In case you missed it, a “velvet revolution” just took place here in Armenia. I’m not sure if “revolution” is the right term for what went down, but everyone around here is using it, so I guess I will too.
It all happened so suddenly. Out of nowhere, Nikol Pashinyan (a minor opposition figure and journalist) became a national hero by leading the population of Armenia ousting the elected government and ruling party of ten years.
It started on April 13, 2018, when Pashinyan and his supporters reached Yerevan after a two-week protest march against Serzh Sargsyan’s nomination for Prime Minister.
I remember people around me complaining about the nuisance of increased traffic jams. Personally, I saw it as a perfect reason to use my bike to get around.
Despite the protests, the parliament nominated Sargsyan for PM on April 16 and they confirmed him the next day. Demonstrations grew in size, traffic came to a halt, and there was a lot of car honking and flag waving going on.
Then, on April 21, a spectacular meeting between Pashinyan and Sargsyan happened right on live TV. In the meeting, which lasted only three minutes, Pashinyan said that he'd only come to discuss Sargsyan’s resignation. Sargsyan called it blackmail and stalked off.
Immediately after the failed meeting, Pashinyan was detained. This is the only moment during the revolution that I worried things were going to end badly. However, Pashinyan was released the next day and, shockingly, Sargsyan resigned. Parliament elections for a new PM were set for May 1.
But the protesters were not done yet. Pashinyan announced that the new PM should not be a Republican, even though the Republicans had a majority in parliament.
Then, for a few days, the protesters “toured the country”; big rallies were held in major cities and housewives were called upon to bang their pots and pans to show their support.
On May 1, when the parliament voted for the post of PM (there was no nominee from the Republican Party), Pashinyan failed to win a majority. Protests erupted, once again, all over the country.
A week later, the parliament voted again and this time Pashinyan received a majority. This effectively ended the revolution. The protesters could hardly believe their achievement – it was all so much more than anyone had expected.
WHY THE PROTESTS STARTED
The reason and the goal of the protest seemed simple: former president Sargsyan became PM despite promises he made in the past that he would never do that. Sargsyan had changed the constitution back in 2015 to make the PM position much more powerful, so as PM, he would have essentially had a third term in power – and Armenians weren’t having it.
So why did he do it? This didn’t seem entirely clear to me. Obviously, Sargsyan’s new role as PM would keep the power firmly in his hands, and those of his political allies. But why didn’t the Republicans just give the position to another Republican? They were by far the biggest party and they could have picked someone else.
Whatever the reason, the Republicans clearly made a miscalculation. The Armenians I talked to told me that they were fed up with the Republicans. They were so angry about what happened that they wanted the whole Republican Party to step down and have new elections.
MAIN REASONS THE REVOLUTION HAPPENED
But why? I mean, parliamentary elections were held in 2017. Even though the media reported a high level of apathy and several irregularities, you could argue that the Armenians had their chance to elect a new government. When I asked my Armenian friends about this, I basically got three types of answers.
First of all, there was the clear issue of trust that was gone now that Sargsyan had reneged on his promise not to become PM. Opposition parties had worried all along that the real reason the Republicans changed the constitution three years ago was to stay in power.
Secondly, it suddenly became clear to many Armenians that if the Republicans were going to have another 5-year term, nothing would change in Armenia. And change, they suddenly realized, is what they wanted more than anything. You can’t blame them; Armenia is still a very poor country, not in the least because of a lack of economic opportunity, government corruption, high emigration rates, and, of course, the ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan.
Third, and this is why the first two reasons perhaps make more sense, is that Armenians had no idea that they had the power to – very quickly, and relatively easily – demand a massive change of government!
HAPPY, ORGANIZED AND HUMANE
What helped make the revolution a success is, I believe, the incredible sense of togetherness that Armenians feel. I see and experience every day how well Armenians treat each other, and when the revolution was going on, their attitudes towards each other became even better.
During the protests there was no visible anger, no resentment. People smiled and waved at each other from cars, houses, and street curbs. Gatherings and marches felt like celebrations. For almost four weeks – the time the revolution went on – I described the atmosphere in Yerevan as energizing and “festival-like”.
And, even though the revolution was incredibly spontaneous, it was also very organized and humane. Almost every evening Pashinyan, who was the clear leader of the effort, spoke to the protesters on the city center’s Republic Square. His words were strong – he was fighting for something and he was not about to give up or give in.
But Pashinyan also told the protesters every night that they should not be violent, and that they should not hurt anyone or damage things. There were very few violent incidents and the police – and the military – practiced a ton of restraint. One week into the revolution, a few soldiers actually joined the protests.
Also, every time he spoke to the crowd, Pashinyan gave detailed instructions on how the protest should continue the next day, and he even announced short breaks during which he negotiated with the other parties. It was incredible to see how well Pashinyan managed the situation, and how Armenians let themselves be managed.
NO PLACE FOR DIPLOMATS
I, as a diplomatic spouse and soon to be embassy employee, had to make sure I wasn’t seen as being part of the protest. It is inappropriate, even illegal, for diplomats to “interfere” in that way. Also, it would have looked very bad if any of us would be seen as part of the new political movement, because the US government (as well as the Russian government) said it wasn’t involved.
So I made sure people couldn’t identify me as being part of the US embassy (no embassy badge, no car with diplomatic license plates) and I never lingered in crowds. But I couldn’t resist being outside a lot, listening to the cars honk, seeing the flags wave, and just soaking up the happy energy that was everywhere.
Interestingly, “taking sides” was never even an issue anyway; it seemed to me, and to many others, that all Armenians agreed that this change, or revolution, was good and necessary. I haven’t seen a single person who didn’t happily observe or participate in the protests. There were no counter protests as far as I know.
The only odd thing I saw was that some people covered up their car’s license plates. In Yerevan, license plates can show that you are part of a wealthy family. For example, if your license plate ends with “999” or “888”, you are part of some rich oligarch’s family. I guess the people who covered up their plates were rich Armenians who didn’t want to be identified as being part of the sitting regime.
SO WHAT NOW?
Since Pashinyan was voted PM on May 8, an entirely new government has been installed. Many new Ministers and senior government people are unknown to the general public, which makes some people nervous and some people happy; nervous because it is unclear how effective they will be, happy because they are less likely to be corrupted by their environment.
So the revolution is over. Still, I hear occasional reports that a sitting mayor or other government figure from the Republican Party is being deposed.
Some things have already changed, although I haven’t heard much about it yet. I don’t follow politics on a daily basis; I mainly hear how Armenians feel about the political situation through my Armenian language teacher.
For example, she told me that Pashinyan no longer allows politicians to extend their business trips for pleasure – at least not on the government dime. Limiting extravagant perks like this is music to the ears of most Armenians, because the average monthly salary, after tax, is 300 dollars.
Another example is that Pashinyan ordered all the speed cameras in Yerevan removed. My taxi driver happily pointed this out to me once, while he sped up the car for no apparent reason other than the fact that he could.
The atmosphere in Armenia is still good. A lot of people I know, from workers to artists to Diaspora Armenians, see the revolution as a hopeful sign. A lot of work has to be done now to make more change happen.