When a social movement is successful in achieving its goals it’s easy to look beyond the protesters and their calls for change. However, the voices of civil society are a key part of any country and ought to be heeded when nonviolent means are used to engage a government in dialogue. While geopolitics is obviously a critical aspect of our world, potential motives of external actors are often too quickly projected onto what are domestic-focused movements. The April-May 2018 protests across Armenia provide a good example of why citizens who mobilise peacefully and social movements that are clearly focused on domestic change should be left out of geopolitical power plays and foreign agendas.
The protests and their leader
By April 2018, former journalist and editor, Nikol Pashinyan, had become the leading opposition figure in Armenia. Led by Pashinyan, peaceful protests in Yerevan began on 13 April 2018 when Serzh Sargsyan was named prime minister after reaching his two-term limit as president. For a decade Sargsyan led Armenia and was voted in this spring by a parliament dominated by his Republican Party. In 2015, the constitution was changed to transfer most presidential powers to the prime minister and the parliament.
Ten days after the protests began, Sargsyan announced that the will of people had spoken and he was stepping down. “The street movement is against my tenure. I am fulfilling your demand”, he told Armenians. Though one can speculate about the motives of the Republican-led parliament or Sargsyan himself, taken at face value this concession was the first step in engaging the Armenian public in political dialogue. Many revolutions falter and do not lead to substantive reform if the old institutions and politicians remain in place, or if another faction of leadership such as the military usurp power (e.g., Egypt and the Arab Uprisings of 2011). Listening to the will of the Armenian people was a positive move by Sargsyan, however only time will tell if substantive change comes.
On 28 April, all of the opposition parties in Armenia’s National Assembly announced they would support Pashinyan’s candidacy. Sargsyan’s Republican Party did not nominate a candidate. A vote was scheduled in the National Assembly for 1 May, with Pashinyan expected to be elected prime minister by parliament if he could get the 53 votes needed – six of which would have to come from the Republican Party. But these six MPs all voted against Pashinyan, resulting in an outcome of 56 against 45. Under Armenia’s constitution, a second vote must be held seven days later, and if the second vote does not produce a new prime minister, the National Assembly would be dissolved and new elections called.
After the 1 May vote against Pashinyan, an estimated crowd of 150,000 (5% of Armenia’s small population of 2.925 million) gathered to peacefully protest in the centre of Yerevan. A general strike across Armenia took place on 2 May, and eventually Republican MPs agreed they would back Pashinyan in the 8 May vote.
On 8 May, Pashinyan won the vote by 59 votes to 42 and promised snap general elections as soon as he considers a legitimate vote by the people can take place. He has said he has no intention of remaining in power – first he will have to persuade the same parliament to approve his cabinet. The ‘velvet revolution’ had successfully achieved its goals.
So, who exactly is Nikol Pashinyan? In the late 1990s, Pashinyan became the editor of his own newspaper, Armenian Times. His newspaper came to be known as a critical voice against the establishment and ruling government. Pashinyan’s move into politics only seemed natural.
He began by aligning himself alongside Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Armenia’s first president (1991-1998) who was running in the February 2008 presidential elections. Ter-Petrosyan did not succeed, as he lost to Sargsyan in what was later a contested outcome. This sparked Pashinyan to lead a movement against the vote. But these protests were unsuccessful, largely due to violence that erupted on 1 March 2008, leading to 10 deaths. The former editor and journalist then went into hiding for several months. These protests would perhaps be a learning opportunity for the mobilisation that transpired a decade later.
Tactics of a movement
On 22 April, Sargsyan made an ill-advised reference to the events of 2008. He warned Pashinyan that he had “not learned the lessons of March 1”. Opposition activist Mikayel Hovhannisyan, claims this was a huge mistake on the part of the government, as it came close to implicating them in the deaths of 1 March 2008. But more than anything else, it called Armenians to action. Hovhannisyan is quoted as saying that “People who had never been to a demonstration before came out on [the] street only because of that sentence”.
There is convincing empirical evidence that non-violence as an instrument of political action is more effective in achieving a movement’s articulated goals. There are ‘text book rules’ for how to organise and lead a nonviolent movement. And the ‘velvet revolution’ checked nearly all of the boxes. Firstly, the movement was decentralised, which not only meant it was less susceptible to being brought down, but it also allowed the people to feel as if they really matter, that this was their revolution.
Emotions play a huge part in connecting people to a movement, and one of the easiest ways of evoking a connection to Pashinyan is branding the movement. The hashtag #MerzhirSerzhin or “#RejectSerzh” was established, along with an image of Pashinyan as a man of the people and focused on the ‘love and solidarity’ of Armenians. Hats and shirts with the word ‘Dukhov’, which roughly translates to ‘with courage’, were being sold in Yerevan.
In early April Pashinyan had walked from northern Armenia to Yerevan, trying to gather support from across the country in the lead up to Sargsyan becoming prime minister. The journey inspired a theme song for the movement, which used beats to emulate the opposition leader’s steps across the country, steps towards change.
But perhaps the most important factor in the 2018 movement was its emphasis on domestic issues, and the reiteration of these purely Armenian goals. This was not a movement for or against any external political powers. It was about Armenia and Armenians. “There are no foreign forces involved in this process”, Pashinyan told the New York Times. “I have insisted many times that there is no geopolitical context to our movement, our velvet revolution”.
Young people usually have a significant role in domestic social movements, as they are the most affected in the long term by their government’s policies. One Armenian activist called the April-May 2018 protests a “school for democratic engagement”.
The official unemployment rate in Armenia rose to 19% in 2017 (from 17.1% in 2016), with almost 40% of the population under 25 years old. Approximately 30% of the Armenian population lives below the poverty line. The lack of prospects for future prosperity has led to a massive brain drain in the country, with record numbers of Armenian youth migrating abroad in recent years. Those who remain are determined to reverse this trend, and they see a change in political leadership is the first step.
Because of this and other factors, Armenia’s youth have been increasingly active in voicing their frustrations and by refining their organisational capacity and strategy. One key learning experience was the 2015 protests known as ‘Electric Yerevan’, which started as demonstrations against high energy prices but grew into a broader movement against inequality and lack of opportunity for the majority of Armenians. University and high school students took to the streets, along with the working class, and other dissatisfied factions of society.
Leave the geopolitics out
As a post-Soviet country, observers of the movement are quick to compare the Armenian protests to other civil society movements in the region, and Maidan is a key example. Firstly, the domestic goals of a movement are overshadowed when these geopolitically sensitive comparisons are brought in. The Armenian protests were never pro-Russia or anti-Russia, pro-EU or anti-EU. They were also much broader in scale, despite Armenia’s comparatively small size. And the broad, grass-roots driven organisation of the movement was far more sophisticated than Maidan.
Given this, it does the Armenian people a disservice to rapidly assume that the movement is either controlled by external forces or somehow aligned with them. The protesters themselves have explicitly voiced their domestic agenda, and Russia is not a part of the internal conflict. Both Russia and the West ought to first take the Armenian protests, and others like them, as what they are: citizens who want change and cannot seek it through existing, usually undemocratic, institutions.
The lessons to be taken from the 2018 Armenian protests are twofold: 1) the nonviolent aspect and 2) the domestic focus. The effectiveness of nonviolent resistance, when organised and ‘packaged’ strategically, could actually move the world towards a less violent means of foreign policy. When adopted by a large segment of society to effect change, the norms of nonviolence can become more embedded in the political and civic culture of a country. While other examples exist, the recent Armenian protests elucidate how constructive conflict resolution and dialogue might be achieved if these norms are respected by all sides. The Armenian protests were just that: Armenian. Turning this movement’s agenda into something that it is not, something of geopolitical consequence, not only detracts from the protesters’ goals but also injects counterproductive rhetoric into an already exacerbated East-West division.