The long history of Armenia’s shift to the West

Armenian Revolution Armenia

In 2018, The Economist proclaimed Armenia the country of the year.

What prompted the leading global weekly to put such an intense spotlight on a small and peripheral country?

It was of course, the events that had taken place in Armenia that year called the “Velvet Revolution” or frequently “Reject Serzh,” or the “Revolution of Love,” the “Sneakers Revolution,” but definitely not a “color” revolution.

Some Armenia politicians did not call it a revolution at all, even as it was happening. Others did but changed their mind later.

But strategic assessment takes time. And the global diplomatic roller-coaster does not allow those in charge to simply revert to past actions. Every day, we wake up to a new political theme, new political crisis, and new challenge.

We live in an overwhelming “now.”

The common foreign policy of the European Union still attracts a lot of criticism – as much as the performance of the office of its high representatives.

Big EU states are blamed for pushing their national foreign policy agenda independently and trying to use the common foreign policy mechanism mainly for pedagogical purposes – to align smaller EU states with their views.

Small EU Member States are sometimes criticized for narrow-mindedness and vetocracy, for delaying the elaboration of a common denominator by insisting on their issues and egoistic interests

At the same time, common foreign policy has its undeniable achievements. One of the most difficult tests has been the war in Ukraine and the policy towards Russia.

Despite much pressure, the EU has been able to stick to its principles and maintain sanctions.

The high representatives have played leading roles in the Iranian nuclear deal and Kosovo-Serbia reconciliation, both examples of relevance. Yet they have been absent from the Normandy Format on Ukraine or the Minsk Group on Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh).

Artsakh Armenia

Armenia is one country where the main leverage the EU had at its disposal is developmental assistance.

Together with its Member States the Union has accounted for roughly 60% of all foreign assistance to Armenia in recent years – as in the case of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

Armenia has never stated that it sees its future in the EU; however, it has declared on many occasions, before and after the revolution, that it shares common values with the EU.

Armenia wants a good image in the West as part of its balancing act, due its security dependence on Russia.

As one Armenian civil society activist observed before the revolution, “because of weak internal legitimacy, the regime needed strong external legitimacy.”

In 2019, EU aid exceed €70 million to Armenia.

The EU has provided more than half a billion euros to Armenia since its independence.

EU assistance is not meant to be charity. It is not about alleviating the hardships experienced by a poor country even if Armenia for many years has been categorized as the second poorest country in the wider European region.

Assistance is meant to promote modernization and foster reforms.

The defensive reflex, especially on the part of managers, is to go for big projects.
In Armenia, this meant a preference for large infrastructure projects or large comprehensive contracts.

This resulted by 2019 in more than €150 million in frozen or unused funds. The EU in recent years has been involved in supporting areas that inevitably have political connotations, for example, reform of the judiciary.

By 2018, the Union had invested more than €50 million in reforming the Armenian judiciary. The money was generally spent well in projects related to, for instance, e-governance projects dealing with legal services.

However, the Armenian judiciary continued to suffer from the lack of public trust, mismanagement of justice, and clear cases of politically motivated sentences

From 2016, the Armenian side was supposed to implement quite an innovative instrument – the Human Rights Budget Support Agreement.

Armenians had difficulty in carrying out some of its benchmarks such as those relating to the conduct of elections or preventing domestic violence.

By 2018, of the more than €30 million allocated to Armenia to help it fight corruption, only about half of it could be spent because of the unsatisfactory performance on the part of the government. Authorities did not like it when EU diplomats were talking about corruption, but the public on the other hand appreciated the critical voice of the EU.

This voice has earned public sympathy for the EU.

When the EU was praising the government’s determination to adopt legislation on illicit enrichment or domestic violence the opposition was visibly disappointed.

Obviously it is difficult to predict revolutions. Paradoxically it is quite easy to explain why they had to happen. In retrospect we can see Revolutionary developments coming naturally, we can see them fermenting for months or years.

The 2018 Armenian Revolution, like others, appeared at the time as a big surprise to everybody – the authorities, the foreign partners, the people and even to the leaders of the revolution themselves.

The situation in the Armenian society was visibly tense at that time.

The level of dissatisfaction was high.

In a country where the official poverty rate was higher than 30%, the level of unemployment higher than 40%, and the level of emigration higher than 10% of the population in the last 10 years-frustration is more than legitimate.

The anger periodically reached the level of condensation now and then the people went to the streets to manifest their emotions.

In the years 2015–2018 it happened more than once. In the summer of 2015, thousands of young Armenians staged the Electric Yerevan protests.

As in every revolt, the spark was very pedestrian.

That time it was the price of electricity.

The protests marked the unknown before the rise of social media and internet mobilization. This also helped to make the protests (unlike some previous) more known internationally.

The April 2016 war in Nagorno-Karabakh had a shocking effect on the mindset of Armenians.

First, the widely held view, not only among the ruling elite, that Armenia could cope by itself with any Azeri threat was put into question.

Westerners had heard this view as a near mantra complemented by the explanation that the alliance with Russia was motivated exclusively by the Turkish factor in any conflict scenario.

It became real that the Azerbaijanis were winning the arms race and time is on their side.

The perception of Russia was put in a new light.

Armenians were greatly disturbed by the fact that the Azeri side was using military equipment supplied to Azerbaijan by Russia.

Quite sizable crowds of protesters gathered not once in front of the Russian Embassy in Yerevan.

The crowning argument claimed by the then authorities that although they had failed to deliver economic prosperity, they were solid in delivering security, became quite shaky.

Armenians were stunned by the news that their soldiers were not equipped properly because the money allocated for the army was lost to corruption schemes.

Armenians realized that corruption had become a matter of national security.

The Sasna Tsrer attack on a Yerevan police station in July 2016 was motivated by the feeling of betrayal.

The vast majority of Armenians considered the Tsrer attack and hostage-taking as a criminal act if not even a totally unacceptable terrorist attack. Yet, thousands of Armenians who condemned the act as such went to the streets to express their solidarity with their motives.

Many observers, including foreign ones, feared a possible angry popular reaction to the Armenian April 2017 parliamentary elections.

The authorities deployed police forces discretely (away from the eyes of foreign observers) in some central quarters of the city.

The opposition cried foul again, accusing the ruling party of manipulations.
Against all fears, despite the quite poor results of the opposition, the streets were quiet.

For the first time since the mid-1990s, there was no “street action” after the elections.

Most of the so-called colour revolutions elsewhere were provoked by unfair elections.

The calm after the 2017 elections in Armenia may have sent a misleading signal to the ruling elite that they were now fully capable of controlling the political emotions of the people

Technically, the elections were held to a much better standard than before.
Thanks to the technology employed, some of the traditional skulduggery like ballot-box stuffing, carousel voting, and tabulation falsification were much more difficult to repeat.

Yet, their overall perception was full of distaste.

They were heavily stained by massive vote-buying practices. To some extent, the new electoral code with its so-called ranking system encouraged dirty methods among candidates, including primarily within the same party.

But the main reason was mobilization at any costs by the local leaders of the Republican Party who, a few days before the election, began to panic that they might have to face a run-off in the so-called second round of the election where the outcome would be unpredictable.

Rumors were spreading that Prosperous Armenia (led by local oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan) might even come in first.

“If we lose, you will all go to jail” was reportedly told to the Republican activists in a message from the top at one closed local meeting.

Whether justified or not, the fears pushed the party activists to use all possible ways, including bribes and administrative pressure or direct blackmail, to win votes.

And they did.

The price of a vote was never too un-affordable in Armenia—$20 or so per vote.

After the 2017 parliamentary elections, the mood of the Armenian society was even gloomier than before.

“We behaved like zombies,” confessed one civil society member to a Western diplomat.

It was only a matter of time when this gap would produce turbulence.

According to some opinion polls a few years ago, Armenia was the most nostalgic about the Soviet Union-more than Russia, more than Belarus.

In some respects, it cannot be surprising.

During the Soviet times, Armenia was relatively prosperous. Huge industrial enterprises were built, even whole new industrial towns.

Armenia, a republic at its peak of some 4 million people, even had its own car factory manufacturing a vehicle called “Yeraz”, meaning poetically “Dream,” deriving from the acronym of the Yerevan car factory.

The collapse of the Soviet Union coincided for Armenia with war sacrifices and an economic meltdown.

The tragic 1988 earthquake killed some 35,000 people and razed to the ground the second-biggest Armenian city—Gyumri, as well as other towns and villages.

The ‘90s marked a period of hardship in the life of the population-food shortages a few hours of electricity per day, heating problems.

In 1991–94, the GDP fell to the level constituting 60% of the Soviet Union era, more than 500,000 Armenians left the country and arable land was abandoned.

Armenia was quite a vibrant and genuine democracy the first years after independence, and was in fact born on mass civic activism.

The first elections in Armenia, were very transparent and fair. From the second half of the 1990s, Armenia gradually became a democracy in name only.

The centralization of power inevitably led to the oligarchisation of politics, the emergence of political cronyism and limitations on the room for political freedom and activism.

Stability became the keyword of the rulers. Underneath, the political power was expanding to take control of all relevant public institutions, the economy, media and other spheres of daily life.

Some people, quite many of them sometimes, convinced themselves that it was the best way forward, for the society and them personally. The state, they argued, must be strong
cacophony in public debate disastrous for a strong state, collective wisdom does not exist, and one person may know best what is good for the society, and so on, and so forth.

The Rose Revolution,2003 in Georgia, the Orange Revolution 2004 in Ukraine the Tulip Revolution 2005 and the Melon Revolution 2010 in Kyrgyzstan and the 2009 Twitter Revolution in Moldova were the first serious disruptions in the process of state capture by the post-Soviet elites.

The tension that was growing prior to the 2018 Armenian revolution was not political, ideological, or geopolitical in nature.

It was way intergenerational.

Armenia became the stage for the clash of generations.

Armenian intergenerational differences:

Old generation looked to the past to compare with their current reality they saw the better life had passed. They believed that the way forward is to try recreating some
good things from the past HomoSovieticus or rather post-Sovieticus.

The new generation, in turn, looked to the West.

They cared little about the past. They wanted a better future, which they associated with the Western level of well being, freedom, and social welfare.

They wanted to be seen as Homo Occidentalis.

The crowd filling the streets and the squares of Armenia was very young, mainly students or well educated professionals (some jobless).

Most of them were born after Armenia acquired independence. They had no recollection of the Soviet time and no stigma of the Soviet mentality.

The population of Armenia has declined in the last 30 years from 3.7 million to 3 million.

Demography became an existential challenge for the country. The boldest of young Armenians went for the voice option.

This generation was behind the civil society activism.

One of the remarkable features of the Armenian revolution was the participation of many adolescents, including children.

School principals tried to prevent it by locking the school doors to keep them in
Teenagers and students visibly took part blocking major streets in Yerevan.

Besides youth, the other pillar of the Armenian revolution was Women.

The images of demonstrations typically are dominated by the faces of angry men.

The pictures from the Armenian revolution are full of smiling women.

Some observers called it the “sneakers revolution.”

New element that emerged in the past years leading to the revolution were broad grassroots movements formed around environmental and local issues

Teghut Civic Initiative, Protect Trchkan Waterfall Mov. and Mashtots Park Init. had broad public support in the years of 2012-14.

Organisations such as Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly-Vanadzor, “Asparez” Journalists Club, Transp. Intern.Anti-Corruption Centre, Europe in Law Association, Union of Informed Citizens, Progressive Youth played an important role in fighting for the defense of European standards.

Sometimes the government did listen and responded with quite neurotic irritation

In November 2016 the Armenian civil society platform within the Eastern partnership drafted a resolution on political prisoners in Armenia.

The regime went very far to prevent it from adoption threatening even to put the country’s membership in the Eastern Partnership on hold.

They expected the EU institutions to exert influence on the civil society, showing total ignorance of the spirit in which the EU builds its relationships with civil society,
civic activism at the local, community level was visibly weak, from the legacy of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet system discouraged free initiatives and self reliance.

People learned that if a small local problem arose, it was expected that the state or the party should solve it.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, these reflexes were revealed as a syndrome of “learned helplessness.”

It was quite upsetting to see that in most villages people simply accepted that nothing could be done to improve their community life.

This image contrasted with the very high reputation of Armenians in the diaspora who are known for very high levels of community activism.

And indeed, for centuries Armenians learned that when they had no real state, they had to rely on themselves.

Yet, by the summer of 2017, some cracks in the ruling camp came into view. Analysts were talking about the growing tension between the old camarilla of Sargsyan, his Republican Party hongweibings on the one side, and the technocrats around Karapetyan, on the other.

For most Armenians, it was clear that if in 2018 Karapetyan had been appointed prime minister instead of Sargsyan, the revolution would not have happened.

However, by summer 2017 some comments made by the officials of the Repub. P. hinted that succession was not in the cards.

It is about saying and doing the right things at the right time. History is full of cases when politicians were saying the right things and trying to do the right things but at the wrong moment.

Revolutionary theoreticians, link timing to the concept of a revolutionary moment.

Some opposition groups tried to mobilize society against the prolongation of Sargsyan’s rule, but the assemblies and marches did not attract big crowds.

Fewer than 1,000 people were on Azatutyun Square, not more than 200 people gathered on Melik-Adamyan Street in March and the beginning of April 2018.

These demonstrations did not capture the attention of ordinary Armenians, who appeared to be immersed in deep apathy.

Pashinyan was planning a days-long march to protest against Sargsyan at the end of March/beginning of April 2018.

The son of a sports teacher Pashinyan came to prominence in 1995 when he began writing about government corruption.

He founded a newspaper three years later and went on to take the role of editor at a best-selling daily, which criticized the gov of Kocharyan and then of Sargsyan.

When Sargsyan was elected president in 2008, Pashinyan was among the leaders of protests that turned violent and left 10 people dead.

At that point he went into hiding, surrendering to authorities the following year and jailed on charges of murder and organizing mass unrest he was eventually released under amnesty in 2011.

In 2012 he was first elected to Armenia’s parliament.

Pashinyan fell eight votes short of the 53 he needed to secure a majority in the 105 seat chamber on 2018 elections when he did not persuade the ruling Republicans to back him.

It was all about timing, a series of tweets that prove that the Armenian Revolution was genuine:

When the army joins the Revolution all it needs to succeed is a Man-Woman to put a face on it.

That man was Nikol Pashinyan.

And that is why they called it the “Velvet Revolution.”

Velvet Revolution in Armenia.
Velvet Revolution in Armenia.

These happy faces of young and full of hope people are NO WAY puppets of a “color revolution.”

This is an authentic popular movement.

Mass demonstrations were sweeping Yerevan as people demanded the resignation of former President and newly appointed Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan.

The man of the hour, Nikol Pashinyan was in the streets with his co-patriots.

He led Armenia through the Revolution and after.

To the fight against Corruption, Nepotism, the homosovieticus and Russia.

Why Russia?

Because of Putin and his preference in status quo.

“Secret delegations have scuttled in and out of Yerevan, rumoured to have included the presidential chief of staff Vaino. On Thursday, Armenia’s foreign minister was in Moscow.”

Later that day, Vladimir Putin spoke with acting Prime Minister Karapetyan.

The Armenian crisis should be resolved quickly, within the constitution, and “on the basis of the results of the legitimate parliamentary elections held in April 2017.”


Russia appears to back fallen Armenian regime amid protests

The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of Greek City Times.


Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor