The End of Armenia’s Old Regime

Armenia’s authoritarian regime was swept away last month by a popular uprising that no one predicted. Now comes the hard part.

Serzh Sargsyan arrives at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport to attend the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit March 23, 2014 in Haarlemmermeer, Netherlands. Toussaint Kluiters / Getty

In May, Armenia underwent its most significant political transformation since the country’s independence from the USSR. A country seemingly trapped in an economic and moral malaise, in which prospects for change were relegated to a distant and improbable future, erupted in massive popular revolt. After making a renewed bid to stay in power, Serzh Sargsyan, the country’s ruler for the past decade, was overthrown, and his Republican Party (HHK), once the only significant political force in the nation, forced into seemingly irreversible retreat.

In hindsight, these events have been a long time coming. A haggard economy and a political system monopolized by the ruling party had inadvertently led to the growth and maturation of a grassroots protest movement which became powerful enough to challenge its supremacy. But the current political transformation is still in its infancy and without an attendant economic and social transformation will not be enough for lasting change. Today, as the new government marshals some unsavory allies to secure its rule, a space has opened for Armenia’s ordinary people to organize and not only consolidate the revolution but go beyond it.

With a population of a little under 3 million and an economy entirely reliant on favorable trade with its larger neighbors and remittances from abroad, Armenia has been incredibly vulnerable to the shifting winds of the global economy. With the arrival of the worldwide recession in 2008, the country was hit exceptionally hard. On paper, the recovery began two years later, with GDP growth back in the black by 2010 and further growth from then on (reaching a high of 7.5 percent for 2017). But this “recovery” was not felt by the vast majority of Armenian people. Unemployment actually increased from 16 percent to 17 percent during the last decade and roughly one-third of the population remains below the poverty line.

Worse still, Armenians have been left to suffer the crisis without any effective social safety net, as the strong social provisions that existed during the Soviet period were shredded by deindustrialization and the free market “shock therapy” that followed the collapse of communism. Privatized health care, miserly pensions, and nonexistent employment protections meant that those who were hurting could find help only from friends, family, or the relatively small charity sector.

And while residents of larger countries might have experienced the crisis as a distant and impersonal force, Armenia’s small size and its system of extensive patron-client relationships and oligarchical fiefdoms (encompassing almost the entirety of the country’s economy and government) have meant that the unfair hand of the market almost always belonged to a man with a face, a name, and a party affiliation. And this hand delivered only further insult and injury when it demanded illicit payments on top of already existing structures of exploitation — with everything from medical treatment, to a diploma, to a business license often requiring “extra fees.”

Only around elections would this farce turn on its head, with the flow of money reversing as the authorities, in a seeming attempt to meet international treaty obligations regarding the “democratic process,” would do their best to minimize the need for ballot stuffing or fudging the numbers by organizing wide-scale vote-buying for the ruling party. (The going rate during the last election was roughly 10,000 AMD or $5 per ballot).

Growing Discontent

The revolt that came to engulf Armenia in 2018 was born from the ripples of the bloody consolidation of Republican Party rule in 2008. That year, the country’s opposition — a loose coalition of middle-class urbanites, a handful of oligarchs, and members of the ruling elite that had been deposed in 1998 — coalesced around the controversial figure of Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Armenia’s first postcommunist president. Likely inspired by Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Ter-Petrosyan ran for president and when, as expected, he was defeated in a blatantly rigged election, he called on his supporters to come out into the streets. But his daring attempt to repeat history was met with overwhelming state force. When the dust settled, eight protesters and two police officers were dead, Ter-Petrosyan was under house arrest, and the Republican Party was unquestionably the only dominant political force in the country — having crushed or co-opted any formerly disloyal elites. Yet this victory came at a cost. The fratricidal bloodshed and the ensuing financial crisis meant that the HHK came to rule through managed coercion mixed with societal apathy, while outside the halls of power a new extra-parliamentary opposition began to develop.

Led by middle-class youth and students disillusioned with the corruption and violence of formal politics, the new wave of social protest spurned traditional modes of organization. Activists distanced themselves from old political parties and permanent organizational bodies, choosing instead to create temporary structures and focus on single issues.

The first successful civic initiative was small. Led by a group of young environmentalists in 2012, it was organized around an occupation — a couple hundred strong at its peak — that successfully blocked the slated conversion of a major park in central Yerevan into a trade zone for shops. The following year an even bigger mobilization, organized by a coalition of groups, arose in response to the Yerevan municipality declaring a 50 percent increase in public transport fares. This time thousands of Yerevan’s citizens joined the protest and the attendant fare boycott, refusing to pay anything above the standard price. And once again, the government backed down.

The new organizational model had proved itself a viable method for creating change, and protests in Yerevan snowballed. In 2014, a large protest was organized against the privatization of speed cameras. It was shortly followed by another in which ordinary workers, alongside government employees, successfully mobilized against the privatization of their pensions. By 2015, the movement reached a new climax as 20,000 people, marshaled by a civic initiative calling itself “No to Plunder” successfully occupied Yerevan’s central artery to block a planned increase in electricity prices.

The 2016 April War between Armenia and Azerbaijan threatened to derail Armenia’s new culture of protest, as the government had often used the rhetoric of national security to clamp down on dissent. But Azerbaijan’s territorial gains during the conflict, and stories of the Armenian military’s outdated equipment (juxtaposed on social media with the luxury cars owned by the country’s elite) only exacerbated public anger — culminating in the “Daredevils of Sasun” hostage incident, in which a group of war veterans seized a police station and called for the release of political prisoners and the president’s resignation. This action, despite its violent means, was met with two weeks of sympathetic anti-government rallies by angry working-class youth.

According to the Caucasus Resource Research Center, by 2017 public support for further protest against the government reached a high of 70 percent while trust in the government plummeted from 42 percent in 2008 to a paltry 16 percent in 2017. But even as this wave of popular power seemed to go from strength to strength, its limitations were also put into stark relief. For every small and fragile victory, the ruling party managed to implement a dozen other unpopular policies and continue its stranglehold on Armenia. For lasting change, further and more radical steps had to be taken. High politics had to be re-embraced.

Reaping the Whirlwind

Armenia was a tinderbox of discontent when, in late February of this year, the Republican Party announced, contrary to previous promises, that it would not exclude Serzh Sargsyan as a candidate for prime minister. In a move worthy of Vladimir Putin, Serzh Sargsyan managed to utilize the constitutional transformation of Armenia from a presidential to a parliamentary republic to keep his grip on power past initial term limits.

The response was immediate. A group of activists quickly set to work organizing a new civic initiative: “Reject Serzh.” At the same time, Nikol Pashinyan — an opposition MP and longtime ally to the various social initiatives — as well as his comrades in the new Civil Contract party (staffed with many alumni of previous protests) began to plan for an Armenia-wide protest march, with the slogan “Take the first step.”

It was a natural alliance, and it didn’t take long for the two to agree to a merger. In mid-March, the movement was christened “Take the first step, reject Serzh.” In continuity with previous protests the slogan and purported goal remained singular: Serzh Sargsyan had to step down. Ideologically murky and demanding nothing more than a simple “no” (at least at first), this new movement set the stage for a populist uprising that incorporated the widest possible social coalition.

In its initial days the movement stuck closely to the script written by its progenitors, limiting itself to an occupation of a prominent location in the capital — in this case, a central roundabout called “France Square.” But in short order the tactic shifted to a new form that better utilized the spontaneous and rather disorganized qualities of the post-2012 Armenian social movements. Rather than occupying a single location, the movement adopted a liquid quality, with a nimble ebb and flow. A location would be announced for a rally or a march, and after enough people had gathered, Nikol Pashinyan would deliver a speech calling for mass acts of nonviolent civil disobedience — usually blockades of roads and public buildings. At first these blockades were geographically limited, with only those who had attended a rally or march participating, fanning out through the city center and setting benches, garbage cans, and their own bodies in the path of traffic.

While the attempts to bar government buildings met with near universal failure — security forces were always nearby — the road blocks were another story. The choice of roads to be blocked was not planned in advance and was up to protesters’ self-organization, which added an element of unpredictability and surprise for which the authorities had not prepared. Security forces, likely with previous occupation-style protests in mind, had hunkered down, setting up barricades lined with phalanxes of riot police, barbed wire, and water cannons in the city’s key locations. They had prepared for a siege, a frontal assault, a proverbial storming of the Bastille. Instead, they found themselves forced to play authoritarian whack-a-mole, furtively trying to find and dismantle dozens of tiny, shifting, yet effective roadblocks throughout the city center.

As the protests continued to grow it became only more clear how out of their depth the authorities were in dealing with this protest.

In previous years, violence had been the state’s most useful tool. Clashes between protesters and police legitimized its exercise of their monopoly on the means of force. But the leaders of the movement saw to it that this tool was denied as much as possible. Calling on their supporters to confront the police peacefully and with “open hands,” they made sure that clashes were minimized and that if they did occur, they would be blamed on the authorities. And when the government attempted to use provocateurs, along with its control over TV and radio, to smear the protesters, it was drowned out by a thousand separate smartphone videos and live-streams showing what really happened at any point of contact between security forces and protesters.

In mere days, the successful civil disobedience that had once been limited to the center of Yerevan began to spread, first to the outer neighborhoods and then to all of Armenia, as ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to carry out civil disobedience actions. Truck drivers parked their rigs across bridges, blocking the way. Brave individuals lay down between the open doors of metro cars and the platform, preventing trains from leaving the station. Groups of pedestrians staged interminable back-and-forth road crossings, blocking the road. And so, without a single worker in a strategic industry going on strike or the participation of a single trade union, the whole of Armenia had come to a standstill.

On April 23, ten days after the protests had begun, the authorities attempted to decapitate the movement, arresting Nikol Pashinyan and other protest leaders. This move had the opposite of its intended effect. The protests swelled to record highs, with over 150,000 people (more than 5 percent of Armenia’s population) out in the streets. The following morning, several hundred active-duty soldiers left their bases to join the protests, as formerly “loyal” opposition parties in parliament declared their loyalty to “the Armenian people” and against the government. By early afternoon, Nikol Pashinyan and his comrades were released. A couple hours later, facing total revolt, Serzh Sargsyan announced his resignation.

Sargsyan’s downfall did not spell the end of the protest — it only radicalized it. “No to Sargsyan” was no longer enough. At a massive rally in Yerevan’s Republic Square, protest leaders demanded the end of Republican Party and oligarch rule — calling for new general elections and the appointment of Nikol Pashinyan, “the people’s candidate,” as interim prime minister.

The Republican Party tried to drag its feet, using its parliamentary majority to delay its own political downfall, but yet another general strike on the May 1 revealed that real power had moved from the national assembly to the streets. On May 2, the assembly grudgingly announced that it would elect Pashinyan interim prime minister.

Victory, and Strange Bedfellows

A month and a half after the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan, the HHK is politically dead in all but name. While they still control the plurality of seats in parliament, a series of defections has shorn them of their majority and they have lost control of all government ministries. Pashinyan and his allies are firmly in control of the Armenian state.

In a speech he delivered to the parliament shortly before he was elected prime minister Pashinyan stated that he was “beyond ideology.” In reality, the pledges of his government have shown the new regime to be firmly within the tradition of European liberalism: promising free, fair, and transparent elections, alongside the dismantling of corrupt state structures and economic monopolies and their replacement with meritocratic institutions and market mechanisms. At the same time, it is important to note that there are some relatively left-wing, “populist” aspects to Pashinyan’s platform — most significantly, his promise to outlaw predatory fines and bank loans and to mandate a measure of debt forgiveness.

While still quite vague and seemingly unambitious, in Armenia this political program (if actually implemented) constitutes nothing less than a revolution, an almost total overthrow of the existing order. In its two decades in power, the HHK has shaped the entirety of the country in its own image. “Corruption” is nothing more than a heuristic connoting an incredibly complex and far-reaching system of interlocking patron-client relationships that the Republican Party elite and its allies have used to fuse and monopolize financial capital and political power.

And while their political capital has now been taken from them, their money and property remain. They control the majority of big business in the country. They control whole supply chains, from production to transport to the point of sale. They have clients in the police, in the judiciary, in the civil service, in the education system, as well as throughout Armenia’s formal and informal economy.

After Pashinyan became prime minister, the protest movement’s advantages became some of its greatest weaknesses, especially when it came to challenging elite-controlled economic structures. The amorphous, decentralized, and unorganized nature of the movement meant there were no existing bodies (e.g., effective trade unions) that could effectively apply pressure to localized pockets of power, whether in the government or in the economy.

And while Pashinyan could shut down the country with a single speech before a crowd of 100,000, such a crowd could not, in one swipe, untangle the multi-nodal spider’s web of clientelism that the ancien régime had woven.

Whether he wanted to or not, Pashinyan has been forced to seek out new allies, welcoming some very questionable latecomers to the revolution. To secure a parliamentary majority he has joined with men like Gagik Tsarukyan, a notorious oligarch and head of the Prosperous Armenia party, as well as with the Dashnaktsutyun Party, the ex-junior coalition partner of the HHK. To tackle the HHK’s entrenched positions within the economy and state bureaucracy, he secured even more ominous allies: the National Security Service (NSS), the post-soviet successor to the KGB.

Armenian political scientist Zhanna Andreasyan calls the newfound loyalty of the NSS to the post-revolutionary government “an issue of institutional legitimacy.” In the years of Republican Party rule, the NSS was widely despised in Armenian society, seen as nothing but a coercive implement of the regime. And indeed, it was: as Andreasyan points out, the NSS had almost certainly been tasked by Sargsyan to gather evidence of wrongdoing or “kompromat” on various elites within the country, using this as leverage to ensure compliance and loyalty to Sargsyan and his closest allies. But when the revolution triumphed and a relationship with the HHK turned from a privilege into a political liability, the NSS could use its resources not only to survive the postrevolutionary backlash, but to become nothing less than national heroes.

Just the other week, the Pashinyan government, with the aid of the NSS, began a purge of Republican officials. On June 14, the NSS arrested two members of the capital city’s HHK-controlled administration. Two days later they raided the home of Republican MP Manvel Grigoryan, subsequently arresting and charging him with illegal weapons procurement. A video made during the raid shows that Grigoryan had not only turned his home into a veritable armory of rifles and grenade launchers, but had also kept a small zoo of tigers and bears, which he fed with stolen rations that had been intended for frontline soldiers during the 2016 April War.

On social media, the fury against the HHK that met the release of the video was matched only by the outpouring of love for Nikol Pashinyan and the NSS. Following the arrest and the video’s release, Armenian social media exploded in praise for Nikol Pashinyan and the NSS. Daniel Ionnisyan, founder of the Union of Informed Citizens watchdog group put it simply: “I never thought I’d have a positive opinion about the NSS.”

New Solidarities

For the revolution, a newly legitimized NSS and a coterie of oligarchs make for poor allies, as they represent, in their own way, the worst elements of the ancien régime. If allowed too much influence, they are likely to lead the new Armenia to a reversal of even the most modest liberal democratic gains. But it should be noted that liberal democracy in and of itself is an insufficient endpoint, as the recent rise of the ultra-right in Eastern Europe has so clearly shown. If its limits are to be overcome in a progressive direction, then the wave of social movements that culminated in the overthrow of Serzh Sargsyan and the HHK must continue and grow — crystallizing into permanent bodies of popular power.

And in this regard, there are reasons to be hopeful. The success of the revolution so far has led to a further flowering of social movements throughout the country. Workers have gone on strike for better pay and protested to recover unpaid wages; villagers have blocked roads and laid public claim on private lands; and those whose livelihoods are in danger of being destroyed by extractive industry are organizing direct actions through bodies that resemble proto-soviets.

Underlying these actions is often a spirit of solidarity and egalitarianism that far outshines the current liberal trajectory of the revolution. And it is this spirit, if it endures, that can lead to a free, independent, and prosperous Armenia for all its citizens.