2 May, central Yerevan. (c) Ani Djaferian/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution”, declared by protest leader and parliamentarian Nikol Pashinyan, is shaking this small country’s towns and villages, bringing many of its citizens out onto the streets. Over the past three weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have blocked roads and public spaces in a bid to paralyse public transport, picketing public institutions and transport hubs. Their demands? The resignation of Serzh Sargsyan, who has ruled the country since 2008. Sargsyan’s eventual resignation, on 23 April, shocked everyone — and not only in Armenia. The Yelk (Way Out) opposition alliance, which gained slightly more than seven percent of the vote at the last parliamentary elections, has, in effect, brought down the ruling Republican Party’s parliamentary majority and the government. The past few weeks may taken their toll on people’s nerves, but the protests have been peaceful, without any loss of life.
Last week, the Republican Party frustrated attempts to appoint Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister in parliament. But there’s grounds to believe that Republican members of parliament will support the opposition leader on 8 May. Pashinyan, meanwhile, is promising the Armenian public simple things — and society has, it seems, on the whole believed him. But people don’t forget that they also believed Serzh Sargsyan when he first ran for president in 2008.
Daniel Ioannisyan, the head of the Union of Informed Citizens NGO, reminds me that Sargsyan used to assure Armenia voters that he’d never permit the country to regress in any field — whether the economy, democratic institutions or human rights. That was in 2008. And a year later, Armenia experienced an economic downturn. Back then, Sargsyan explained this situation by referring to the global financial crisis. In 2013, Ionnisyan tells me, Sargsyan stated that “a government, which cannot guarantee seven percent of economic growth, should resign”. The government, in the end, couldn’t guarantee that either. But in 2015, the authorities carried out a constitutional referendum, which transferred significant powers from the position of president to the prime minister. Sargsyan thus prepared a third term for himself as Armenia’s leader. As it turned out, Armenian society didn’t support this move.
Meanwhile, roughly 30% of Armenians live below the poverty line — unemployment is on the rise, with a third of people unemployed. The country’s external debt has risen, making up 55% of GDP by the end of 2017. And the number of families leaving the country for a better life has increased — over Serzh Sargsyan’s two presidencies, roughly 300,000 have left Armenia. According to official statistics, slightly less than three million live in Armenia — in reality, it’s much lower, and a significant proportion lives in the capital, Yerevan. And outside Yerevan, the rates of poverty and unemployment are higher.
Karen Voskanyan. I’m in the village of Pokr Vedi on the Ararat plain, just south of Yerevan. Mount Ararat, over the Turkish border, is clearly visible from here, but Karen Voskanyan, 33, isn’t much interested in the landscape. He needs to feed his seven young boys. Though the state pays the Voskanyan family 10,000 drams (roughly £15) per child per month, there still isn’t enough money to make ends meet — and it’s still hard for Karen to get by working odd jobs.
“I’ve got a small patch of land, but unfortunately I can’t develop it,” Karen tells me. He’s tried, but there’s not enough money for equipment, water, fertilisers. The lack of money and weather means that whatever he does do never works out. “I barely managed to pay off all my loans, I don’t want anything more to do with the banks.”
“Of course, we didn’t expect to see so many people come out on the streets. We went to Yerevan ourselves to take part in the protests”
Now Karen’s planning to leave to work in Russia: “I’ll work in construction. I’m trained as a bricklayer and tiler.” He’s worked in Russia before and says that he can make 50,000-60,000 roubles (£800-950) a month there.
Avet Manukyan, who’s the father of four, is facing a similar problem. I meet him in his garden, which he was expecting to give a good harvest‚ but frosts have taken half of it. He’s also now planning to work in Russia.
Avet Manukyan. People here aren’t much interested in politics. But they know about everything to do with agriculture. For instance, they were pleased by Nikol Pashinyan’s recent statement about an amnesty on penalties and fines associated with overdue consumer and agricultural loans, and a reduction on interest rates. But these statements remain just that — statements — and young people are leaving to work in Russia.
“Of course, we didn’t expect to see so many people come out on the streets. We went to Yerevan ourselves to take part in the protests,” villagers tell me, saying that they hope “there’ll be more justice” in Armenia.
It should be said that the vast majority of village leaders are members of the Republican Party, and this means that here people voted, as a rule, for the ruling party during the 2017 parliamentary elections. In election season, roads were repaired, fertilisers brought in and there was constant access to irrigation water. Then the problems began again. To be solved in time for the next election cycle.
“All this because the government doesn’t change for decades,” the villagers tell me. “The people who are in power forget about their promises and begin to think about very different things — and not about the people.”
Republican public and elected officials have in fact made statements to the effect that the “people don’t know themselves what they want” — and this was their main mistake. Armenian society understood all too well what it was doing and why. It was impossible not to notice that the authorities were stagnating, and the country needed a breath of fresh air. Nikol Pashinyan understood all too well that people were suffering, otherwise they wouldn’t leave the country to work or live abroad, instead staying at home for jobs that were adequately paid.
Avshar village, Ararat province. There’s problems in the village of Noyakert, too. And although Ovannes Arutunyan, the head of the village (and a Republican Party member), tells me that 2,000 people live here, not all of them are managing on the agricultural front.
For example, grape- and vegetable growers aren’t happy with the trade prices for their produce. The companies that take their produce pay 120-130 drams per kilo of grapes, while they need to be paid 150-160 drams per kilo of they’re going to make any money. For a kilogramme of tomatoes, the villagers will get 30-40 drams. “Of course, this isn’t enough to cover fertiliser, rent for equipment, water.”
“I always view new authorities with suspicion, although I can’t say that everything was wonderful under the old ones”
If you add the fact that the intermediary companies pay for produce six months (and sometimes a year) after they hand it over, then you understand where the money often goes: paying off loans and other payments.
“I always view new authorities with suspicion, although I can’t say that everything was wonderful under the old ones,” Georgy Paravyan, a resident of Noyakert, tells me. Georgy grows melons, grapes and tomatoes on his land. “We don’t know anything about the new people in power. We have their promises, and we need to see how far they’ll be implemented,” he says. According to this farmer, a lot will depend on people themselves — the land can feed you if, of course, you treat people in rural areas right. “Of course, the government should be accountable. Stability is good only when people’s prosperity rises too.”
Georgy Paravyan. The grapes grown in Ararat are the best in the world, the farmers tell me. And the wine, naturally, isn’t bad either. But, as Georgy tells me, that is yet to be recognised commercially: “While the economic ties between Russia and Georgia deteriorated after 2008, Armenia didn’t manage to take the Georgian wine niche on the Russian market. “But this is already politics, not economics,” he concludes in a business-like manner.
People in Ararat remember well when Armenia signed the agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, but the sharp fall of the Russian economy and rouble meant that the export of Armenian wines to Russia dropped by 70%. The wine and cognac factories couldn’t afford to buy the villagers’ grapes at the previous rate, and a lot of produce went to rot. This was the first major shock to Armenian agriculture after Serzh Sargsyan refused the Association Agreement with the European Union in 2013 and chose to join the EEU.
At the bottom of the Khor Virap monastery, local kids offer tourists the opportunity to release doves into the sky. The doves soar in the sky, circle over the Turkish border and then return to their nests in Armenian villages. Just like Armenians the world over, waiting to return home.
This time, it’s Nikol Pashinyan who’s promised a just and prosperous Armenia. People are incredibly optimistic right now, but everyone understands: if another government stagnates once again and forgets why it’s there, then the people know what to do if they need to remind them.