Vartan Estukyan
Jul 01 2018

Armenia’s Velvet Revolution: ‘It’s as if we’ve been saved from slavery’

 

The Armenian people succeeded in their Velvet Revolution two months ago, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan after he tried to circumvent the limitations on serving in office.

The demonstrations initially started in March 2018 when Armenia’s Republican party allowed Sargsyan to run as prime minister, which would have allowed him to hold office as either prime minister or president. Sargsyan had been in office since March 2007. In 2015, he changed the constitution to remove the previous two-term limits for the presidency.

The movement was led by Nikol Pashinyan, member of parliament and leader of the opposition Civil Contract party. In the end, the protesters won. Pashinyan went on to become the country's new prime minister through a second vote by parliament.

The country’s youth was the main force behind the “Velvet Revolution,” which ended in May, and no one was injured. During my stay in Armenia, I spoke with the young people involved in the movement about the revolution, Sarkisyan’s resignation, and their expectations for the future of the country.

LGBT activist Harmik Makertoomian, who immigrated to Armenia from the US with his family 14 years ago, speculated on the main reason behind the people’s discontent in having Sargsyan as premier for Armenia.

"In the ten years of Sargsyan's rule, our debt reached a total of $7 billion. People were sick of it and angry. Because of this, I predicted that Sarkisyan would resign, but I did not expect the revolution to be 'velvet.' I always thought the revolution would be bloody."

Much of this discontent began with the youth who mobilized and traveled to different cities to get the numbers needed to fill the country’s major squares. Nvard Markarian, President of the Pink Armenia Civil Society Organization, said that she traveled on April 15 to join the protests but was unsure how things would turn out:

“On April 16, I was with two friends, and we were talking with conviction that most things will not change; about how once again the revolution would be interrupted and how the events were already being suppressed. However, on April 22, I began to increasingly believe that something was going to change. The possibility of Serzh Sargsyan's resignation is a topic I still have difficulty believing in today. In any case, I'm very happy this is how things progressed."

Nvard Potsinyan, coordinator of Ashdarag City Civic Youth Center, participated in the Yerevan and Ashdarag demonstrations. She also highlighted how people traveled to join the cause and the ambiance created by protestors:

"..there were people from the surrounding area who participated in the [Ashdarag] protest. It was very encouraging. For example, the people who closed off the Akarak-Vosgevaz-Talin junction were playing volleyball on the main road until Sargsyan resigned on the morning of April 23rd. I have never seen people so happy. People were hugging each other, and vehicles were honking their horns all night, and people were singing. That day, everyone was really happy. As if we had been saved from slavery..."

She said that there were no “bad intentions” among any of the protestors and added, “even when there was a provocateur, the demonstrators met this with respect.”

However, according to Potsinyan, not everyone responded well to the demonstrations.

"Students from two schools [in Ashdarag] boycotted classes, and this was broken up by the Ashdarag Municipality. Afterward, I heard the police identified some of the student's names and that they threatened them the next day at school and said that they wouldn't be able to take their exams,” Potsinyan said.

Potsinyan also cited another example of how law enforcement responded to the movement.

“During a march in Ashdarag, we were chanting the slogan 'honk your horn, reject Serzh.' The police took photos of the license plates of anyone who honked their horn to support us.”

Despite adverse reactions from the local community and law enforcement, the demographic of the protestors began to change as the movement evolved. Qnarig Tadevossyan, a member of the Armenian National Congress Party, was afraid that brute force could be used against the demonstrators at any point, which could dissuade them from gathering again:

"But, in the process, the demonstrators changed significantly. In the beginning, there were only young people, but afterward, even though the young people were the main drivers, the movement became massive."

Markarian’s comments mirror the evolving profile of the protestors.

"At the beginning of the movement, I saw people I knew at different protests. I recognized most people, but within a few days, people changed so much that I had difficulty even spotting my friends anymore. I care a lot about the diversity of the demonstrators. Theoretically, people who would [otherwise] be against each other participated hand-in-hand at the demonstrations, they ate together, they blocked off the streets together, and they evaluated the situation together."

What would happen was far from clear during the months-long movement. But a couple of political developments tipped the balance in favor of the demonstrators.

According to Makertoomian, one turning point in the movement was when Pashinyan and Sargsyan met at the Marriott Armenia Hotel on the morning of April 22. Sargsyan made the following comment that angered the masses, “You do not realize the extent of responsibility, you have not learned from the events of March 1 [2008].”

Makertoomian explained, “What he was referring to was when 11 demonstrators had lost their lives as a result of an armed attack by special forces. With these words, the people became even more angry with him, and nothing could prevent the people from overthrowing Sargsyan. "

Tadevossian said another one of these developments took place when Pashinyan and two members of parliament were taken into custody the same day of the Marriott meeting.

"At first, I didn't believe that the process would evolve like this, as I thought the power of the movement was not enough. Then, on April 22, the police detained Nikol Pashinyan and two deputies. With this, the tension rose suddenly.

When I joined the demonstrators, I witnessed how many people filled the largest square in Yerevan. I felt that Pashinyan was right. Our movement had become unstoppable, and our victory was inevitable. Then the next day, Sargsyan resigned.”

But, according to the activists I spoke to, much more needs to be done. When asked about what he wants to see in Armenia’s future, Markarian said, “I expect positive changes on many fronts. For example, I hope there will be access to justice, educational reform, as well as a restructuring of human rights and social justice."

Tadevossyan summarizes her main expectations as solving issues both domestically and further afield:

"I hope for the re-establishment of justice, that Serzh Sargsyan and his accomplices will be held to account, and that the new administration will be determined by free and fair elections. I think that if this happens, there will be no obstacle to finding solutions to progress and other major problems. I hope for the opening of the Turkey-Armenia border, initial results of the Karabakh negotiations, and a gradual normalization of relations with neighboring countries.”