A First Success for the 'Velvet Revolution’
For days on end, thousands have been taking to the streets of Yerevan and other Armenian cities, protesting Serzh Sargsyan and his change of office from President to Prime Minister. Leader and organizer of the protests is Nikol Pashinyan, an opposition politician. Pashinyan was arrested this Sunday — shortly after a meeting with the Premier in which Pashinyan once again stepped in front of the cameras and demanded Sargyan's resignation. Stepan Grigoryan, chief of the Analytical Centre on Globalisation and Regional Cooperation, a partner of the Foundation, was also arrested Sunday evening, but has since been released. On Monday, Pashinyan too was set free. In the afternoon, the announcement came — Serzh Sargsyan had resigned.
A café in central Yerevan, this last Friday: Most guests are sitting in silence, following the protests in the city on their smart phones. Numerous Armenian TV channels are broadcasting footage of roadblocks and demonstrations. ‘I'd join the protesters if I didn't have to go to work’, Robert says. Robert works as a waiter in the café, a venue not far from Republic Square — the plaza in the middle of the Armenian capital where thousands gather every night.
The 23-year-old is a medical student. His café job comes with a salary equivalent to about 100 euros and again as much in tips. Robert is not necessarily unhappy with his life. He likes living in Armenia. Unlike many of his friends, he has no plans to emigrate. ‘But Serzh has got to go. Maybe this way there can be some change around here’, he muses.
Many of those taking part in the protests in Republic Square share his view. They hope that a resignation of the Prime Minister could lead to a general change of generations in Armenian leadership and therefore a change in policies. Not everyone wants a radical break. Most would just like to see an end to the stagnation and the hopelessness it engenders in a country saddled by corruption and nepotism where a few families with the right connections are prospering while the social situation of the majority keeps deteriorating.
Serzh Sargsyan is a symbol of this state of affairs. He is considered the country's most unpopular politician, and the demand for an Armenia without Serzh is essentially the only thing uniting the protesters. Here and there, posters demanding the withdrawal of the Russian army can also be seen.
The ‘Third Term’
The ‘Third Term’ is what Armenians call Serzh Sargsyan's appointment as Prime Minister on April 17. His stint as President ended on April 9 with the second of two possible terms. A controversial constitutional reform had shifted considerable power from the Presidency to the Prime Minister’s office, transforming the country from a presidential into a parliamentary republic. Many — including the Armenian National Congress (ANC), a partner of the Foundation — saw the reform as a ploy by Sargsyan to hold on to power. The 63-year-old had promised not to aspire to the premiership. It is unlikely that anyone truly believed him. Even so, his change of office is what ultimately precipitated the protests. ‘Serzh = Liar’, some posters proclaim.
Demonstrations began several weeks ago with a march over many day throughout the country. Nikol Pashinyan, Member of Parliament and leader of Civil Contract, a minor opposition party, hiked from city to city, accompanied by a few dozen supporters. The fellowship slept in tents. His arrival in Yerevan coincided with Serzh Sargyan's uncontested nomination to the office of Prime Minister. This changed the nature of the protest. When Serzh Sargsyan was installed as prime minister a few days later, Pashinyan called for civil disobedience and declared a ‘velvet revolution’. The charismatic 42-year-old succeeded in mobilising an ever growing number of supporters and sympathizers and convinced them to take to the streets. Many, especially the young, are pinning their hopes on Nikol Pashinyan. Long-time collaborators describe him as a skilled leader but also as a man with a huge ego, reluctant to accept advice and possessing certain stubbornness.
Except for a handful of the smaller factions, no other opposition party has officially joined the protests, although some of their representatives do participate. ANC presidium members have expressed doubts as to whether the one-dimensional demand for the prime minister's resignation is adequate. The system needs more reform than just an isolated change of staff. Nevertheless, many of them—younger members in particular—take part in the protests.
Even representatives of movements collaborating with Pashinyan's party in the context of the YELK alliance are sceptical. One representative worries that the demands of the protesters and the disruption of public life caused by the protests could prompt a government crackdown — restrictions on civil liberties and on the freedom of the press, repercussions for civil society, the prohibition of NGOs and—in the worst case—the establishment of a totalitarian regime. ‘We should voice our protest in Parliament, not in the streets’, the parliamentarian suggests: ‘The fact that 'Armenia without Serzh' is the protesters' only demand means that there is no negotiating range, and neither Sargsyan nor Pashinyan can walk away from the confrontation without losing face’. This way there is no chance of a compromise being reached. And merely replacing a single incumbent would not bring about real change in any case.
Protests All over the City
The nature of the current protests in the Armenian capital could be described as organised spontaneity. Throughout the day, protesters, most of them young, put up blockades in the streets and in front of public buildings and government offices across the city. The blockades are organised via social media or text messaging and happen in a flash: cars appear parked across streets, park benches and garbage dumpsters are moved or sit-downs pop up. The flash mobs disappear as quickly as they come, only to reappear elsewhere in short succession. It's a cat-and-mouse game with the police, who behaved with notable restraint until the weekend. Up until Saturday, protests were predominantly peaceful. A few were arrested but usually released in the short space of a few hours. Drivers are suffering the roadblocks with patience and good humour. A constant din of car horns can be heard all over the city and is generally regarded as an expression of solidarity with the protesters.
The protests culminate in a large demonstration in the Republic Square, starting at 7 pm each evening. Here, too, the mood was peaceable until Saturday and the congregation had some of the character of a happening or a country fair. Pop music sounded from loudspeakers. The crowd skewed young but included families with children and people from all age groups in general. The police kept its distance but did divert traffic to nearby streets to maintain orderly access.
On Sunday, the situation changed: a police force in large numbers gathered around the square equipped with truncheons, helmets, and shields. An attempt to dissolve the protest ended in violent altercations.
EU Delegation Calls for a Negotiated Solution
The EU delegation in Armenia declared itself concerned following an inconclusive meeting between Pashinyan and Sargsyan. In an ‘Urgent Statement by the Delegation of the European Union and EU Member States Embassies in Armenia’, it said: ‘The EU welcomes President Armen Sarkissian’s initiative to establish a dialogue between the demonstrators and the Government. However, the EU is concerned that today’s short meeting between Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan and MP Nikol Pashinyan failed to prevent a further escalation of tension. The European Union reiterates that it is crucial that all parties show restraint and responsibility and urgently seek a negotiated solution’.
The demonstrations in the Republic Square resumed on Sunday evening. Following Nikol Pashinyan's arrest more people joined in than ever before. Whether the protests were going to continue, whether the security forces were going to take drastic action and whether there was going to be a dialogue — these questions were still open on Sunday.
When the crowds kept growing on Monday with police officers, doctors, and many others joining the protesters, the pressure became overwhelming: in the afternoon, Serzh Sargsyan declared that he had made a mistake and announced his resignation.
The days ahead will show what lies in store for Armenia. It remains to be hoped that the situation in Yerevan and in the rest of the country remains peaceful and there is no further escalation.
It also remains to be seen whether Nikol Pashinyan emerges as a hero and to what degree he will get to influence the future fate of the nation.
Part of the opposition appears to have underestimated the situation and is now forced to try to jump the bandwagon. The question of how Russia is going to react also remains open.
Peter-Andreas Bochmann is the the Project Director for FNF South Caucasus.