By Armine Ishkanian, Sona Manusyan,
In Armenia’s post revolutionary period, old divisions have reemerged as various groups of activists have chosen different pathways to hold the government accountable.
Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution ended twenty years of rule by the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA). After large-scale protests, president Serzh Sargsyan unexpectedly resigned in May 2018. Protest leader Nikol Pashinyan became prime minister and began a process of political reform. There had been several years of small and large protests in Armenia before the 2018 events, and activists had become well-organized. After the change of government, they had to rethink their strategies.
In the year following the revolution, activists took divergent pathways. For many civil society actors, the past year was one of reevaluating and building more constructive relations with a reformist government. In the previous two decades, state–civil society relations largely had been adversarial and antagonistic, but this has shifted to some extent. However, even though many civil society actors now seek to work with government, some remain vocal in their criticism of government policies. Armenia is a case where a successful outcome of protests opens the way for a less contentious set of strategies, but where activists remain vigilant as the new government’s promises of reforms still need to be followed through.
Lead-Up to Revolution
Protests in Armenia during the 2010s were organized by activists working through social movements or smaller grassroots groups locally known as “civic initiatives.” Most of the protests in the 2010s tended to focus on single issues—to save one building or park, to stop transport fee hikes, or to prevent the privatization of pensions—but their emergence was also related to much broader concerns around corruption, the absence of rule of law, the lack of genuine democracy, the rise of oligarchic capitalism, and the failure of political elites to address the needs of ordinary Armenian citizens. Notable protests of the past decade included the 2012 Save Mashtots Park protest and occupation, which stopped oligarchs from seizing space in a public park to build cafes and boutiques; the 2013 100-dram movement, which mobilized against proposed transport fee increases; the 2014 Dem Em (“I am against”) protests on the privatization of pensions; and the 2015 Electric Yerevan protests against the raising of electricity rates.
Some of the protests achieved all or most of their immediate demands, as the government sought to appease protestors by making limited concessions. But by making these concessions, the government avoided addressing the wider structural problems and underlying causes of popular discontent, such as the absence of rule of law and the prevalence of corruption. For the participants, involvement in the protests helped strengthen their experience in and understanding of politics and to expand their interpersonal networks. In this sense, the 2010–2018 period was one in which activists’ social capital and experience was strengthened, even if their ability to achieve broader political transformations was limited.
Alongside the protests around socioeconomic issues, anger with the RPA-led government also intensified in April 2016 after a four-day escalation of Armenia’s ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Until the eruption of fighting, the RPA regime, led by Sargsyan, had sought to silence critics by arguing that the population must rally around the government in the name of national security.1 Following the conflict, which led to the loss of lives and territory, it became clear that the frontline troops had been poorly equipped and government corruption and mismanagement was to blame. In the words of a 2017 Freedom House report on Armenia, the “significant political repercussions” of this moment in the conflict led to “a public outcry over corruption in the military and shattering trust in the Armenian authorities’ ability to ensure security.”2 Thus, by 2018, trust in Sargsyan’s government had fallen sharply, there was widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the regime appeared to be holding on to power through the threat or actual use of violence.
Yet despite the widespread anger and discontent, few people foresaw the far-reaching consequences that would result when then member of parliament (and current prime minister) Pashinyan began his now-famous march through Armenia on March 31, 2018, launching the “Take a step, reject serzh” movement. Many expected that protests would emerge, and perhaps intensify and grow, as they had in previous years, but eventually they would die down as momentum would be lost. Yet unlike in previous years, in 2018, the protests and momentum grew from one day to the next and expanded to cities and towns beyond Yerevan.
Initially, Pashinyan was supported primarily by members of his small Civic Contract political party and a modest number of civil society activists. Within a few weeks of launching his Take a Step movement, however, he managed to win the support of wide swathes of the population, and by mid-April the number of people attending the rallies in Republic Square in Yerevan exceeded 100,000. On some days, the crowd numbers were closer to 200,000. Pashinyan’s demands for Sargsyan’s resignation and for an end to oligarchic rule, corruption, and impunity resonated with many Armenian citizens.3
In spite of the upswell of public opinion, it came as a shock when Sargsyan resigned as prime minister on April 23. On May 8, by a vote of fifty-nine to forty-two and under enormous public pressure on the RPA, the National Assembly elected Pashinyan to serve as Armenia’s new prime minister. Upon taking up his post, he declared victory for the Velvet Revolution and announced the beginning of a new era in Armenia’s history. But it would be another six months until the RPA truly fell from power: in the December 9 snap parliamentary elections, the ruling party suffered a resounding defeat, failing to clear the 5 percent threshold to enter the National Assembly, while the Civic Contract party secured eighty-eight of the assembly’s 132 seats.
Armine Ishkanian is an associate professor in social policy and the Academic Lead of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity program at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science.
Sona Manusyan is an assistant professor at the Department of Personality Psychology at Yerevan State University and a cofounder and researcher at the nongovernmental organization Socioscope.