Yerevan's Republic Square. (c) Gevorg Ghazaryan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.On the evening of 23 April, Armenia celebrated the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan, the man who had ruled Armenia for ten years as president — and for a week as prime-minister. Strangers hugged and congratulated one another, cars honked their horns, and shops ran out of champagne. Everybody celebrated in their own way: some put tables in the streets and marked the occasion traditionally, with vodka and a barbecue, while others danced to Berlin-style techno music in bars. Still, the happiness seemed universal.
Today, on 25 April, the protesters are back on the streets. As one of the protesters said to Radio Liberty correspondent on the station’s live feed: “We have overthrown the tsar, now we need to overthrow tsarism.” Formally, the protests have a new target — acting prime-minister Karen Karapetyan, who represents the (still) ruling Republican Party, which at least at the time of writing, possessed the majority in Armenia’s parliament.
Apparently, the Republicans are hoping to form a government and secure power for the transition period before a snap election is held. This is understandable, since it was mostly administrative resource and election bribes that allowed Republicans to secure a majority in the 2017 parliamentary election. If RPA lose access to government, their electoral result will be significantly lower. The Republican Party has in recent years become a kind of a trade union of bureaucrats and businessmen, whose only reason to be in the party was access to government resources. Losing power may result in RPA’s fragmentation and demise. Even though the party sacrificed Serzh Sargsyan, the Republicans are extremely reluctant to let go of their hold on power.
None of this seemed even remotely possible even a month ago. The success of the protest movement has been a surprise not only to analysts, but even its leaders
However, it is unlikely that Armenia’s opposition, led by charismatic former journalist Nikol Pashinyan, will stop halfway. Pashinyan’s supporters are demanding to the formation of a provisional government under the leadership of a “people’s candidate” (it is obvious that they mean Pashinyan). They argue that only a provisional government is able to ensure that the elections are free and fair and the will of the people is respected. Pashinyan is increasingly acting like the future head of Armenia’s executive branch.
On the evening of 24 April, he held a press conference that was attended by international press, met with ambassadors, and is making statements on both internal and foreign policy. Thus, in the press conference Pashinyan was careful to stress that the movement he represents was focused only on internal affairs, and that if he came to power there would be no major changes in Armenia’s foreign policy, whether in relations with Russia, EU or USA. Several political forces have already declared their support for Pashinyan, including those that used to play role of the “systemic opposition”. Even if a small number of Republican members of parliament defect to Pashinyan, he will have enough votes to form the government. The Republican Party will be able to withstand this pressure and keep its hold on power for some time, but it is obvious that the political system so carefully constructed by Sargsyan will not outlive its creator for long. The protesters have already reframed their main slogan from “Reject Serzh” to “Reject HHK” (HHK is the name of the Republican Party in Armenian).
25 April: Republic Square, Yerevan. Source: Mikayel Zolyan. None of this seemed even remotely possible even a month ago. The success of the protest movement has been a surprise not only to analysts, but even its leaders. Arguably, when the protests were starting, the most the protest leaders could have hoped for was to unify the opposition and complicated the transition to parliamentary republic, thus harming the legitimacy of Serzh Sargsyan. But as often happens in authoritarian regimes, when the protests passed a certain threshold, the government was no longer able to stop them.
One of the reasons why these protests have been so successful lies in the broad coalition that Pashinyan and his team have been able to build. Apparently, Sargsyan and his plans to remain in power indefinitely were so unpopular with the majority of Armenians that the protests united people across the political spectrum — people from different social classes and with different lifestyles. On the days of the protests, one could see bearded hipsters and “rabiz” guys in tracksuits (the Armenian version of “gopnik” subculture), “glamorous chicks” and short-haired feminists, people on old Volkswagens and people in Mercedes jeeps, all taking part in the same protest actions. At the same time, the most active force of the protests were the youth, university and even high school students.
“We have overthrown the tsar, now we need to overthrow tsarism”
In addition, this was also probably the most gender-balanced protest in Armenia so far. While usually protests in Armenia are dominated by angry young men (or depressed old men), this time it was different: there were almost as many women on the streets as men, and at certain points the women even outnumbered men (especially given that men were more likely to be detained or beaten up by the police). The protesters were creative and technically savvy and at the same time less prone to violence than had been the case in the previous protests, which meant that for the police it was more difficult to justify the violent repression.
The protests have also been decentralised: Pashinyan and other protest leaders acted as initiators and coordinators of the protests, but unlike the previous protests the opposition did not have a clear hierarchical structure. That is why, when on 22 April Nikol Pashinyan and other leaders were arrested, the arrest had the opposite effect of what was intended. The government most likely hoped that the arrest of Pashinyan would have on the movement the same effect that detention of Levon Ter-Petrosyan during the March 2008 protests that accompanied Sargsyan’s rise to power. According to this scenario, after the protest leader’s arrest, protests would lose leadership and slide into chaos and violence, justifying state repression.
However, things played out very differently this time. After some initial shock, supporters of the movement started going out to the streets. Improvised protests started all over Armenia. In the evening ,the largest rally throughout the protest took place in Yerevan’s Republic Square. It was probably then that the ruling elite realised that things were over. It was obvious that only repression on a massive scale could stop the protests at that point, but Sargsyan had neither the international, nor internal support for such a move. And so, on 23 April, Sargsyan issued a statement that contained words that immediately became legendary: “Pashinyan was right, I was wrong.”
Whether Karen Karapetyan will make a similar statement to Sargsyan is up to the people on Armenia's streets — and more specifically, their numbers.