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.
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.
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.