One year ago, a bearded man dressed in a simple khaki t-shirt and green pants with a black Adidas cap on his head started marching from Armenia’s second-largest city Gyumri, towards Yerevan – the capital of the country – to protest against the totalitarian regime, and all the dirty perks associated with it. He documented the journey through live videos on Facebook, what not only efficiently mobilized the supporters but also, somehow, forever engraved his name in the annals of history. People of many ideologies joined Nikol Pashinyan in what, two weeks after, resulted in a glorified demonstration in the centre of Yerevan. What was initially intended as the step of the citizen ‘against hopelessness and for dignity’, resulted in the march in which the majority of Armenian’s participated. The peaceful democratic revolution was inevitable.
Today marks the first anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution” – the peaceful movement for democratic rule in the country troubled by Russia-backed quasi-dictators for almost thirty years – since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Social unrest was triggered after the Republican party did not exclude President Serzh Sargsyan from the list of potential Prime Ministers. The country recently underwent the constitutional reform and had changed from Presidential to Parliamentary system, what some claim, was Sargsyan’s plan to breach the inevitable end of his Presidential mandate.
Originally intended as a political campaign “Take a Step, Reject Serzh” grew into the popular social movement. On the one hand, citizens fed-up with a controversial and never-ending pro-Russian rule were continuously chanting the slogan on the gatherings spread across the whole country. While on the other hand, some creative citizens dedicated songs to the movement for change and even put the super-slogan on their football jerseys.
On the verge of losing power, Serzh Sargsyan agreed to talk with Nikol Pashinyan about what he considered as a short-lived and weak protest. The Prime Minister also reminded Pashinyan about the bloody protests from ten years ago, what some consider as an implicit political warning. Both agreed to talk, yet, apparently, the ideas of what this discussion should have looked like varied a lot. Three minutes in, the leader of the opposition walked out of the meeting claiming that Sargsyan wanted to ‘blackmail’ him – a technique that many would consider as a mutated remnant of the Soviet, and then pro-Russian regime.
In the aftermath of the failed talks and increased social engagement in the freedom movement, Nikol Pashinyan was arrested by the masked police and detained in the secret place for a day. Yet, what Prime Minister Sargsyan considered as a weak protest resulted in even bigger civil disobedience, with some hundred thousand people flooding to the streets. Eventually, on April 23rd, in a letter addressed to the nation, Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan acknowledged his mistake: “Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was mistaken. There are a number of solutions in the current situation, but I will not resort to any of them. That is not my work style. I am giving up the post of the country’s prime minister.”
To commemorate the anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution”, I sat down with Alen Tadevosyan – one of the brightest representatives of Armenian diaspora at IE University – to discuss the past, present, and future of Armenia. The condensed and edited version of our conversation follows.
You mentioned how Nikol Pashinyan loves symbolism. Can you elaborate on that?
Pashinyan is a kind of a social architect, who used symbolism strategically and efficiently. The nature and name of the movement were symbolic from the beginning when Pashinyan started from Gyumri – the second-largest city of Armenia – and marched for fourteen days to Yerevan. “My Step” had a meaning: Pashinyan was doing his step and if everyone else did their own step, together we could have achieved our dreams.
“On April 23rd, in a letter addressed to the nation, Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan acknowledged his mistake: “Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was mistaken.”
Another symbolic object was the poem Pashinyan wrote, that later was turned into the anthem of the revolution, in which he tells his story. Also, there was a slogan “Do Your Step, Reject Serzh” – a union of two separate movements. It was one of the things that would motivate people. Even though you can be singing the song at home, you make yourself want to go and be part of the movement. You do not feel that it is ugly political distress, but a social celebration of something bigger.
When they were walking from Gyumri to Yerevan, a stray dog joined them all the way to the capital and was even around during the protests, until it got injured and had to be taken to the shelter. The dog became part of the movement.
Pashinyan also had the beautiful catch-phrase he used frequently: “Therefore, long live freedom! Long live the Republic of Armenia! Long live all of us and our children – who already live in a free and happy Armenia!”. It was a beautiful moment because, before the win, the line was in the future tense, but after, it became the present.
How big was the role of social media before, and during, the revolution?
I think that without social media there would not have been a revolution. Due to the decentralized nature of the protests, Pashinyan did not have to be present on some particular square, he just talked to the people and gave them the plan of action through live streams, so that everyone could have done what was needed in different areas. It was like a check-mate to the police, who only knew how to address the protest gathered in one particular place. That’s how he kept in touch with everyone. Say me, being far away from Armenia during the events, I could only follow it through social media.
Do you think that the “Velvet Revolution” was sponsored by the West?
I don’t think so. Hardly, anyone ever believed in the possibility of the peaceful revolution in Armenia without a full-scale civil war. Neither the external powers had any incentive to intervene, given the current situation in Syria and other destabilized countries. Probably they learned the lesson that perhaps, it is better not to interfere in local matters because it can easily get out of hand.
It was a pro-Armenian movement that due to Pashinyan’s commitment, rhetoric and leadership resulted in the large-scale movement – a revolution. Sooner or later the regime would have changed; nothing was accepted by citizens anymore.
How do you see the short-term future of Armenia in the aftermath of the revolution?
I think that the short-term goals of the revolution have already been largely achieved. For the first time since the Soviet Union collapsed, Armenia had democratic elections where people could have cast the ballot for the people they wanted. In the future two or three years, the base of the revolution should be re-established, which would be democratic elections, plurality, and economic and political fairness.
“Hardly, anyone ever believed in the possibility of the peaceful revolution in Armenia without a full-scale civil war. Neither the external powers had any incentive to intervene, given the current situation in Syria and other destabilized countries.”
Role and perception of Armenia as a country on the international stage changed as well. Before, it was a small country that could not organize itself and, as a result, the international community was not that much interested. Now, when they see that we had peacefully achieved democratic regime, the politicians like Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel are acknowledging Armenia as a country, with which doing business is possible.
What about the long-term future?
One of the long-term goals would be the movement towards liberal democracy in every aspect of the word. It should be in the scope of the law to establish and create the incentives for new businesses to enter the free and competitive market and to make sure that people who violated the law are brought to the full responsibility. We need to finish the process of democratization by integrating with international organizations and need to balance the relationships with Russia and the West.
Another big impact of the revolution on the long-term future will be the issue of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Before, it was dictator Aliyev talking to dictator Sargsyan. Now, dictator Aliyev will be talking to democratically elected Pashinyan. Aliyev’s past frequent accusations that Armenian dictatorial rule is oppressing their sovereignty would not work anymore. Now there are more possibilities for democratic negotiations. At least Armenia is definitely in favor of that.