Imagine people from various backgrounds – students, teachers, journalists, artists, soldiers – laughing, dancing and hugging one another. Envision a sea of flags with red, blue and orange colours fills the main square. Picture ordinary people who stood up for the transparent and accountable government. Imagine a united nation that managed to fight against almost impossible odds. This was the scene on Monday, 23rd April, at Republic Square in the centre of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. «Congratulations to every single Armenian! We WON,», said my Armenian friend on Facebook. It was indeed a victory. A victory of the people. A victory of a nation.
For those of you who wonder where Armenia is, it a country in the South Caucasus, which was the Soviet Republic until independence in 1991. More than 50% of the population lives in poverty. Unemployment and emigration remain problematic, and Armenia is under a trade blockade from Turkey and Azerbaijan over the dispute in Nagorno-Karabakh—goods are transported only through Georgia and Iran. Yet, it is a monoethnic and monolithic country– factors that probably played a vital role in the success of the revolution. But I will get back to this argument later.
How had Armenian Revolution unfolded?
It was in 2008 that Serzh Sargsyan came to power as president amidst violent suppression of anti-government protests in which at least 10 people were killed. When the legal term of his powers came to an end, he initiated a referendum on the establishment of a parliamentary republic, in which the prime minister would become a political leader. The referendum took place in 2015, but the constitutional change officially came in power only from this year. At the same time, Sargsyan publicly promised not to be elected as the premiere and broke the promise.
Fast forward 10 years, thousands of people in the streets of Armenia. It all began with the walk from the second largest city in Armenia, Gyumri, to Yerevan, the capital city. The moto and the purpose of this march were: “Make the step, reject Serz.” Tens of thousands, mainly students and high-school children, poured on to the streets protesting. The young generation is probably another important factor that has led to success. Armenian population is very young – the average age as of 2014 is 33 years. Students are not the ones who grew up with the Soviet mentality and Soviet propaganda, they are freer in their thoughts, thus they are demanding their rights more freely. The march lasted 13 days, which turned into a peaceful protest in the main square of Yerevan, announced by Nikol Pashinyan – the opposition leader. Protestants blocked the streets, however, there were no political slogans, no political demands (apart from Sargsyan resignation), there were only flags and flowers. Sometimes silence is louder than any words, isn’t it?
There were probably three turning points that led to the success of the opposition. Firstly, negotiation with the prime minister in front of the press, which happened for the first time in Armenia. Conference between Sargsyan and Pashinyan lasted less than 5 minutes and failed after the prime minister walked away, threatening people with the second 1st March (referring to protests back in 2008). Secondly, after unsuccessful negotiation, three main opposition leaders were arrested for 24 hours. This caused a number of the protestants in the streets to almost double, and on the top of that, veterans of Nagorno-Kharabah conflict symbolically joined the protestants. People realized that they could themselves shape the future of their country. The society overcame all those socio-psychological fears that were caused by poverty, corruption and lack of faith in tomorrow. Remember, in the beginning, I mentioned that monoethnicity played a big role? Often, the main tool in the hands of the government of a country in which revolution takes place is to make one group of people act against another. In Armenia, instead, there was only one single group against the government.
The sense of justice led to the third critical point of the “velvet revolution.” Following the arrests, people performed a total blockade of the main highways to Yerevan, adding to the protests in the city of Yerevan with the strike of workers and students. Not only the whole life in the capital city was paralysed, but people couldn’t even get to or from the airport. Another friend of mine, who also studies at UvA and was visiting his family at a time, had to walk 17km to make it to his flight back to Amsterdam. The situation was so critical that even the “newly” elected prime minister Serg Sargsyan could not make any influence.
In his resignation appeal, Sargsyan said: “There are a number of solutions in the current situation, but I will not resort any of them.” He recognized that he has two choices – either to start a fire or leave. And he made the only right decision – to resign. “Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was mistaken,” was Sargsyan’s last words.
The people’s revolution is still underway. On May 1, the Armenian parliament voted against making Pashinyan, who was the sole candidate, prime minister. However, the government in power promised to support the opposition leader in the upcoming elections that will be held on the 8th May. Seems like protesters are now taking a break to “save their strength”. Only time will show what happens, but Armenia gives a lesson to all the post-Soviet republics, that the government could not be irrevocable. What happened in Armenia is very unique. Armenian Revolution not only represents a major political change for the country, but also a psychological change for the Armenian people. They provide us with an example of a politician who actually serves his people and who takes responsibility incumbent upon him, as well as portrays a responsible opposition. People in the streets of Yerevan acted incredibly peaceful and restrained. The opposition had a very distinct strategy which was supported by its main goal – protest without any victims. The ordinary people turned out to be wiser. Maybe other nations should learn a political lesson from Armenia?