ZOiS Spotlight 21/2018 by Silvia Stöber (6 June 2018)
Democracy seems to be on the defensive everywhere. Systems of autocratic rule like China’s are being presented as successful models for the future. In Armenia, former president Serzh Sargsyan was preparing to extend his time in power following the example of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Yet like many others, he had underestimated citizens’ dissatisfaction when he moved from the office of president to the post of prime minister, which had been given greater powers after a constitutional referendum.
What was unexpected—at least to begin with—was the dynamic with which the peaceful protest movement developed around opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan and swept the whole country within a few weeks. Sargsyan and his Republican Party of Armenia could not find a counter-strategy. On the contrary: their reactions only inflamed citizens’ displeasure further. And so, after just a few days in his new post, Sargsyan resigned. In the end there was nothing left for the Republican members of parliament but to elect Pashinyan as the country’s new head of government.
Many observers, especially abroad, were sceptical about whether Pashinyan and his supporters would manage to complete their ‘velvet revolution’. Too high were the expectations of the charismatic leader, too low was the movement’s level of experience with democracy, too powerful were the highly corrupt systems of business and politics, and too tough were the economic and social circumstances. And not least, too great was Russia’s influence as military protector and controller of important parts of Armenia’s infrastructure.
Close to the people in the ‘new Armenia’
Yet Pashinyan has dealt with his first weeks in office without any serious mistakes. The level of enthusiasm among the population is still high. Protests continue against Republicans in major positions in universities and the mayor’s office in Yerevan, and against the mining companies that are exploiting the country’s natural resources.
In the meantime, Pashinyan has twice called on the street protesters to channel their efforts through the country’s institutions. At the same time, he and his supporters have sought to uphold the impression of a fundamental shift and the start of a ‘new Armenia’ through simple but popular measures.
For example, the prime minister maintains his proximity to the population through regular live conversations on Facebook. Deputy prime minister Ararat Mirzoyan wants to do away with some of the five cars that are available to him in his position. Education minister Arayik Harutyunyan has taken the metro home from work. President Armen Sarkissian has danced with demonstrators in front of his residence and invited a group of children into his office for ice cream. And diaspora minister Mkhitar Hayrapetyan has dined in an Armenian-Syrian bistro.
All this comes across as refreshingly new and close to the people. The Republicans, by contrast, would typically barricade themselves in expensive restaurants and behind the tinted windows of heavy four-by-fours.
Investigations into oligarchs
Initial efforts are being made to tackle fundamental problems. Health minister Arsen Torosyan has called for every form of corruption in the ministry and the health services to be reported to him.
Investigations have been opened against one of Armenia’s most notorious oligarchs, Samvel Aleksanyan, for tax fraud. He chaired the finance and economy committee in the parliament, where he sits as an independent close to the Republicans. Aleksanyan is known as a sugar baron and controls the imports of sugar, flour, oil, and other basic foodstuffs. The prices for these products in his ‘city supermarkets’ in Yerevan are comparable with those in Germany, even though employees in the South Caucasian republic earn on average less than €300 a month. The poverty rate is 30 per cent.
Some protests directly targeted Aleksanyan’s supermarkets. In a country with fewer than 3 million inhabitants, it is widely known how he and other businesspeople exploited the country’s isolation—specifically through the conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan. People were resentful not only that food prices were high but also that small and medium-sized enterprises had no chances to compete.
Only a few sectors, including tourism and IT, are not controlled in this way. Both areas employ Armenians who have studied or worked abroad or who come from the large diaspora community. It is for them that the economy now needs to become more open.
The Republicans’ withdrawal from government can also be understood as a realisation that too much was expected of the people. It is questionable how constructively the Republicans will act towards Pashinyan’s government with their continued parliamentary majority, especially in terms of the aim to change the voting law and hold new elections before the end of the year. The fact that a few days ago two Republicans left their parliamentary group is being seen by Armenian journalists as an indication to that effect.
Prime minister on probation
Among the imponderable issues for the new government are foreign policy and, in particular, the behaviour of Russia. Pashinyan and his supporters have decided to maintain the status quo of a close relationship with Russia and, in doing so, sought to avoid an aggressive reaction from the leadership in Moscow. An important factor in that decision was the fact that the protest movement was a peaceful, domestic event without geopolitical implications.
Experts like Richard Giragosian of the Regional Studies Centre in Yerevan also take the view that the Russian leadership had misunderstood just as badly as the Republicans how powerful and well organised the ‘civil disobedience’ was. Pashinyan connected with the experienced civil-society activists after they overcame their considerable scepticism towards any engagement with politics. Some of them now occupy important positions in the government and parliament but continue to be critical of the political system as a whole.
Hundreds of others have remained active in civil society. They are sceptical of Pashinyan’s rise to charismatic leader. In the words of women’s rights activist Lara Aharonian, he now needs to prove himself in the role of prime minister. And in case he deviates from that path and commits serious mistakes, activists say, he will be defied—just as the Republicans were. Nobody should understand this better than Pashinyan.
Silvia Stöber has more than ten years’ experience as an independent journalist focusing on the post-Soviet space. She works for ARD, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Tagesspiegel, and other publications.