Vicken Cheterian

Armenia’s Happy Revolution: What Comes Next?

The recent developments in Armenia, where the head of the state resigned under popular pressure, both a surprising event but also a source of hope. We had not seen non-violent revolutions since the wave of “Colour Revolutions” that swept Eastern Europe and post-Soviet space, from Serbia to Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, some fifteen years back. Since, we did not see any non-violent revolution succeeding. A second revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and in Ukraine in 2014 turned violent. Moreover, a wave of revolts in the Middle East and North Africa turned into internal war and opened the doors for multiple foreign interventions, led to the emergence of Daesh, and at times a return to the status quo ante of military dictatorships. In an international atmosphere hardening under nationalist populism and militaristic discourses, a peaceful regime change in Armenia is a welcoming fresh air.

The event was also surprising if one considers Armenia’s recent history. It is true that in the 1980’s Armenia developed advanced political culture in the days of Perestroika and Glasnost, Armenia was one of the first countries – if not the first – where a popular movement emerged, the Karabakh Movement. Later, the local ruling nomenklatura surrendered power to the leaders of the popular movement following parliamentary elections in 1990. Yet, after that the situation deteriorated, with repetitive falsifications during elections, intimidation of opposition activists, and the establishment of a brutal capitalist oligarchy. The worst event was during the election f the third president Serzh Sargsyan, when the opposition contested the results and organized demonstrations, only for the armed forces to open fire on them on March 1, 2008, causing ten casualties.  In other words, the possibility of bloodshed as a result of confrontation between an autocratic rule and a popular mobilization was present.

Therefore, considering both the international context and Armenia’s own past the achievement of the popular movement in Armenia is simply amazing. Exactly 30 years after the Karabakh Movement, the bet of Nikol Pashinyan and his comrades on peaceful, non-violent yet radical politics ended up a huge success. It could first of all win over the urban, educated, young people. More surprisingly it succeeded in gaining the confidence of provincial towns, rural population, and even segments of the armed forces. The radically anti-violent culture of the opposition movement - cleaning the public squares after long day of demonstrations, the joyfulness of the youth when demonstrating, blocking streets with singing and dancing – succeeded in disarming important segments of the state structures to opening up new possibilities for political changes. Pashinyan has used “Velvet Revolution” to describe the changes, but it could also be called “Happy Revolution” as if joining the protest movement generates a generalized joy and well-being. 

To understand the Armenian developments one should place it within the past history of “Velvet” or “Colour” revolutions, which poses a number of questions: will the changes in Armenia be limited to the horizon of other “Velvet Revolutions”? Or, will it reveal a maturity that will incorporate lessons learned from the pass and show in itself develop a new dynamics?

Why this Revolution Now?

Three conditions should be considered to understand the revolution in Armenia: the political structure of the country, the ruling class, and finally the opposition. While post-Soviet Armenia developed into autocratic rule, that served a class of oligarchs behaving as if they were above the law, it was never a full dictatorship. The country had free media especially lively on the internet, opposition parties were marginal to the powers to be, yet always existed, plus the country had an active civil society. While the ten-year’s presidency of Serzh Sargsyan was marred with political failures, lack of political reforms, and continued migration and poverty, it also provided stability for the emergence of a new urban, educated generation with a different worldview. It was this new generation that was the vanguard of the revolution.

The Armenian ruling class finds its origins in the late 1980’s, to the period of Soviet collapse and war in Karabakh. It is a fusion between political casts that emerged from the Karabakh struggle, allied with an oligarchy that dominated over post-Soviet economy. The major material income of this oligarchy comes from monopolies over imports of consumer goods, export of raw material and namely minerals, and avoiding paying taxes. Their instrument of domination is monopoly over the state apparatus, the fusion between the ruling Republican Party and the state bureaucracy. 

Armenia witnessed the emergence of a multitude of opposition movements:  institutional political opposition present in the parliament, lively social movements, but also violent opposition. An active civil society, based on urban educated middle classes, opposed the corrupt practices of the ruling oligarchy. They combined environmental struggles with social justice. Next to this a radical group emerged named “Sasna Dzerer” (Daredevils of Sasun) drawing on former Karabakh fighters led by Jirair Sefilian, who stormed a police office in the summer of 2016 demanding the resignation of the president; although three policemen were killed, luckily the attackers finally surendered without further bloodshed. A radical political opposition equally emerged, led by former journalist and parliamentarian Nikol Pashinyan, who chose for regime change through non-violent means, aiming to mobilize large popular movement against a regime that did not permit change through elections.

The occasion for the opposition came in March, when the second presidential term of Serzh Sargsyan came to end. The 2015 constitutional changes had transformed the country from presidential to parliamentary regime. During the constitutional changes, the ruling party had argued that the changes served democratization, and the president had repeated that he would not be the next prime minister. Yet, on April 17, the parliamentary fraction of the ruling party elected Serzh Sargsyan to the post of prime minister. The entire constitutional changes were made simply to keep Sargsyan in power after two terms, and now with no limits as prime minister.

This gave the opposition an opportunity to challenge not only Sargsyan’s premiership, but launch a movement for change. Initially, the demonstrations were small – few dozens the first day – but in less than a week it grew like a snowball surpassing 100’000 on Sunday April 22. The movement succeeded because it inspired trust among large population sectors, used humour to delegitimize the authorities, and developed a decentralized movement difficult to repress. Under popular pressure Serzh Sargsyan gave his resignation the next day, opening up a political dynamics unseen in Armenia since the early 1990’s.

What Comes Next? 

People either love or fear revolutions. They love revolutions for its promises of freedom, if not justice. They fear revolutions because it overthrows autocratic rules to replace them with chaos, bloodshed, and finally by a more potent dictatorship. Yet, to understand possible future developments in Armenia one should look not to Stalin and Khomeini, but to other non-violent revolutions in post-Soviet countries. 

Many non-violent revolutions succeeded to bring regime change at the price of large coalitions, including elements of the old regime. This revealed a major handicap after regime change, as elements of the old oligarchy survived and ruled, and no substantial reform was possible – Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, or Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution of 2005 are good examples. The other model was that of Georgia after the 2003 Rose Revolution, where Mikhail Saakashvili and his small team took absolute power. Their choice at the time was radical reforms inspired by neo-liberal ideology. Those reforms caused unemployment, social instability, which triggered the massive anti-Saakashvili protests in November 2007. 

For the moment, the mood in Armenia is one of celebration. Yet, the future “happiness” of the country will largely depend on the political constellation emerging form the changes. In case one party emerging from revolutionary polarization dominates future parliament of Armenia, then the chance for democracy will be compromised. Any system where power is concentrated in the hands of one clan, one party or one person is bad news for democracy. But in case the future parliament emerges with reformist party emerging from the revolution, counter-balanced by another party representing business circles – say Bargavach Hayasdan – while others representing rural peasantry, or working-class interests, then we start witnessing political competition and pluralism within the Armenian political institutions instead of the streets of Yerevan. Only then we could say: finally, the transition is over.