary elections.
The social movement revealed the extent of “the schism between the legitimacy of the streets and the illegitimacy of the formal institutions,” observed Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Stonehill College Anna Ohanyan. In an op-ed published in the Washington Post, Ohanyan argued however that the movement must still “continue working through [those] institutions, no matter how flawed and fragile. A path that is incremental, inclusive and open to compromise appears to be one that has worked in other cases of democratic consolidation, and may well deliver in Armenia.”
The work of consolidating what began as a popular movement into lasting democratic reform is now underway and will require an even greater effort on the part of the new government to work together with citizens and civic society organizations if it is to be successful in the long term. The challenges they must confront together are daunting: overturning more than two decades of one-party rule, curbing entrenched corruption and cronyism and eradicating a culture of electoral fraud in which vote-buying and voter intimidation have tainted parliamentary and presidential elections in the past. If the standard measure of democracy is considered two successive peaceful transfers of power from one party to another, this process will take several years, but the end result will be well worth the effort, establishing greater prosperity, equality, and opportunity for its citizens while advancing Armenia’s standing in the world.
The roots of change
The unexpected success of the protest movement caught virtually everyone off guard, including organizers themselves who never anticipated such an outpouring of public support as tens of thousands of Armenian citizens from every age and social strata took to the streets to voice their dissatisfaction with the former government. The spark that ignited the powder keg of protest—an accumulation of discontent built up over successive summers beginning in 2008 and compounded by economic crisis—was the decision by former president Serzh Sargsyan to suddenly appoint himself prime minister after changing the Constitution, despite repeatedly promising not to do so previously.
What differed dramatically in this case compared to protests past, was the emergence of a new younger generation of informed activists that had come of age in an independent Armenian republic and were not afraid to challenge what they viewed as an arrogance of power on the part of the former president. The apathy and fear common to their parents’ generation—raised in the Soviet education system and indoctrinated to believe the individual was not important—was replaced by a new wave of civic engagement and activism that reflected a major transformation in political thinking and delivered a powerful message that individuals have agency, power in numbers and can use their voice to effect political change. That message resonated across the generational divide, attracting senior citizens, middle-age workers and especially more women, including mothers with their young children, lending greater legitimacy to a broad decentralized alliance of issue-based civic society groups that could no longer be ignored or dismissed by the ruling elite. This powerful dynamic helped explain why the former president did not resort to force to repress the demonstrators as was the case in previous protests.
The size and demographics of the social movement, however critical, alone were not enough to sustain the protests. It was the pivotal role played by opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan, a former newspaper editor and populist opposition critic who was able to mobilize and this widening movement to force Sargsyan’s resignation. Pashinyan accurately gauged the temperature of the political climate and adeptly orchestrated change. If there is one defining characteristic of Armenia’s peaceful revolution however, says Anna Ohanyan, it is that it was not centered around any cult of personality. “It was not about Serzh. It’s not about Nikol,” she noted. “It’s about people coming together and pushing back against this attempt at constitutional engineering and saying no, you have to transfer power. That showed enormous political maturity and sophistication on the part of the Armenian people.”
The success of the Pashinyan’s protest movement set a new benchmark for the rest of the world, offering a master class in how to execute a non-violent revolution. Clear lessons were learned from the successes and failures of prior protest movements, including Electric Yerevan in which Pashinyan had participated. Clever tactics confounded police, as crowds became more agile, gathering in one street never longer than a few hours to avoid being corralled by the authorities. The carefully coordinated campaign made use of every tool at its disposal, from catchy slogans, and theatrics to music and humor to draw attention to the cause.
“The protesters grew smarter, learning from previous protests both within Armenia which had served as their training ground or baptism of fire, as well as from revolutions around the world, including the Arab Spring, Georgia and Ukraine from which they borrowed civil disobedience tactics and applied them to an Armenian context,” observed Bentley University Global Studies Senior Lecturer Asbed Kotchikian.
Their success was also largely dependent on social media, including Facebook and its livestream capacity, which allowed initially small groups of protests to connect to protesters in other cities in real time to amplify their voice. At the same time, the emergence of several independent advocacy media outlets including EVN Report and CivilNet helped broadcast their message to a global audience. Together they overrode the ability of the ruling party and the state-run media—whose narrative had been with a few notable exceptions predominantly pro-government—to connect to the population, creating an important echo chamber that helped propel momentum early on. In this respect the revolution underscored the important practical role of independent media to question the government. By providing timely and relevant information about the protests, the outpouring of independent coverage also called into question the role of Armenia’s mainstream media and highlighted its ineffectiveness to offer objective and pluralistic information to citizens. One important consequence of the protests is that it has forced traditional news outlets to re-evaluate their role in Armenia’s newly transformed political landscape.
The new government of Nikol Pashinyan is now focused on rebuilding the public’s trust in the country’s political institutions, beginning by pursuing an aggressive anti-corruption campaign and much-needed reforms to the country’s electoral code. As leader of a minority coalition government formed by three parliamentary groups, Way Out Alliance, Tsarukyan Alliance and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Pashinyan has proceeded cautiously, seeking to discredit the former ruling Republican party while avoiding an outright confrontation with its members who retain the majority of seats in parliament, despite an increasing number of defections.
Under Pashinyan’s direction, the National Security Service (NSS) began targeting allegedly corrupt officials by presenting evidence to the public of tax fraud on the part of a number of companies including several controlled by a former member of the Republican party. While criminal charges in that case were dropped in exchange for reimbursement of the damages, the NSS has since ramped up their efforts with the arrests of two senior officials in the Yerevan municipal government, also controlled by the Republican party. Then this past June, officers raided the homes of Republican MP Manvel Grigoryan, a retired lieutenant general in the Armenian armed forces and former Deputy Defense Minister, and reputed crime figure Artur Astaryan. They found not only a large cache of illegal weapons including explosives and ammunition, but also vehicles and supplies donated to the army, including cans of food sent by schoolchildren in April 2016 intended for soldiers on the frontlines in Artsakh. The men were arrested on charges of acquisition and possession of illegal firearms and ammunition. Video of the raids broadcast by Armenian public television provoked widespread condemnation, deeply undermining any support for Grigoryan and his son Karen, who later resigned as mayor of the municipality of Vagharshapat in the province of Armavir. Perhaps more important, the case helped foster positive public opinion about the NSS, which according to its Director, has since received thousands of job applications.
It is that type of communication that will be critical to the success of the new government, argues Alex Sardar, who worked closely with protest organizers on their media campaign and serves as the Chief Innovation Officer at Civicus, a global alliance that works to strengthen citizen action and civil society. He insists the new government must clearly articulate a cohesive strategy and effectively communicate it to the public in a way that emphasizes the clear democratic dividends of its efforts for citizens. “Whether it is shutting down monopolies, driving down banana prices, or cracking down on tax fraud, the construction worker who goes home to his family at night needs to understand how the government helped him that day, or how his take home pay increased as a result.” This can be achieved through a national public relations campaign that must reinforce the notion that corruption, no matter how entrenched, is not the norm but an aberration, and that a government post is not an opportunity for self-enrichment.
The path to democratic consolidation begins with the ballot box, and will only succeed if elections are administered and voting conducted with unimpeachable integrity. In preparation for parliamentary elections anticipated within the next twelve months, the new government is focused on reforming the electoral code, which will require a majority vote in parliament. Current electoral provisions, noted Sardar, are “set up for one party rule, lack professional administration at all levels of government and are prone to partisan influence and manipulation.” Previous presidential and parliamentary elections in particular have been marred by instances of voter fraud and vote suppression in the absence of professional administrative procedures and guidelines, severely eroding public trust in the electoral process. There are also no clear provisions governing the list of eligible voters in Armenia, where that information resides and who should administer it.
Addressing these shortcomings in the electoral code must not wait. The European Union has already announced its readiness to provide the needed technical assistance. Implementing necessary reforms to the electoral code, accompanied by an effective communications campaign, will go a long way in restoring faith in ballot outcomes in Armenia.
Free and fair parliamentary elections, while a critical test of a healthy democracy, represents only one of several steps along the path toward democratic consolidation for Armenia. There is a strong possibility that even if Pashinyan is elected, given the current makeup of the parliament, he will lead a coalition government. Whether it can succeed in a working together and negotiating compromises among a growing number of political parties with often shifting allegiances, including the Republican party whose influence in the decision-making process, while weakened remains strong, is far from clear. Considerable compromise might undermine the spirit of April’s Velvet Revolution and the new government’s campaign to tackle entrenched corruption. It will require maintaining a delicate balance to work with broad coalitions of political parties to manage expectations while reforming the institutions of the rule of law to ensure democratic gains are not rolled back in the future.
Engaging the Diaspora
Just as it inspired a collective sense of euphoria at home, Armenia’s Velvet Revo-lution was followed with an unprecedented interest and hope throughout Armenian communities around the world. Engaging the global Armenian diaspora in supporting these nation-building efforts is high on the agenda of the new government. One of the most effective ways diasporans can assist democratic transition is by filling the acute need for international election monitors. Previous elections attracted approximately 300 volunteers, no where near sufficient to observe the vote in 2000 electoral precincts. Experts suggest ideally 5000 volunteers are needed to serve as an effective deterrent. “The more observers who are able to document what occurs, the less violations you will see,” says longtime democracy advocate Ara Araz of Justice Armenia, a non-partisan diaspora organization that promotes justice and human rights in Armenia. In 2017 Araz organized a Transparency Tour to expose diasporan Armenians to the political realities in the homeland, serving as election monitors and meeting with local politicians, journalists and activists. He has a simple plea for anyone contemplating how they can help Armenia: “Be an ambassador for democracy,” he implores, “help combat systemic corruption and send a message of hope to citizens that seek justice and the rule of law.”
As much as Armenians in the diaspora want the new government to succeed, Araz cautions however that Armenia “does not need us to be cheerleaders of whatever government is in place at the moment. We should be thinking about what if the new government does not succeed? What are the steps we can take now to further empower Armenian society to respond to such an outcome? If we approach the matter that way, we will also increase the likelihood of it succeeding.”
The Geopolitical Landscape
Amidst all the internal challenges facing the new government, Armenia cannot lose sight of the shifting and unpredictable geopolitical landscape. What unfolds in Russia, Turkey and Iran has the potential to disrupt the tenuous state of domestic affairs in Armenia. To date, Pashinyan has managed to maintain the country’s partnership with Russia, upon which Armenia depends for military security and economic stability, while at the same time pursuing increased ties with Europe, including via implementation of CEPA and hosting the Francophonie Summit in Yerevan, thus gathering all the leaders of Francophone countries in Armenia. Pashinyan will need to demonstrate that Armenia’s domestic politics and foreign policy are not threatening to Russia (as already indicated in the program of the government), and that it is in the regional power’s interest for Armenia to succeed in the Eurasian Economic Union, a model that is increasingly struggling for legitimacy internationally.
In a volatile region, Armenia’s security remains a paramount concern. Despite relative calm, recent events have shown just how little it takes to reignite the intractable conflict between Artsakh and its neighboring Azerbaijan. Pashinyan’s election changed the context in which negotiations to resolve the conflict are taking place. “Our priority is peace as a negotiated outcome, the strictly peaceful resolution of the conflict within the internationally agreed format,” affirms newly-appointed Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan. However he acknowledged for that to happen, there needs to be a conducive environment. “It’s not possible to negotiate peace when you have war mongering, sabre rattling, and actual violations of the cease-fire. We should not change the negotiating process.”
Any future flare-ups however, would likely favor a more hardline, centralized approach, jeopardizing continued efforts at democratization. Armenia has yet to demonstrate it can pursue both increased security and openness. “The traditional narrative of security of the Armenian state has involved a trade-off, but it is not an either or,” notes Ohanhyan. “Armenia can and must have both security and democracy for the government to be legitimate and respected internationally.”
Facing such challenges both at home and abroad, it is all the more remarkable that Armenia has avoided Russian intervention to date, affirms renowned international affairs expert Ian Bremmer, expressing hope for the nation’s political transformation. “That this movement succeeded against political leaders who were trying to subvert the democratic process, and did so without violence and without any interference from the Russian government is quite something. And it was due primarily to young people who believed they deserved better and were willing to fight for it and as a consequence the Armenian nation now has a better shot.”
Despite the tremendous challenges that lie ahead, in remarkably short order the new government has embarked upon an ambitious path that seeks to repair the broken bonds of trust between its political institutions and the people it is intended to serve. The true measure of its success will take the form of open and fair elections—the cornerstone of democracy—leading to a peaceful and uncontested transfer of power. After more than two decades of one party rule, however, the fear of a moving from one oligarchic system of governance to another is well founded. At the same time, Armenians are cautiously optimistic, buoyed by an extraordinary level of civic engagement that has provided both the homeland and diaspora, new hope for a bright future.
Dinner, Dialogue and Democracy
AGBU sets the table for a new relationship between Armenia and Diaspora
Making good on its promise to reinvigorate relations with the Armenian diaspora, on July 15, 2018 senior members of the Pashinyan administration met with invited members of the Greater New York AGBU community to experience a new dynamic in interactive engagement: candid and open dialogue.
Inspired by the British-derived Chatham House Rule in which both speakers and participants can exchange ideas in the spirit of strict public anonymity, over 50 guests participated in round table, moderated discussions on relevant issues such as more inclusive Armenia-Diaspora relations, institutional capacity building through financial investments and technical expertise as well as creating cultural programs as a channel for fostering mutual understanding and trust. Armenia’s leadership committed itself to following up on the issues discussed while AGBU continues to provide opportunities to enhance the growing civil society movement in Armenia.