Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution ended twenty years of rule by the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA). After large-scale protests, president Serzh Sargsyan unexpectedly resigned in May 2018. Protest leader Nikol Pashinyan became prime minister and began a process of political reform. There had been several years of small and large protests in Armenia before the 2018 events, and activists had become well-organized. After the change of government, they had to rethink their strategies.
In the year following the revolution, activists took divergent pathways. For many civil society actors, the past year was one of reevaluating and building more constructive relations with a reformist government. In the previous two decades, state–civil society relations largely had been adversarial and antagonistic, but this has shifted to some extent. However, even though many civil society actors now seek to work with government, some remain vocal in their criticism of government policies. Armenia is a case where a successful outcome of protests opens the way for a less contentious set of strategies, but where activists remain vigilant as the new government’s promises of reforms still need to be followed through.
Table of Contents
Lead-Up to Revolution
Protests in Armenia during the 2010s were organized by activists working through social movements or smaller grassroots groups locally known as “civic initiatives.” Most of the protests in the 2010s tended to focus on single issues—to save one building or park, to stop transport fee hikes, or to prevent the privatization of pensions—but their emergence was also related to much broader concerns around corruption, the absence of rule of law, the lack of genuine democracy, the rise of oligarchic capitalism, and the failure of political elites to address the needs of ordinary Armenian citizens. Notable protests of the past decade included the 2012 Save Mashtots Park protest and occupation, which stopped oligarchs from seizing space in a public park to build cafes and boutiques; the 2013 100-dram movement, which mobilized against proposed transport fee increases; the 2014 Dem Em (“I am against”) protests on the privatization of pensions; and the 2015 Electric Yerevan protests against the raising of electricity rates.
Some of the protests achieved all or most of their immediate demands, as the government sought to appease protestors by making limited concessions. But by making these concessions, the government avoided addressing the wider structural problems and underlying causes of popular discontent, such as the absence of rule of law and the prevalence of corruption. For the participants, involvement in the protests helped strengthen their experience in and understanding of politics and to expand their interpersonal networks. In this sense, the 2010–2018 period was one in which activists’ social capital and experience was strengthened, even if their ability to achieve broader political transformations was limited.
Alongside the protests around socioeconomic issues, anger with the RPA-led government also intensified in April 2016 after a four-day escalation of Armenia’s ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Until the eruption of fighting, the RPA regime, led by Sargsyan, had sought to silence critics by arguing that the population must rally around the government in the name of national security.1 Following the conflict, which led to the loss of lives and territory, it became clear that the frontline troops had been poorly equipped and government corruption and mismanagement was to blame. In the words of a 2017 Freedom House report on Armenia, the “significant political repercussions” of this moment in the conflict led to “a public outcry over corruption in the military and shattering trust in the Armenian authorities’ ability to ensure security.”2 Thus, by 2018, trust in Sargsyan’s government had fallen sharply, there was widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the regime appeared to be holding on to power through the threat or actual use of violence.
Yet despite the widespread anger and discontent, few people foresaw the far-reaching consequences that would result when then member of parliament (and current prime minister) Pashinyan began his now-famous march through Armenia on March 31, 2018, launching the “Take a step, reject serzh” movement. Many expected that protests would emerge, and perhaps intensify and grow, as they had in previous years, but eventually they would die down as momentum would be lost. Yet unlike in previous years, in 2018, the protests and momentum grew from one day to the next and expanded to cities and towns beyond Yerevan.
Initially, Pashinyan was supported primarily by members of his small Civic Contract political party and a modest number of civil society activists. Within a few weeks of launching his Take a Step movement, however, he managed to win the support of wide swathes of the population, and by mid-April the number of people attending the rallies in Republic Square in Yerevan exceeded 100,000. On some days, the crowd numbers were closer to 200,000. Pashinyan’s demands for Sargsyan’s resignation and for an end to oligarchic rule, corruption, and impunity resonated with many Armenian citizens.3
In spite of the upswell of public opinion, it came as a shock when Sargsyan resigned as prime minister on April 23. On May 8, by a vote of fifty-nine to forty-two and under enormous public pressure on the RPA, the National Assembly elected Pashinyan to serve as Armenia’s new prime minister. Upon taking up his post, he declared victory for the Velvet Revolution and announced the beginning of a new era in Armenia’s history. But it would be another six months until the RPA truly fell from power: in the December 9 snap parliamentary elections, the ruling party suffered a resounding defeat, failing to clear the 5 percent threshold to enter the National Assembly, while the Civic Contract party secured eighty-eight of the assembly’s 132 seats.
Pathways After the Revolution
Since the Velvet Revolution, civil society in Armenia can be seen as having taken two divergent pathways. The first pathway is characterized by the entry of civic activists into institutionalized politics, and the second pathway has involved activists’ steadfast refusal to engage in institutionalized politics and to instead continue to work within civil society.
Institutionalizing Activism Into Mainstream Politics
Since the Velvet Revolution, many civil society actors took up posts in the new government led by Pashinyan. Others joined political parties, such as the Civil Contract party or the Citizen’s Decision Social Democratic Party, and stood in the December 2018 parliamentary elections. For those former activists who chose to join the executive or legislative branches of government, a key factor informing their decision according to interviews with the study’s authors was their desire to scale up their efforts and contribute to Armenia’s socioeconomic and political development. It also was driven by their continued sense of ownership and responsibility for the revolution.
In interviews, those who made this decision described how they felt conflicted as to whether they could make a stronger contribution to the country’s development by entering mainstream politics or by remaining in and working through civil society. As one respondent said,
I have been receiving and declining the offer [to join the government] for two months. . . . I had questions regarding the degree of freedom in decision making, room for action, and another dozen questions. When I was positively reassured, I had no further ground to decline [the offer], as it would mean I am avoiding responsibility. I personally feel somewhat responsible for April 2018 and I don’t want to experience major disappointment.4
Thus, even though many activists have since opted to go into mainstream politics by joining the government or seeking elected office in order to work in a more structured manner, they have not done so without hesitation or fear of sacrificing the degree of autonomy they had as activists to speak freely and to engage in contentious action. But for those who have taken this pathway, the opportunity to be directly involved in shaping Armenia’s future development outweighs the costs to their personal freedom. In the words of another respondent who entered institutionalized politics:
Looking back at my choice now, while little time has passed to draw conclusions, I would rather consider it a correct rather than a wrong decision. The issues are plenty, so they must be addressed and possibly solved.5
For other activists, entering institutionalized politics was not a viable option. They were concerned that the influx of civil society actors into state institutions and the National Assembly, as happened in other postrevolutionary contexts—such as Georgia after the 2003 Rose Revolution and Ukraine after the 2004 Orange Revolution—could lead to the cooptation and silencing of civil society as well as a weakening of civil society’s ability to hold government to account. Some activists argued that it was important to remain outside of institutionalized politics so as to maintain their independence and autonomy. Some also cited their decision to remain in civil society as being driven by their ideological opposition to what they perceive as the growing neoliberal turn taken by the Pashinyan government. As one activist said,
I realized that I would personally need enormous resources in terms of physical energy and mental preparedness after the power shift, because there will be a strong need to fight against neoliberalism which is to follow and I am prepared to do it.6
Before and after the revolution, left-leaning activists have led the critique of neoliberal policies in the country, highlighting how these policies have led to growing poverty and inequality in Armenia. Many of these activists consider the new government’s uncritical move toward neoliberal policies in certain social and economic policy areas as demonstrating an ideological inconsistency; some even consider this shift as a threat to the declared core values and goals of the revolution. Thus, since the revolution, their activism has focused on various social and economic policy areas, notably the proposed flat tax and the country’s continued reliance on mining. Some have described the battle over the future of Amulsar (a controversial gold mine project) as the “first major crisis” of the postrevolutionary government.7
Recently, some activists have been working to support collective self-organization and trade unions, which they see as central to advancing the protection of workers’ rights and capitalizing on an awakened civic consciousness in the public. To them, this line of activity would be an important way of widening civil society space by advocating and developing the principles and ideas of solidarity, political participation, and human rights into wider layers of society.
Many activists who have taken the second pathway continue to have varying degrees of informal ties with members of the legislature and the government, which gives them the opportunity to share their views and to criticize the policy decisions in private. This is not to say that they refrain from criticizing the government in public, but even the most radical activists have thus far avoided making particularly vocal critiques of the new government. They have opted instead to relay their concerns in private or, when making their concerns public, to use language that is more constructive than adversarial. This is done with the acknowledgment that the government is not yet strongly consolidated and that overly harsh criticism might be exploited by supporters of the former regime. As one government critic stated,
I have also decided to not air many of my criticisms publicly. I prefer to communicate these directly to my friends [who are now in government]. I do this so that my criticism isn’t used to backstab them, and instead they can remain steadfast.8
Another important consideration is that much of the media in Armenia, both online and on television, continues to be owned or manipulated by individuals loyal to, or constitutive of, the former regime. This makes open criticism a delicate matter, as criticism of the government becomes coopted by these media channels and the bloggers and social media influencers who actively post on Facebook. For this reason, many activists who consider themselves “critical friends” preface their critiques by stating their overall support of the government so as to differentiate themselves from those they consider pseudo-oppositionists. At times, this can also lead to self-censorship, and some fear that this cushioning of the new government from criticisms, and the latter’s defensiveness to the same, may become a problem in the long term.
Explaining the Pathways
The drivers behind these different pathways are found in structural factors and factors related to individual agency and subjectivity.
Until recently, Armenia was categorized as a “semi-consolidated authoritarian regime” or what some have called a “managed” or “imitated democracy.”9 During its twenty-year rule, the RPA presided over a political system that was characterized by corruption, clientelism, and the absence of the rule of law and an independent judiciary.10 Until 2018, oppositional political parties, including Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party, had tried but failed to build a credible and serious challenge to the regime’s hold on power through elections. Under the RPA regime, many oligarchs were members of parliament or held government posts. Their political positions not only granted oligarchs immunity from prosecution, but also provided them with the opportunity to adopt and alter legislation in order to serve their economic interests.11
Since the revolution, there has been an opening up of space and opportunities for new actors to enter the National Assembly. After the December 2018 parliamentary elections, a large contingent of freshman members entered the National Assembly. Although some critics have argued that some of these new parliamentarians lack the requisite political experience, others state that their principled and committed stances make up for what they may lack in political experience. Interviewees also stated that for some these activists who have entered the government, their ability to affect change often is restricted by the rigidity of institutional bureaucracies. Moreover, some have reported resistance and obstructionist behavior, especially from middle- to low-ranking employees who work in the various ministries or for the previous authorities. In light of such structural resistance and blockage, some new representatives regard their actions in their official capacities as a form of activism in itself, in that they are actively working to put issues on the political or policy agenda in the face of resistance and opposition at every turn.
Individual Subjectivity and Agency
Alongside the opening up of political space and opportunities, the choice of pathways was also related to individual subjectivity: identity, ideological beliefs, and goals. For instance, left-wing activists who have a more radical critique of neoliberalism or who wish to advance more contentious issues (for example, LGBT rights, criticisms of irresponsible mining) do not regard entering institutionalized politics as a viable strategy. Their decision is driven by their commitment to the cause or issue they are advancing, as well as to the importance they place on retaining their independence, distinct identity, and activist capital. Meanwhile, some who chose to join institutionalized politics had to leave higher-paying jobs in the private sector or abandon their entrepreneurial activities in order to take up the public sector posts. These individuals spoke of decreased earnings as a sacrifice that was worth making so as to be able to play an active part in the new government.
When discussing individual choice and agency, the point is not to speculate on the motivations of individual actors, but rather to indicate that individuals’ subjectivity plays a key part, alongside the opening of opportunities, in the selection of pathways. Naturally, it is difficult to determine the factors influencing individual choice, and some individuals also may have acted in an instrumental manner—that is, choosing to enter institutionalized politics for personal self-enhancement or career advancement rather than out of a commitment to a cause or ideology. Yet self-interest and ideological commitment are not mutually exclusive factors.
In postrevolutionary contexts, there often are heightened, if not unrealistic, expectations for the new government that are not easy to realize in the short term or even in the longer term. In addressing the question of which pathways work best, it is important to consider the putative goals of the activists. The revolution brought the need for sustained and even an increased level of political engagement but also for more diverse types of such engagement. Instead of the binary choice of being either with or opposed to the government, there is now more or less a spectrum of modes of relating to mainstream politics—all the way from moving to the government to remaining resolutely protest-minded and protest-generating, especially in the areas of mining and environment.
From historical and comparative literature, it is clear that, in addition to the dangers of state capture of civil society, activists must contend with a diminished ability to hold the state accountable and to pursue more radical and progressive goals.12 Specifically, if the aims of activists are to advance greater social justice and to resist neoliberal policies, they are unlikely to advance these aims by entering institutionalized politics. Civil society often splinters into more compliant and more radical organizations, and this is what happened in Armenia.13 If activists opt to pursue more progressive demands or policy aims that might be considered “radical” in the dominant neoliberal political context, then maintaining a presence outside of government and within civil society is likely to provide them more opportunities and freedom to pursue those objectives. But their choices also depend on whether they want to maintain activist capital as their main mission or whether their aspiration is to change the political order.
Apart from the opposition to neoliberal policies, the postrevolutionary period is marked by the breakdown of the united front that emerged in the days of the revolution. During the protests, people from all classes, walks of life, and political and ideological persuasions were joined in their anger with, and rejection of, Sargsyan and the RPA-led regime. Protesters held banners proclaiming the revolution as one of “love and solidarity” and remarked how strangers seemed to treat each other with more kindness and courtesy during those days. It is, of course, unsurprising that the unity experienced in the heady days of the revolution has dissipated.
In the postrevolutionary period, old divisions, framed in part around ideological and identity issues, have reemerged, and the tensions are being played out in the space of civil society. In particular, marginalized groups within society, including members of the LGBT community, continue to face discrimination and even threats or acts of violence, not merely from government figures but also from actors and groups within civil society. Such divisions became vividly apparent in April 2019, when trans rights activist Lilit Martirosyan made a brief speech to the National Assembly. Following her speech, Martirosyan faced death threats from protestors who had gathered to express their anger with her speech.14
The conflict surrounding Martirosyan’s speech relates to wider issues of identity, human rights, and what some call “national values” or public morality.15 The uproar that followed her address to the assembly can be seen as representative of a wider rift in civil society between conservative groups that proclaim an antigender, anti-LGBT agenda in the name of traditional family values and the groups that advocate the human rights of all citizens of Armenia. Such tensions reflect the growing global conservative antigender countermovement. From attacks on gender studies and feminist or queer scholars and activists in certain countries (such as Brazil, Germany, and Hungary) to campaigns against LGBT rights and even domestic violence legislation (as in Russia), conservative groups throughout the world have mobilized against the demands for equality from women’s and LGBT groups and “have decried ‘gender ideology’ as a weapon aimed at destroying the nuclear family.”16 This example indicates that we cannot view civil society solely from a normative perspective but rather should consider how civil society is an arena for public action in which diverse groups mobilize around shared interests and goals, articulating their divergent demands and claims. In the case of postrevolutionary Armenia, civil society space is not solely the arena of action for progressive, rights-seeking organizations but is also a sphere of action for conservative, right-wing, (ultra)nationalist groups.
It has only been a year since Armenia’s revolution, and it is far too early to draw conclusions about how Armenian civil society will develop. For now, it remains to be seen how the diverse set of civil society groups will develop, what types of state–civil society relations will emerge, and indeed, how the Armenian government will respond.
Armine Ishkanian is an associate professor in social policy and the Academic Lead of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity program at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science.
Sona Manusyan is an assistant professor at the Department of Personality Psychology at Yerevan State University and a cofounder and researcher at the nongovernmental organization Socioscope. Sona’s current research focuses on agency and social change within and beyond civic engagement.
1 Anna Zhamakochyan, “Armenia in the Trap of ‘National Unity,’” openDemocracy Armenia, February 7, 2017, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/armenia-in-trap-of-national-unity/.
2 Hamazasp Danielyan, Armenia—Nations in Transit 2017 Report (Washington, DC: Freedom House, 2017), https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2017/armenia.
3 Armine Ishkanian, “Armenia’s Unfinished Revolution,” Current History 117, no. 801 (2018): 271–276.
4 Interview with an activist and current government official, March 7, 2019.
5 Interview with a former NGO representative and current government official, March 10, 2019.
6 Interview with an environment activist, September 2, 2018.
7 Peter Liakhov and Knar Khudoyan, “How Citizens Battling a Controversial Gold Mining Project Are Testing Armenia’s New Democracy,” openDemocracy Russia, December 3, 2018, https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/peter-liakhov-knar-khudoyan/citizens-battling-a-controversial-gold-mining-project-amulsar-armenia.
8 Interview with an NGO representative, March 11, 2019.
9 Freedom House, Armenia (Washington, DC: Freedom House, 2014), http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2013/armenia#.U2iirV9wbGg; and Mikayel Zolyan, “Armenia,” in The Colour Revolutions in the Former Soviet Republics: Successes and Failures, eds. Donnacha Ó Beacháin and Abel Polese (London: Routledge, 2010), 84.
10 Christoph H. Stefes, Understanding Post-Soviet Transitions: Corruption, Collusion and Clientelism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
11 Armine Ishkanian, Evelina Gyulkhandanyan, Sona Manusyan, and Arpy Manusyan, Civil Society, Development and Environmental Activism in Armenia (Gyumri, Armenia: Qaqhaki Gratun [City Print House], 2013).
12 Marina Muskhelishvili and Gia Jorjoliani, “Georgia’s Ongoing Struggle for a Better Future Continued: Democracy Promotion through Civil Society Development,” Democratization 16, no. 4 (2009), 694; and Llewellyn Leonard, “Characterising Civil Society and the Challenges in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” Social Dynamics: A Journal of African Studies 40, no. 2 (2014) 371–391.
13 Armine Ishkanian, “Self-Determined Citizens? New Forms of Civic Activism and Citizenship in Armenia,” Europe-Asia Studies 67, no. 8 (2015): 1,203–1,227.
14 Palko Karasz, “A Trans Woman Got 3 Minutes to Speak in Armenia’s Parliament. Threats Followed,” New York Times, April 26, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/26/world/europe/armenia-transgender.html.
15 Giorgi Lomsadze, “Armenia Roiled by Transgender Woman’s Speech in Parliament,” Eurasianet.org, April 10, 2019, https://eurasianet.org/armenia-roiled-by-transgender-womans-speech-in-parliament.
16 “Transnational Anti-Gender Politics,” LSE Engenderings Blog, August 29, 2018, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/gender/2018/08/29/transnational-anti-gender-politics/.