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A nation must think before it acts.
The 2018 Velvet Revolution in Armenia that swept Serzh Sargsyan from power and brought Nikol Pashinyan to power as Prime Minister was surprising. Sargsyan had brutally repressed previous protests in 2008—in which ten people died—and had managed to successfully navigate broad protests in 2011 and 2013 by offering some largely cosmetic concessions. Few would have predicted that he could be pushed out of power in the space of less than two months. Even fewer would have predicted that snap elections in December 2018 would completely remove Sargsyan’s party from power—the Republican Party of Armenia did not win a single seat. At the same time, the form the revolution took—protests carried out by a broad coalition of individuals upset at the state of political affairs—was not surprising, given the nature of Armenian civil society.
Although some have compared the Velvet Revolution to the Color Revolutions that swept Eurasia in the 2000s, it was not quite the same this time. The Color Revolutions generally involved mass protests that were fomented and shaped by an alliance between civil society groups and opposition parties, concentrated around elections and electoral misconduct. The 2017 parliamentary elections in Armenia had passed without much notice. Instead, the Velvet Revolution was sparked by Sargsyan’s desire to take on the newly strengthened role of Prime Minister—in 2015, the Armenian constitution had been amended to change Armenia from a semi-presidential system to a parliamentary system in what was widely seen as a way for Sargsyan to stay in power without having to be directly elected. What the Velvet Revolution did share with the Color Revolutions, and with a broader class of democratic transitions more generally, was a demonstration of the power of civil society—though once again unlike the Color Revolutions formal civil society organizations did not play a major role. In particular, the Velvet Revolution was characterized by mass protest and by grassroots organizing via social media, spearheaded by opposition leader Pashinyan.
Since independence in 1991, Armenian civil society has been more of a protest-based civil society than an organization-based one. The reason for this is that NGOs have a very poor reputation in the country; according to the Caucasus Barometer, trust in NGOs has been around 22% for the past decade. After the 2008 protests, the nature of protests in Armenia became even more concentrated—it became clear to most Armenians that protest was the only way to be politically active, given the corrupt nature of the political system. This environment saw the rise of policy-specific “civic initiatives,” social movements that were sparked by activists focused on particular issues, such as electricity rates or public transportation costs in Yerevan. They were generally apolitical in the sense that they did not agitate for political change and did not seek to work with formal NGOs or the formal opposition. At the same time, these civic initiatives planted the seeds of the Velvet Revolution. Activists learned what worked and what didn’t. The methods used in the Velvet Revolution protests by Pashinyan and his allies to allow the average Armenian to participate without having to march with the protestors—such as by honking during their commute and banging pots and pans at night to indicate their support—were pioneered during the civic initiative protests.
Unlike the civic initiatives, the foci of the 2018 protests were decidedly political. They wanted Sargsyan removed from office. On April 23, Sargsyan said that he would step down as Prime Minister, saying, “Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong.” Then, on May 8, Pashinyan was elected Prime Minister.
Nevertheless, Pashinyan was still at a disadvantage, as his Civil Contract party only had a few seats in Parliament. In order to put himself in a better position, he called for snap elections to be held in December. His electoral alliance, My Step, made up of the Civil Contract party, the much smaller Mission Party, and a number of independents, won a significant majority in these elections although turnout was low. Yet, it is not clear what Pashinyan’s goals are beyond broad statements about fighting corruption and improving the economic situation of average Armenians. Armenia does suffer from corruption—Transparency International ranks it 105 out of 180 countries in terms of perceived corruption—and almost one-third of Armenians live below the national poverty line. But during the election campaign, the My Step Alliance focused its campaign around Pashinyan, rather than proposing policy. Pashinyan’s government is currently in the process of developing its Action Plan for the coming year, which may clarify how it aims to combat the problems facing Armenia.
The My Step Alliance’s current supermajority is also seen as a problem by some analysts, although the party is not necessarily ideologically unified. This may present an issue because if Pashinyan’s coalition fractures, as has happened in the context of other democratic transitions, genuine reform may stall. The lack of a strong, organizational civil society means that it may be hard to hold Pashinyan accountable. It is troubling then, that, although Pashinyan is himself a former investigative journalist, his government’s relationship with the media hasn’t been great, especially when the media is critical of his government. He has spoken harshly about the media in his addresses to parliament as well.
In addition, Armenia is in a tenuous geographic position. It is heavily dependent, economically, on Russia. Thus far, Russia has not interfered actively in post-Velvet Revolution Armenia. Analysts have argued that Pashinyan has done everything in his power to make sure that everything he does is according to procedure. Thus far, there have been no questions about the constitutional legality of the regime change, as there were in Ukraine, for example, although he was criticized for calling the snap elections in December without giving parliament a chance to reform electoral laws. He has also not called in outside individuals for help with reform, as was once again the case in Ukraine. This may all be in order to not ruffle Russia’s feathers, and he has consistently stated that he wants to continue to work with Russia. At the same time, the specter of Russia may impede effective reform.
Armenia is also involved in a frozen conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The experience of Ukraine shows how difficult it can be to democratize when there is fighting on one’s territory. Partly because of the conflict, nationalism and nationalistic groups are just as much of a concern in Armenia as they are in Ukraine. Pashinyan has not necessarily helped matters by using nationalistic dialogue in some of his speeches.
The Velvet Revolution was effective in removing Serzh Sargysan from power. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how effectively a protest-based civil society can be at maintaining reform momentum. Professor Mohammad Ali Kadivar at Boston College argues that democratic transitions spurred by mass mobilization are more likely to consolidate—if there is an organizational and institutional basis to those mobilizations that can form the foundation for politics in the new regime. Armenia doesn’t fit this example so clearly.