Former Soviet republics have been dealing with corruption after the dissolution of the Soviet-Union. The same holds true for Armenia. Nevertheless, two years ago peaceful and celebratory protests against president Sarkisian have led to his resignation. This in turn caused a series of political changes towards a more democratic country.
By Maria Gharibyan
Protests started in reaction to then president Serzj Sarkisian who was clinging to power. After serving two terms as president (from 2008 to 2018), Sarkisian put himself forward as a candidate for the prime minister’s post. Sarkisian did this in spite of his former declarations not to be nominated president or prime minister after his second term. In 2015 he had amended the constitution which changed the country from a presidential system to a parliamentary republic. As Sarkisian named himself as candidate for prime ministry and his party had a majority in the parliament, this meant that he would become the next prime minister. Thus, he would hold on to political power. In a countermove, former opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan started protest actions. On the 31thof March 2018, Pashinyan and his protestors began a march from Gyumri to Yerevan. Protestors called out Sarkisian making clear Armenia has no king.
The Beginning of the Revolution
On April the 13th, after walking 200km, Pashinyan and supporters finally reached Yerevan. There, Pashinyan called for a meeting with citizens to block Sarkisian from becoming prime minister. He called on everyone to disrupt the capital as much as possible and pleaded the protestors to abstain violence in their protest to ensure their success. Citizens blocked traffic, by for example, parking their cars in the middle of roads or by barricading streets with benches. People also played board games in the middle of roads and stayed overnight in public places. Three days later, Pashinyan and thousands of people marched to the parliament. At this moment, the parliament was electing their next prime minister. The march was stopped by the police. In return, Pashinyan called for a national strike and more blockades in order to paralyze, not just the capital city but all of Armenia. Nevertheless, Sarkisian was elected prime minister with a majority of the votes and spoke about the protest as ‘too small to have a real impact’. This created the root for the revolution. Pashinyan called for a ‘non-violent people’s revolution’. The protests would not stop until Sarkisian resigned.
A Revolutionary Party
By 17th of April, hundreds of thousands of people protested non-stop in a non-violent, celebratory way. Citizens from other cities marched to Yerevan to join the revolution. Every evening they would meet up at the Republic Square, where Pashinyan and his party members discussed the next step. The way in which this revolution was organized was the first of its kind. During the protestors’ meetings in the evenings, the song ‘Im Kayle’ (lyrics written by Pashinyan), was played and became an enforcing element of this revolution. Conservatory students and a group of national dancers held an open concert for the protestors. Actors, singers and other artists joined the movement by holding speeches and encouraging protestors. Even a group of Chinese tourists joined the protests by blocking a street. In addition, a giant cake and Armenian flag was made collectively. People started to enjoy the protest more as it evolved into a big festival, where music was played, where people were dancing in the streets, and everything was shared. More than 300.000 people participated actively in the protests.
When both women and people of different ages were raising their hands, they were disarming the police. – Maria Karapetyan, demonstrator
The participation of women and youngsters had a positive effect on the non-violent state of the protest, because the police found it more difficult to arrest women and youngsters. Armenia has a very family-oriented culture, so treating women and youngsters badly means treating your own family badly. When police tried to arrest and dissolve a major group of protestors, girls or women would pretend to faint in order to attract the attention of the policemen. Others lay under the wheels of police cars to prevent them from taking protestors away. Demonstrator Maria Karapetyan explained that women played an important role: ‘they led groups of people and suggested creative ideas. Some of these ideas guaranteed the peaceful nature of the protests, like women blocking the road with their children in seats is a good example.’ Additionally, Armenians living abroad held protests in foreign cities too.
Several days after the election of Sarkisian as prime minister, the protest continued. It had become bigger and had reached a total political and economic paralysation of the country. On April 22nd, Pashinyan and Sarkisian met to discuss the state of the country. Press from all over the world attend this event. Pashinyan declared to discuss a peaceful resignation, to which Sarkisian responded that Pashinyan had not took lessons from March 1st 2007. The latter refers to the protest held in 2007 against the presidential elections of Sarkisian. The government, then still under president Kocharyan (party member and friend of Sarkisian) duty, acted violently against these protests. Hundreds of people got harassed and ten people died. By saying that no lessons were learned from March 1st 2007, Sarkisian informally proved that he and Kocharyan were responsible for these atrocities and that he wasn’t afraid to act the same way again. This put him in check mate. As a result, people continued their protests, not only for their future and their children’s’ future, but also for those who had been harmed, and gave their lives in earlier protests.
That same day, April 22nd, Pashinyan was kidnapped by masked police officers and taken to the city of Sevan. At that time, no one knew where he was being kept. Decentralized protests broke out in the capital city. Pashinyan was offered money to stop the protests. He refused to take the money or negotiate and people kept protesting until Pashinyan was released. The next day, he was released and Sarkisian resigned: ‘Pashinyan was right, I was wrong.’ At the Republic Square people were celebrating their victory.
A new beginning has arisen from this Velvet Revolution. After the resignation of Sarkisian, Pashinyan called for a candidate for the prime minister’s post voted by the people, instead of voted by the parliament. The people voted Pashinyan as a candidate. The first election was dismissed by the parliament. Parliament was still formed by a majority of Republicans (Sarkisian’s party) and was elected by falsifying votes. However, as protest kept on paralyzing the country, the parliament had no other choice than to accept Pashinyan as the next prime minister of Armenia.
Your victory is not that I was elected as prime minister of Armenia. Your victory is that you decided who should be prime minister of Armenia. – Nikol Pashinyan
Six months later, democratic parliamentary elections were held and caused a wholly renewed parliament. The Republican party, which before hold more than 80% of the seats, was no longer elected. Present day, former presidents Kocharyan and Sarkisian are awaiting trial for fraud and corruption. Furthermore, serious steps are being taken to make the Supreme Court politically independent. In addition, an Anti-Corruption Centre will be set up later this year. Economically, the country is doing very well. Armenia has attracted several international investments and its GDP strongly increased with 7,6% the year following the revolution.
The revolution also meant a new beginning for Armenia’s international relations. Pashinyan was the first politician to state a solution needs to be found for the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh which needs to be acceptable for all parties: the Armenians, the people of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh and the people of Azerbaijan. He also stated this at the ‘Sicherheitskonferenz’ this February in Munich. Pashinyan and president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, talked openly about the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Pashinyan explained: ‘I aim at solving this conflict through a series of mini revolutions, taking small steps in order to solve this conflict. I think it is important that we agree on mutual communication. I would agree with President Aliyev on communicating with citizens of Armenia on this matter, and I would like to do the same with citizens of Azerbaijan.’
Armenia is still dealing with economic, political and social problems. However, as the parliament and prime minister are now democratically elected, the fundament to treat these problems is a democratic one.