The Inevitable Miracle:

The Inevitable Miracle:

What makes Armenia’s Revolution Unique

Text : Mikayel Zolyan    Photo : PAN Photo

Look what's happening out in the streets

Got a revolution Got to revolution

Hey I'm dancing down the streets

Got a revolution Got to revolution

Ain't it amazing all the people I meet

Got a revolution Got to revolution

 

Jefferson Airplane

 “Volunteers

 

The Revolution that no one expected

On April 11, 2018, two opposition members of the National Assembly, Ararat Mirzoyan and Lena Nazaryan held a protest action at the parliament. In the middle of a session they approached the rostrum, read a statement calling upon the people of Armenia to rise up against the regime, and started burning flares. They stood silently at the stage, as the flares burned out and their colleagues from the ruling Republican Party were holding their noses and complaining about the smoke. Republicans did not seem impressed. Republican Edvard Sharmazanov, who was chairing the session, said in a condescending voice: “Looks like your show didn’t work out, let’s continue our work”.

Less than three weeks later, on May 3, Sharmazanov was in a very different mood. On that day, explaining a somewhat vague statement made by his party earlier that day, Sharmazanov admitted that RPA would accept the protest leader Nikol Pashinyan as the new prime-minister. Effectively this was admission of defeat. It meant that the protest movement, which came to be known as “the velvet revolution” or “the revolution of love and solidarity,” had won. The revolution had taken less than forty days: from March 31, when the first protest was held by Pashinyan and his supporters is Gyumri, to May 8, when Pashinyan was formally elected prime-minister of Armenia.

Protesters trying to occupy Yerevan metro​

One of the things that make Armenia’s revolution exceptional, is the fact that it took place against the background of increasing authoritarian tendencies, both on the global and regional scale. Only several months ago it seemed that Armenia was a part of the general trend toward authoritarianism that engulfed Eastern Europe, Middle East and Central Eurasia. As for Armenia’s immediate neighbors, two of them, Azerbaijan and Turkey, recently underwent constitutional changes that strengthened their authoritarian leaders. Even in Georgia, arguably the most democratic country of the region, constitutional changes of last autumn have raised concerns, as the position of the ruling party has been significantly strengthened.

Against this background, Armenia’s constitutional reform looked as an obvious part of this general authoritarian trend. The reform transformed the country’s semi-presidential system into a parliamentary republic led by what Armenian analysts called “super prime-minister”. And if some Armenia-watchers had doubts as to where Armenia was headed, these doubts hardly persisted after it became obvious that Serzh Sargsyan was not looking for a successor, but was planning to stay at the helm in a capacity of prime-minister. The April 2017 election, in which Republicans secured a majority in the parliament, seemed to confirm the strength of the regime, even though there were numerous reports of voter bribing and administrative pressure. As recently as March 2018 Sargsyan looked stronger than ever, and it seemed that nothing could prevent him from assuming the post of prime-minister after the end of his 2nd presidential term. All the more shocking was the fact that protests swept away not just Sargsyan himself, but effectively the whole system of authoritarian government.

 

As “Velvet” as it Gets

Of course, an unexpected collapse of an authoritarian government is not something unheard of: in fact, that is what often happens to authoritarian governments, if they are unable to reform themselves. What was truly extraordinary, was how this collapse happened in Armenia. Revolutions, even the ones considered relatively peaceful, often lead to violence and chaos, at least in the short term perspective. In Armenia, however, as some of the activists have been joking, the revolution was “too velvet”. Not only there was no violence on the part of the protesters, but the process of transition of power went ahead in full accordance with the existing legal framework. It was the former ruling party, the Republicans, who made sure that Pashinyan, “the candidate of the people”, became prime-minister through a democratic and constitutional procedure. And, the leader of ancien régime, Serzh Sargsyan not only stayed in Armenia and remained the head of the Republican Party, but still remains Pashinyan’s neighbor: they both live in the government compound in Yerevan.

It goes without saying that non-violent revolutions are not something uncommon. Armenia itself experienced a peaceful change of government as a consequence of a protest movement in 1988-1991. The term “velvet revolution” used by Armenian protesters, reminds us of the events in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. “The Rose Revolution” in Georgia and “the Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in the 2000s were also largely non-violent. However, both 1989 and the “colored” revolutions differed significantly from what happened in Armenia, as they took place at a time when the ruling regime was at its weakest. The events of 1988-1991, both in Central Europe and in the Soviet Union, took place as the Soviet system was already on the brink of collapse due to its own inefficiency. The Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine can be described as “electoral revolutions”, in which an already strong opposition used mass protests to change the outcome of a disputed election. In all those cases, though for different reasons, the governments were already in a fragile position before the start of the protest movements. In Armenia in 2018, the regime seemed to be in full control of the situation almost until the day it collapsed. From this point of view, the fact that Armenian revolution followed the path of peaceful transition of power, and evaded street violence is all the more remarkable.

Serzh Sargsyan and Nikol Pashinyan in Marriott hotel

Here are some more facts to show just how exceptionally orderly and smooth the transition in Armenia has been. Take currency rate fluctuations. Throughout the whole period of the revolution, including its most dramatic episodes, the Dollar/Dram rate remained within the corridor between 480 AMD/1 USD to 486 AMD/1 USD. The Armenian currency actually was more stable during the revolution than in autumn 2017, for example, when no major political events were taking place. Also, the Armenian bank system remained stable, even though some activists were calling on the population to withdraw money from their bank accounts in order “to punish the regime”. As the head of Armenia’s Central Bank Arthur Javadyan announced on May 21, withdrawals during the days of the revolution amounted to tens of millions of dollars, but not to hundreds of millions, and after May 10 the money that had been withdrawn started to flow back into the banks. And, finally, the constant “Achilles’ heel” of Armenia, the migration rate. According to the calculations of the website B4B, in May 2018 the balance of arrivals and departures to and from Armenia was positive for the first time in years (+3165, as compared to – 1466 in 2017, -8131 in 2016, and – 12474 in 2015).

 

A “Homegrown” Revolution

One more factor that makes the success of Armenian protests so remarkable is the external factor, or rather its virtual absence. International attention, whether on the level of governments or media, has been instrumental for the success of protest movements in various countries, while the lack of such attention has often contributed to the failure of such movements. In this sense, events in Armenia were principally different from other post-Soviet cases. International media had been paying relatively little attention to the protests in Armenia, until they simply became too big to ignore. In fact, most major international media decided that events in Armenia were important enough to send their correspondents to Armenia, only after Serzh Sargsyan handed his resignation. Indeed, during the two weeks after Sargsyan’s resignation Armenia probably received more international media attention than at any other time in its history. But this happened only after the backbone of the ruling regime had already been broken.

Moreover, in post-Soviet space and elsewhere, protest movements have often become proxy battles between global actors supporting different sides in the internal confrontation. Armenian revolution defied this trend as well. One of the most common questions that foreign reporters had been asking those days was regarding the position of Russia. It seemed counter-intuitive to them that Russia would not intervene to support the government in one of the countries of CSTO and EAEU. Russian neutrality even gave rise to conspiracy theories, probably promoted by Sargsyan’s lobbyists, suggesting that it was Russia that stirred the protests, as it allegedly wanted to «punish» Sargsyan for being too close to the EU. At the same time, some talking heads in Russian media saw a conspiracy, organized by “the usual suspects” – America, EU, Soros. In reality, what happened in Armenia, showed that a popular democratic protest, if it is wide enough and if its leadership is smart enough, can win in a country considered one of Russia’s close allies and be accepted as legitimate both by Russia and the West.

In order to understand “the homegrown” nature of the Armenian revolution, we need to remember that Armenians had been protesting “before it became mainstream”. In fact, protest movements had been common in Armenia since the the mid-1990s, long before the world heard of “Arab Spring” or “Color Revolutions”. Protest movements, big and small, continued for decades, effectively becoming a part of Armenian political culture. These included mass post-election protests, particularly the protests after disputed presidential elections in 1996, 2003-2004, 2008, 2013. Of these, the protests of 2008 were especially significant for understanding the events of 2018. It was the 2008 protest movement that severely undermined Sargsyan’s legitimacy as president, and helped to bring the younger generation of opposition activists into the political process, among them Pashinyan and members of his team.

After 2008 there was a real boom of social and civil protests, which included big and small protest movements with various agendas, from preservation of public space to socioeconomic issues. Among these movements were the Mashtots Park movement in 2012, “the 100 dram” movement against the public transportation price hikes in 2013, “Dem em” movement against pension reform in 2014, and the famous “Electric Yerevan” in 2015, which started as a protest against electricity prices. There was even an attempted armed uprising against the government by the “Sasna Tsrer” group in 2016, which was also accompanied by street protests. So, the history of protests in Armenia is quite rich. As management gurus would have said, Armenians “failed fast, failed often”, but stubbornly continued taking to the streets to protest their rulers’ actions. Sooner or later this persistence had to lead to success, and that was what happened in 2018.

 

A Revolution of Young Men and Women

The revolution became possible, among other things, due to the fact that a new generation of Armenians had come of age. Busy with their power games, Sargsyan and RPA had missed the emergence of a new generation of Armenian youth that was no longer prepared to live under their power. The leaders of the revolution were quite young for politicians: the majority were in their 30s, and Pashinyan himself turned 43 on June 1, 2018. But, many activists were in their 20s or even younger, which meant that they not only could not have any recollection of the Soviet system and of the difficulties of the 1990s, but they also they were not traumatized by the experience of failed protests of the previous decades. Many middle-aged Armenians were skeptical about protest precisely because they had seen so many unsuccessful attempts before, but the new generation of activists was free of that psychological burden.

Of course, the youth is not a homogeneous category. At the first stage of protests, an extremely important role was played by civic activists with an experience of previous protests, e.g. from “Electric Yerevan”. But very quickly the movement spread and became incredibly diverse, uniting different social and cultural strata, becoming a true people’s movement. Sargsyan and his plans to remain in power indefinitely were so unpopular with the majority of Armenians, that the protests brought together people with different backgrounds, lifestyles, ideological orientations and political views. Socialists and liberals, nationalists and anarchists, religious people and atheists, globalists and traditionalists, “Putin-admirers” and “pro-Western liberals”, they were all together in the streets, united by one common goal: to get rid of the regime. By the time the revolution won, there was hardly any group of population in Armenia in terms of age, social class, or profession, that did not take part in the protests.

One of the qualities that helped to attract such a wide participation was the festive spirit of the protests. This spirit of carnival and celebration was also characteristic of the mass rallies of 1988, and it even became a subject of study by Armenian anthropologist Levon Abrahamyan. American historian Padraik Kenney compared the anti-communist movements in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s to carnival, calling a book he wrote on the subject “Carnival of Revolution”. In 2018 the spirit of youthful celebration was present throughout the protest, even at its most dramatic moments. Obviously, the celebration reached its apogee when the movement scored victories. Thus, on April 23 Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation turned all of Armenia into one huge party ground. But even at moments, which could be seen as a defeat, as on May 1, when the parliament’s Republican majority voted against Pashinyan, this festive spirit continued to dominate the streets.

Another factor that distinguished the movement of 2018 was the active participation of women. While women have always played a certain role in protests in Armenia, these protests were often dominated by men: even though women were present among participants, they were unlikely to be among the organizers and spokespersons and their distinct voice was rarely heard. There have been exceptions, as the Mashtots Park movement, for example, but these mostly remained confined to relatively limited circles of Yerevan-based civil society activism. Larger protests, especially the ones that ended in clashes with the police, had been dominated by men. In one of his speeches after the revolution Pashinyan himself admitted that the protests of 2018 differed from all the protests he had seen before due to the extraordinary scale of women’s participation, and it was women’s presence on the streets that helped to keep the protests peaceful.

It is true that among the spokespersons of the movement on the main stage of the rallies women were outnumbered by men, but still they were significantly more visible there than in the movements of the past. Against this background, it was somewhat of a disappointment that Pashinyan’s cabinet, formed in May, included only two women. However, the tendency toward expanding the role of women in the political realm is obvious in post-revolution Armenia, and it is likely to grow. Moreover, the mass participation of women in the revolution is likely to have influence beyond the realm of the political sphere, affecting social and cultural spheres as well.

 

Non-Violence 2.0: the Age of Instagram

A vital element of the success of the protest was its non-violent nature. Apart from helping to win over public opinion, the non-violent character of Nikol Pashinyan-led movement helped to achieve two goals. First, it allowed more protesters to join, because it was psychologically easier to join a non-violent protest, and, second, it made it much more difficult for the other side to use violence. Pashinyan and other leaders of the movement repeated the message of non-violence many times to make sure that everybody involved in the movement adhered to that principle. Not only the protesters would not be the first ones to use violence, but they would not use violence in self-defense, even if assaulted or arrested by the police. There were several attempts by pro-government provocateurs to stir violence by staging attacks on policemen or on property, but these were quickly uncovered thanks to the new media and citizen journalism.

While non-violent, the protesters were at the same time defiant and assertive. The protesters were constantly on the offensive, not giving the government enough time to capture the initiative. They broke the written and unwritten rules of the system and showed their defiance of the government’s orders. A great example of this is the video, which became viral, showing how young activists, detained at a police station, took off the wall the portrait of Sargsyan and threw it out the window. Throwing out pictures of Sargsyan, which by that time had become ubiquitous in government offices, universities and schools, became a symbolic act, repeated throughout Armenia during the revolution, dealing an important psychological blow to the regime.

This example also shows how important for the success of the non-violent protest was the fact that it was taking place in a highly digitized environment. Social networks and new media in general became a major tool of the revolution. Facebook was by far the most common medium, through which Armenians were getting news, discussing issues and sometimes even organizing protest actions. Live videos by Nikol Pashinyan on Facebook routinely received hundreds of thousands of views, sometimes more than a million. An extremely important role was played by Internet television, channels such as Civilnet, Factor TV, Radio Liberty’s online TV, whose cameras virtually never went off, providing 24/7 coverage of the protests. The Internet TV’s audiences increased so much, that they made the government’s control over the traditional broadcast TV channels almost obsolete.

Telegram became the emergency communication medium. While it is still relatively less common in Armenia compared to other social networks, during the days of the protests it became a source of urgent and reliable information for the tech-savvy activists. The news appeared on Telegram channels, especially Infocom, before it appeared in other media, so, this channel, though it had only about 11 thousand followers, played a major role in the movement. Twitter became one of the main media of supplying information to the outside world. Finally, YouTube became a common medium for spreading the message of the revolution, from video and audio recordings of “revolutionary” songs and leaders’ speeches, to videos documenting abuses by the police and pro-government thugs.

***

As dramatic and picturesque as it was, the “Revolution of Love and Solidarity” took place in real life. And the difference between a happy ending in the movies and in real life is that in real life the most difficult part often comes after the “good guys” win. Yes, Armenia got rid of a corrupt authoritarian regime, but it still has to deal with its difficult legacy, whether it is the huge external debt, the mines destroying the environment, or the ugly buildings that had sprung up in the place of historical ones. Moreover, the remains of old oligarchic networks continue to wield significant influence, waiting for their chance to come back to power once again. Finally, the external setting, defined by the continuing conflict with Azerbaijan and unresolved issues with Turkey, is not going to be easy to navigate.

So, “the New Armenia” still has a difficult road ahead of it. And yet, whatever the future may bring, nobody can rob the people of Armenia of the memory of what they had done in April-May 2018. “Proud citizens of the Republic of Armenia”, as the protesters called themselves, accomplished something that can become an inspiration to millions of people around the world. Whatever happens tomorrow, the amazing tale of Armenia’s “revolution of love and solidarity” will always remain an inspiring episode in the never-ending story of the eternal fight between freedom and oppression.