Security and Foreign Policy

Too Early to Celebrate? The Prospects of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution

Armenia is currently gripped by what is being termed as the "Velvet Revolution", a powerful non-violent civil resistance that forced the resignation of Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan. Ani Karapetyan analyzes the success of this revolution and whether the country will see effective reforms in the near future.

BY: ANI KARAPETYAN

As a result of a powerful non-violent civil resistance, Armenia’s then-Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan published a statement announcing his resignation on April 23, 2018. A chain of events followed to complete the movement’s success: the acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan announced he will not run shortly after Sargsyan’s notice, and Nikol Pashinyan, the opposition leader, had the sole nomination for the prime minister’s role. The ruling Republican party voted against Pashinyan’s candidacy but a day of complete lockdown of the capital forced the ruling party to consent to Pashinyan’s tenure. Following the Republicans’ announcement, thousands of people gathered in the streets of the capital city in celebration of the long-awaited turn of events.

The constitutional changes, passed in a referendum in 2015, enabled Sargsyan to become the head of the country for the third time assuming the prime minister’s role. The Republican party that holds the majority vote in the parliament nominated Sargsyan for the prime minister’s seat on April 16. Ahead of and after the nomination and election of Sargsyan as the prime minister, thousands of people demonstrated in the streets of the capital and around the country. The demand of the protesters was for Sargsyan to step down. “Reject Serzh” and “my step” hashtags were widely circulated on the internet and became the main chants in the streets. After Sargsyan resigned, the goal of the protesters switched to electing Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister – the only step remaining to conclude the revolution.

The Republic of Armenia has been through political turmoil in its entire twenty-seven years of existence. The 10 years of Sargsyan’s presidency, the most recent term specifically, were filled with public discontent. Social issues, human rights abuse, corruption, economic decline, and unbalanced foreign policy were some of the numerous problems that brought thousands to the streets. The 10-day protest in April, 2018, however, was different, and not solely due to the successful outcome. The political technology used to organize and lead the protests was unprecedented. The carefully thought-through peaceful disobedience was well-organized and sustained as a result of unlawful arrests and police violence, tipping on day 10. But the victory of the people’s power notwithstanding, is it too soon to celebrate?

The success of non-violent movements is identified through a slew of factors, which include the ability to unify people, operational planning and nonviolent discipline. If these factors are ensured, trends of civilian population should increase, the impact of repression should decrease, and increase in defections from the movements’ adversaries should occur. Non-violent civil movements are usually successful due to well-planned tactics, such as horizontal, decentralized organizational structure, a two-way approach to campaigning (negative and positive campaigns), a creative approach to resistance, and a fraternizing approach to police to increase defections.

The Velvet Revolution seems to have adopted these tactics successfully. The movement deems itself a revolution of love and solidarity. With their hands up in the air while marching towards the police and chanting “the policeman is ours”, the organizers and protestors mastered the implementation of effective tactics to wage non-violent conflict. By closing the streets through dancing, playing musical instruments, using baby strollers, blocking the streets by cars and shocking the capital with strikes, the protests culminated in dozens of soldiers defecting and joining the movement, which is said to be a critical moment in determining Sargsyan’s resignation. After the short-term goal is achieved, what are the prospects of reaching the ultimate goal of the velvet revolution, i.e. institutional change?

While speaking to Olena Nikolayenko from Fordham University, the author of the book Youth Movements and Elections in Eastern Europe, about the success of the movement, Professor Nikolayenko distinguished two definitions of success. The short-term goal of removing Serzh Sargsyan from power has been accomplished. But there is a long-term goal of establishing a democratic rule that is yet to be achieved. The Republican party, according to Nikolayenko, can buy time by electing Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister and use the resources available to the ruling elite to sabotage the reforms. “There should be institutional change”, she added, “it’s early to celebrate.” Professor Nikolayenko’s doubts stem from Ukraine where the incumbent powers failed to implement the promised reforms. Nikolayenko thinks that Armenia’s success largely depends on Russia’s political interests in the region and the incoming prime minister’s will to cut ties from its long-standing ally. While the success of the Velvet Revolution was connected to Pashinyan refraining from foreign policy discussions, the country cannot implement reforms by staying in the same political-economic system with Russia.

After a show of extraordinary unity and talent in developing revolutionary tactics, the non-violent civil resistance will achieve its immediate goal when Pashinyan is elected prime minister. But the task of a fully democratic country is yet to be realized. Depending on geopolitical developments and the will of the Republican party to loosen its control over the government institutions, the country can either start the reforms or plunge into a deeper crisis of inaction and conflict.


Ani Karapetyan is a Program Manager at Mentored and holds a Master of Science degree in Global Affairs from New York University. She has received NYU provost’s Global Research Initiatives fellowship to analyze UN’s social and environmental accountability and has published Democracy and Civil Rights related articles.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

Photo Credit: Reuters

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