In Armenia, a democratic revolution that no one noticed

Why We Wrote This

Violence and bombast tend to dominate headlines. In Armenia, however, residents staged a quiet, grass-roots revolution while the world was looking elsewhere.

Vahan Stepanyan/PAN/AP
A woman casts her ballot in a polling station during an early parliamentary election in Yerevan, Armenia, on Dec. 9. The election cinched Nikol Pashinyan's control of Armenia's parliament and completely ousted the former ruling party.

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In the perhaps most inspiring political story of 2018, Armenia has shown the world that revolutions do not have to be bloody. With Sunday's election, Armenians confirmed Nikol Pashinyan as their prime minister with over 70 percent of the vote, cinching a slow-moving, peaceful overthrow of the former ruling party. Armenians toppled former leader Serzh Sargsyan this spring by way of a Twitter campaign, civil disobedience, and a strategy of – literally – embracing the police. “People were unhappy for different reasons: The seniors, because they are old and cannot live on their pension, and the young people didn’t see any prospects for their future,” says Armen Sarkissian, the current president. “All that anger accumulated.” But when Mr. Sargsyan attempted to extend his reign, “these boys and girls on the street were smarter and quicker than everybody. They knew exactly what to do,” Mr. Sarkissian says. Their success was rooted in a strategy that abided by the law while protesting vigorously, but peacefully, he adds. The post-Soviet state didn’t have any prior experience with civil disobedience, and was taken by surprise.

Young people drove Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution” – that’s the common narrative. Last Sunday’s election proved this as only half the truth.

“I’m 73 years old. This is the first time we are having free and fair elections,” says Siransush Abovyan. She lives in the capital Yerevan and came to the polling station, located in a kindergarten, with her daughter. “For the first time I feel like a citizen and not a slave,” she says.

Something has shifted in the conscience of the Armenian society in the last seven months. Young and old; rural and urban; the whole country buzzes with excited political chatter.

In the perhaps most inspiring political story of 2018, the small country in the southern Caucasus has shown the world that revolutions do not have to be bloody. With Sunday's election, Armenians confirmed revolution leader Nikol Pashinyan as their prime minister with over 70 percent of the vote, cinching a slow-moving, peaceful overthrow of former President and Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan and his party, the Republicans.

Armenians toppled Mr. Sargsyan's government this spring – by way of a Twitter campaign, civil disobedience, and a strategy of (literally) embracing the police. And on Sunday, the Republicans failed to reach the necessary 5 percent of the vote to reenter parliament after almost two decades in power.

“People [in Armenia] were unhappy for different reasons: The seniors, because they are old and cannot live on their pension, and the young people didn’t see any prospects for their future,” Armen Sarkissian says. He is the current president of Armenia and mediated between the protesters and the prime minister during the height of the demonstrations. “All that anger accumulated. Then you just need a reason and it all blows up.”

Karen Norris/Staff

‘The world's merriest apocalypse’

In this case, the reason was a brazen political maneuver by Sargsyan in an attempt to remain in power. In April this year, after he had promised not to do so, Sargsyan allowed his party to elect him prime minister. That came after he served two consecutive terms as president, during which he shifted most political power from the president's office to that of the prime minister.

Many Armenians felt that if they didn't take action, their country would irrevocably become a corrupt one-party state. Several independent groups as well as individuals started to organize marches, sleep-ins in public places, and witty Twitter and Facebook campaigns protesting Sargsyan’s power grab.

“These boys and girls on the street were smarter and quicker than everybody. They knew exactly what to do,” Mr. Sarkissian says. Their success was rooted in a strategy that abided by the law while protesting vigorously, but peacefully, he adds. The post-Soviet state didn’t have any prior experience with civil disobedience, and was taken by surprise.

Maria Karpetyan was one of the initiators of the civic protests. She says that she and her friends started planning the protests as soon as it became clear that Sargsyan didn’t intend to leave power. “This movement wasn’t spontaneous. It had been a long time coming, but it was very flexible because it was so decentralized.” The group’s battle call, #RejectSerzh, trended on Twitter for weeks, and became the unofficial slogan of the whole movement.

Thanassis Stavrakis/AP
Nikol Pashinyan (l.) shakes hands with a police officer during a rally in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 30. Mr. Pashinyan led protests that broke the Republican party's decades-long rule in Armenia, and in May was elected prime minister. Parliamentary elections on Dec. 9 cemented his overthrow of the old regime.

At the same time, opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan organized a protest walk with a few dozen supporters across central Armenia. They walked for 125 miles, from the country's second biggest city, Gyumri, to the capital of Yerevan. The night they arrived, there was already a protest of around 200 people at Freedom Square, many of whom were camped there. The two movements merged, and the rest is Armenian history.

Hundreds of thousands blocked roads all across the country – with communal picnics and demonstrations on roadways. “The protests must remain peaceful. Love and respect for all. As long as you stick to that, you can do whatever you want,” they kept on repeating in the streets and on social media, Ms. Karpetyan says. Armenians took this literally. They sang to police officers, gave them flowers, and continuously chanted, "The police belong to us! The police belong to us!” Many broke rank and joined the protests.

Two weeks after the mass protests had started, Sargsyan resigned. Two weeks after that, on May 8, Mr. Pashinyan was elected acting prime minister by the Armenian parliament amid showers of white confetti.

One Armenian described the atmosphere as the "world's merriest apocalypse.”

A new sense of self-determination

Seven months later, the enthusiasm hasn’t subsided, but another layer has emerged. The success of the revolution has given citizens more confidence, but also made them more adamant. Karpetyan quit her job as a conflict researcher and has just been elected as a member of parliament. She looks tired, more tired than after the two weeks of protests in May. She says that many people want to ban Sargsyan’s party. “This is not about a struggle for power, but about getting the country back on track,” she says.

Ruben Melikyan, a former deputy minister of justice and ombudsman, is one of the few Armenians who openly question the direction the country has taken. “Pashinyan is excellent at public speaking and leading demonstrations, but he doesn’t know how government works,” he says.

Mr. Melikyan also thinks that the new prime minister doesn’t do enough to curb hate speech toward adversaries, especially when directed at the former ruling party. He says that there is only one acceptable narrative in Armenia at the moment, and if you dare question or criticize this narrative you’re attacked from all sides.

The path ahead is littered with challenges. Addressing them will require plurality of ideas, opinions, and checks on power.

Armenia is still suffering the effects of the almost total collapse of its industry following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Unemployment is rife, and around a third of the population live below the poverty line. The borders with two of its four neighbors are permanently closed due to the ongoing conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region with Azerbaijan and recognition status of the Armenian genocide in Turkey.

Despite his criticism, Melikyan sees the positive change from the revolution. “Our population is maturing through this process, and there has been a change of generation in power. That is very important.” However, he says he is worried that the expectations of the people are too high. He thinks that the tide can turn against Pashinyan very quickly, especially now that Armenians have learned the tools to depose an unwelcome leader.

The new principal of a school in Charentsavan, a town about 25 miles outside of Yerevan, already got a taste of this novel attitude. The school board had elected her over a more popular predecessor. Inspired by the revolution in May, the students decided to go on strike. Earlier this week Pashinyan visited the school and told the students the board had acted lawfully, so they will have to go back to class, after weeks of boycott. The children refused and stated they will keep fighting “until the end.”

But it’s not only the sometimes-uncomfortable protest culture that has been awakened. For many Armenians, this is the first time they believe in their right to self-determination.

“There is a lot I disagree with, but the most positive thing that came from this revolution is that people used to think their vote wasn’t important,” Melikyan says. “Now they do, and that’s wonderful.”

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