Analysis of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution

By Grigor Hakobyan

Summary:

On April 23, 2018 majority of people in Armenia and thousands of compatriots abroad celebrated nonviolent, velvet revolution in the country which lead to the resignation of the ex-President Serj Sarksyan from recently acquired position of Armenia’s Prime Minister. Days after the resignation of Armenia’s PM protest demonstrations in Armenia continue as people demand resignation of the entire ruling government under the leadership of the Republican Party of Armenia, installment of an interim government of national accord and interim Prime Minister, opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan, and the beginning of new parliamentary elections in the country soon afterwards. At this point it is anyone’ s guess what may happen in Armenia next. Although the security situation on Armenia’s borders is not considered critical yet despite large accumulations of Azerbaijani military personnel and hardware on the LoC in the past few days, prolonged uncertainty in the country may embolden Azerbaijan resume its war against Republics of Armenia and Artsakh at any time.

Background:

For more than ten days preceding the resignation of Serj Sarksyan tens of thousands of Armenians engaged in peaceful demonstrations at the Republic Square in Yerevan and other towns and villages throughout Armenia by carrying out acts of civil disobedience and constant street rallies. Despite hundreds of people getting arrested, including Nikol Pashinyan and other protest leaders a few days ago, demonstrators persevered as more people joined them in the process, including war veterans of Four Day War, soldiers from nearby military garrisons and clergymen. A number of cabinet members have resigned within the past few days while two political parties that were part of the coalition government, ARF and Prosperous Armenia exited from the coalition and joined the protestors on the streets of Armenia. Fortunately for everyone involved, despite occasional scuffles that erupted between protesters and police, as well as between protesters and minority supporters of the ruling regime at different times throughout Armenia the protest demonstrations remained peaceful.

In the meantime, Armenia’s National Security Service conducted special operation which led to arrests of several individuals accused of planning to carry out numerous anti-government terrorist attacks throughout the country using remotely controlled IEDs. Large quantities of explosive materials, ammunition and weapons were confiscated as well. The incident is still under investigation as alleged terrorists are being interrogated for more information. Foreign media on the other hand, until recently was largely mute about the events taking place in Armenia. Only after the arrest of protest leaders and the resignation of Armenia’s PM that followed the “velvet revolution” in Armenia received a global coverage by leading American, Russian and European media outlets; foreign diplomatic missions in Armenia struggled to come up with a proper assessment of events taking place in the country and only few days ago made public announcements welcoming the aspirations of Armenian people for change and commending protesters for exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and free assembly through non-violent means of civil disobedience.

Analysis:

It is no secret that the ruling government of Armenia under the leadership of the Republican Party of Armenia doesn’t enjoy the support of the majority of Armenia’s citizens. The Armenian public both at home and abroad accuses them of cultivating a culture of corruption, kleptocracy and mismanagement of economy. Government ministers are viewed as incompetent to solve present day problems and often unwilling to do so due to their own vested interests serviced by the present state of affairs. A history of flawed elections both presidential and parliamentary where people’s voices were largely suppressed or manipulated to their own advantage are tainting the credibility of the RPA. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating on the streets of Armenia demand the resignation of the entire government and even banning RPA from playing any role in the future government of Armenia. Resignations of a few people used as scapegoats to deflect public anger do not suffice at this point. The entire government backed by local oligarchs and certain criminal elements is under public pressure to relinquish its place to the new generation of leaders represented by Nikol Pashinyan and others.

Arguably, the resignation of Serj Sarkisyan as the PM of Armenia can be attributed to many factors. However, there are several factors that need to be taken into consideration more than others. The first factor to consider is the indirect role of Armenia’s military which “allowed” its members to join opposition rallies in Yerevan. Armenia’s military is the most esteem institution in the country that enjoys the utmost respect and support of ordinary citizens and Armenian diaspora. As the guarantor of Armenia’s security, it is on the minds and in the hearts of all Armenians around the world. Therefore, when hundreds of soldiers and war veterans joined the ranks of marching protestors on the streets of Armenia the fate of Serj Sarkisian’s was arguable sealed. As a former war veteran himself who has held multiple high-level security positions in the Armenian military and national security establishment before becoming the President of Armenia and Commander in Chief, Serj Sarkisyan couldn’t ignore the fact that he no longer enjoyed the support of his brothers-in-arms. The causes for displeasure with Sarkisyan’s regime could be attributed to the mismanagement of military resources and incompetence of its leaders for the past twenty-four years which lead to large number of casualties and loss of small patches of territory along the LoC during the Four Day War of 2016.

The second factor to consider is the indirect role of Armenian clergy. Although both leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Garegin II the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church and Aram I of the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia issued non-partisan public declarations encouraging both sides of the conflict to stay calm and work together towards finding peaceful resolutions of public grievances a number of clergymen joined the protesters as they marched at the forefront of demonstrators thus in a way co-leading the opposition against the ruling regime. The Armenian church is one of the pillars of Armenian statehood and an essential component of the Armenian nation that played a pivotal role in the Battle of Sardarbad (1918), Artsakh Liberation Movement (1988-1994) and during Four Day War. Thus, the significance of clergy appearing among the protesters and in someway leading people during rallies could have not been lost on Serj Sarkisyan. In light of the fact that the majority of Armenia’s citizens and the Armenian diaspora abroad associate themselves with the Armenian Apostolic Church, loss of their trust towards the government and the Republican Party of Armenia led by Serj Sarkisyan could have not been ignored.

The third factor to consider is the role of Armenian diaspora. As opposition rallies took place throughout Armenia similar opposition rallies took place in Armenian communities around the world, particularly in France, US and Russia. The global Armenian diaspora could be described as the third pillar of the Armenian national identity and statehood. Since 1988, billions of dollars’ worth of humanitarian aid and business projects were implemented in Armenia. Almost every Armenian community that has a capacity to organize itself and fundraise has done a charity project in Armenia, particularly in Artsakh or is in the process of implementing one by itself or in conjunction with others. A number of Armenian businesses particularly those specialized in IT field have either opened branches in Armenia or moved their entire businesses to Armenia. Despite mixed results and significant blame (for failure of multiple business projects) directed towards the ruling government in Armenia, there are still many diasporan Armenians who are continuing to invest in  their native homeland. While doing business in Armenia many have reportedly encountered the invisible “red tape” and/or other problems that they didn’t anticipate to deal with. As such, the fate of diaspora Armenians towards the ruling government began to fade and more of them began to side with the opposition.

The fourth factor to consider is the role of foreign players in Armenia’s “velvet revolution”. Surprisingly all foreign players in Armenia, Russia: US and Europe at first ignored the rallies, then expressed support for peaceful expression of public’s will and encouraged both sides to find peaceful solution to political crisis in Armenia. Days later, despite balanced statements by Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs a number of Russian media outlets began painting the events in Armenia as another “color revolution” similar to Ukraine’s Maidan which somehow threatened Russian strategic national interests in the region. Such claims are certainly laughable considering that each country develops its national interests based on the strength and size of one’s economy, and the geographic location of their country. Considering that Russia dominates Armenia’s economy and its national security orientation due to threats emanating from aggressive and anti-Armenian policies of Azerbaijan and Turkey, it is inconceivable to imagine that any government in Armenia would consider pursuing an anti-Russian policy within next thirty years. As the experience of Ukraine and Georgia has shown, anti-Russian orientation results in the loss of territories and economic turmoil due to eruption of wars within the country or as it may be in Armenian case between the two or more countries. Given present circumstances and assuming a number of factors to remain constant, an anti-Russian foreign policy will not benefit Armenia.

Conclusion/Recommendations:

As mentioned above, due to geographic circumstances and unresolved territorial disputes with Azerbaijan and Turkey, Armenian foreign policy cannot be anti-Russian or anti-Western. First and foremost, the Armenian foreign policy (as well as domestic politics) must be pro-Armenian and second it must be able to balance between East (Russia) and West (US/EU) similarly to how ancient Armenian kingdoms balanced between Rome and Byzantium, between Persian Empire and Ottoman Empire, Babylonian Empire and Assyrian Empire, etc. Furthermore, Armenia should make slow but steady steps towards restoring its sovereignty; an example of that will be taking over the total control of Armenia-Iran border and later on Armenia-Turkey border within next five to ten years while continuing to host Russian military bases on its soil until the need to have them is no longer there. Furthermore, any government that comes to power in Armenia needs to work towards strengthening of the Armenian state until it is capable of defending its territory and political sovereignty on its own, with very limited assistance from other powers similar to Switzerland or Israel.

Considering present state of affairs in Armenia it is necessary to have a seamless transition of political power in Armenia quickly and peacefully to restore the political stability in the country. Both sides of the conflict, the ruling government and the opposition must realize that they cannot be maximalist in their demands and end up in a situation where one side is a winner and the other side is a loser. Both sides need to compromise to achieve any tangible results and it will take long time to accomplish them. In the meantime, military and the church must be kept outside of political processes in the country as they represent all people of Armenia and cannot be taking sides in a political discourse between competing political forces within the country. Politics must be left to politicians and the civil society of Armenia to sort out using democratic institutions and electoral process enshrined in the constitution of the Republic of Armenia.

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