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Armenia Is Breaking the Post-Soviet Mold

Term limits enforced, oligarchy on the run—all thanks to a targeted, disciplined protest campaign.

Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images

As the sun set over the Armenian capital of Yerevan on May 2, opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan made his way into the city’s central Republic Square to address a crowd of some 150,000 people. For almost three weeks, many of them had served alongside Pashinyan in an unprecedented and peaceful campaign of civil disobedience against the sitting government.

Their new marching orders? Stand down.

“We will now stop our actions for a while and rest,” Pashinyan told his diverse, but largely youthful congregation of supporters. Their “velvet revolution,” as the movement came to be known, seemed to be over. The ruling Republican Party agreed to meet the opposition’s final demands: Pashinyan’s path to the premiership would not be obstructed.

Armenia, it appears, accomplished something remarkable—though not unheard of—in the former Soviet Union: the peaceful removal of a long-sitting leader.

It was a thrilling conclusion to a protest movement that began in mid-April, when the business and oligarch-linked Republican Party—which has ruled parliament since 1998 and has ties to Russia’s Gazprom state gas company—moved to elect former president Serzh Sargsyan to serve as prime minister. 

Sargsyan had ruled the country for the previous 10 years as president, and had reached his term limit. His nomination for prime minister—an empowered position after recent constitutional forms began to shift Armenia toward parliamentary rule—was seen as a classic post-Soviet move to ensure a leader can stay in power while appearing constitutionally-minded.

But Armenia managed to re-write the script.

Almost immediately, Armenians from all walks of life—though, it must be said, as with many protest movements, students played a large role—took to the streets in an ad-hoc, grassroots movement calling for Sargsyan to vacate his post. A week later, on April 23, Sargsyan capitulated. “Pashinyan was right, I was wrong,” he said. “The movement on the streets is against my rule, I will comply.”  

Armenia’s protest movement succeeded where others failed because of smart tactics inspired by the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, says Richard Giragosian, head of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center, a think tank. A campaign of civil disobedience and nonviolence, but particularly with clear, limited goals—resignation of a leader—was the winning strategy.

Ironically, Armenia’s protest movement may have lessons to teach recent analogues in the West. Despite massive movements in the United States in past years, they’ve often struggled to present clear, achievable goals around which to build a sustained campaign. And the fact that the goals were clear and limited to the resignation of a leader, rather than the overthrow of a system, may have played a role in Russia’s relative silence on the Armenian protest movement. When faced with large scale political revolution in Ukraine in 2014, for example, Russia had a lot to say about it.

The Armenian protests came in many forms: parties in the streets, labor strikes, and road closures.

“The idea was to demonstrate the ineptitude of the government in terms of delivering basic services,” Giragosian says, “and embarrass the government into provoking an over-the-top response. The campaign was also designed to be fun, to keep the youth engaged. So it was a rare example of a peaceful, nonviolent overthrow in the post-Soviet space.”

The movement continued in the week following Sargsyan’s resignation, as the ruling Republican Party scrambled to plan its next moves and Pashinyan—a former journalist and, more recently, a member of parliament—consolidated his support among parliamentary opposition factions ahead of a May 1 vote on an interim prime minister.

The Republicans ultimately chose not to nominate a candidate for the post, despite their parliamentary majority, but they did not appear ready to concede to Pashinyan’s unchallenged bid. He lost the vote 45 to 56, triggering a new round of demonstrations with renewed intensity. Rather than mourn their defeat, protestors viewed the move as a sign of looming victory.

Yet, even as the Republicans demonstrated a hard-nosed reticence to dispense with the old, they showed, perhaps unintentionally, a flash of the new. Before obstinately obstructing Pashinyan first attempt to secure the premiership, Republican MPs subjected him to a lively and detailed eight-hour interrogation on a variety of issues, a rare sight in this part of the world.

“We saw, for the first time, a positive demonstration of a parliament acting like a parliament in terms of policy-related questions, almost like the British PMQs sessions,” Giragosian says. “But there was also the negative aspect of a parliament acting like a parliament: partisan posturing.”

But after tens of thousands of protesters responded to Pashinyan’s calls for more strikes, more road blockages, and general acts of civil disobedience across Yerevan the next day, the Republicans appeared to cave. By nightfall, the head of the party appeared to signal they would vote for Pashinyan on May 8.

Armenia’s unprecedented nonviolent revolution, it seems, is a success. It is also an unlikely one, given the nation’s dependence on Russia and the general political trends driving politics in the former Soviet Union.

Many of the Soviet Union’s former satellite states in Eastern Europe managed to change tack and embrace democratic norms following their master’s collapse in 1991. But those nations that were members of that union proper have, for various reasons, largely struggled to break free of Russia’s orbit and have followed similar paths of political development over the past 25 years.

To be sure, many of the former Soviet states have deep historical, cultural and economic ties to Russia and want to maintain them; Armenia is no exception. The small nation of three million people is part of a Moscow-led economic union, and hosts two Russian military bases. Moscow also acts as a security guarantor in a long-running standoff with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Outside observers, noting these relations, expressed some concern that Moscow may intervene on behalf of the Republican Party if things got too far—as they had attempted to do in Ukraine and Georgia. But Pashinyan’s campaign went to great lengths to avoid getting tied up in geopolitical games between Russia and the West. This was all about Armenia, he insisted.

Pashinyan’s challenge will be to maintain his momentum as he, presumably, assumes office and forms a new government. But Pashinyan has rode to victory while saying very little about his own political platform. His popularity was built on general populist sound bites. He assured Russia and other concerned powers that Armenian foreign policy would remain unchanged, and that his movement’s concerns were purely internal. 

The people will expect change, but it is still unclear what form that will take and how long it will take to enact. The patience of the people will be a major factor in Pashinyan’s success. That said, one of his major policy objectives will likely be holding a new general election to ensure Armenia’s political changes are reflected in parliament.

But he would also do well to engage the younger, talented and more open-minded technocrats in the Republican Party to form a broad coalition, Giragosian argues. Although Pashinyan has demonstrated the mettle for leadership, he lacks the depth in personnel around him to staff a government. Some Republicans, like the minister of finance, are simply technocrats with valuable skill in managing problems like the economy.

Whether or not Pashinyan, assuming he secures the premiership on May 8, can govern effectively and deliver a platform that suits both his opponents and supporters, Armenia has already shown that grassroots movements have a role to play in the former Soviet Union. It is a message that the Kremlin, wary of its own people getting ideas in the wake of yet another Putin election, will certainly be keeping an eye on.