28-06-2018

Armenia in transition: When justice prevails in peace

Impuls 07/2018 by Vardan Hambardzumyan, Executive Secretary of YMCA Europe

On April 17, 2018, the National Assembly (Parliament) of Armenia with qualitative majority of the votes of the parliamentarians elected Serzh Sargsyan as the Prime Minister of the republic. Serzh Sargsyan was the President of Republic of Armenia since 2008, and had already been the Prime Minister of the country before that. But that was within a presidential republic. Now, for the third time, he became the actual head of the state, as long as with the constitutional referendum back in 2015 Armenia shifted to a parliamentary republic. The governing Republican Party initiated this change, presenting it as a key move towards further democratisation of the country. Many hoped for that. Yet this discourse was predominantly discredited amongst the citizens when it became obvious that reproduction of Serzh Sargsyan’s governance was the main purpose of the change. Simply the old system would not allow him to keep the presidency for a third term. Legally everything seemed well arranged, yet there was a moral challenge to encounter. Back in 2014, when initiating the constitutional change, Serzh Sargsyan publicly promised that whatever the results of the referendum would be, he would never strive for the positions of either the President or the Prime Minister. This played the yardstick in erupting the public anger.

Nikol Pashinyan, a forty-two year-old former journalist and a Parliament Member representing a small opposition party with just 3 seats in the National Assembly of Armenia, became the leader, who managed to ensemble that mass discontent into a powerful civic movement of predominantly young people. An unequivocally non-violent and exceptionally well-organised movement, that within a week forced Serzh Sargsyan to resign. It became the peak of the range of successful civic movements in Armenia. April 23, 2018, all Armenia was celebrating justice that prevailed in peace. The next day, April 24, to a great astonishment of the world observing the breaking news from Yerevan found the whole nation showing an unmatched solidarity walking to the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial, commemorating the Armenian Genocide Day. And this was the beautiful end of the first phase of the revolution in Armenia – the Revolution of Love and Solidarity, as it will stay in history.

What are the lessons learnt in Armenia - this is the question. As a matter of fact, the world is full of situations, where the traditional establishments are in crisis in one way or another. What were the trigger and the recipe of the success of this revolution? My answer is the empowered youth and Internet keeping them independent from mainstream brainwashing. The mastermind of the revolution - Nikol (as people call him) - has become the role model for many young people in Armenia. He is perceived and behaves as an ordinary man. Just like many. He was a political prisoner, his life was under constant threat, yet he never gave up his fight and grew with it. With his courage and resilience he showed the Armenian youth that ordinary men could indeed break the glass ceiling and peacefully succeed in the fight for justice. Nikol with his wife – Anna Hakobyan (also a journalist) – became the enchanted heroes of the revolution. By the way, untiring participation of girls and women in the protests was a crucial factor in keeping the processes peaceful, and Anna was one of them.

The following weeks most of the young people went back to their studies and work, yet the revolution continues so far, every day uncovering new excitements and developments. During the next stage it grasped the country’s political establishment into its orbit, resulting in the resignation of the entire Cabinet and the election of Nikol Pashinyan as the head of a minority government – i.e. the Prime Minister of the country. Today the civic movement is mostly occupied with digital activism, giving the politicians time and notice to clean the mess before too late. Armenia has entered into a new era of relationship between the state and civil society: a new civil contract is ‘tabled’, that may significantly raise the ownership of the citizens over the political processes in the country and irreversibly reinforce the rule of law at all levels. NB, the name of the political party led by Nikol Pashinyan, means “Civil Contract”.

The awakening of the civil society has resulted in high expectations from the government of New Armenia (another cliché of the revolution), and here is the key question if those expectations can be met at such a level. First of all, it is an open secret that any revolution holds the risk of contra-revolution. Revision to authoritarianism remains a high chance if citizens lose their interest in and hopes for the change sought. Immediate measures of political, social and economic transformation are needed to sustain the positive outcomes of the revolution. Those measures include:

  1. Extraordinary parliamentary elections before too late, with results trusted by the citizens and enabling formation of both legislative and executive authorities having the confidence vote of the nation;
  2. Urgent dismantling of the oligarchic and corrupted systems within public services and business, genuinely prioritising and supporting small and medium entrepreneurship;
  3. Encouraging civic consciousness and activism, thus keeping due pressure and critical mass securing tangible achievements towards rule of law and protection of human rights;
  4. Combating nepotism, replacing it with highly committed and professional human resources to lead and manage the transformation with due diligence.

And many more…

Yet the last, but not the least: it is crucial to keep the moral barometer of the social life constantly under attention. In the age of information societies manipulating public knowledge and opinion is an old-fashioned trick. For me the worst memory of Serzh Sargsyan’s period is the old-Soviet-style brainwashing with disregarded values and false heroes, annoying rituals and fabricated stories. Now this pyramid of lies is falling down, leaving the vision of an entire generation under its wreckage. Back in 1980s and 90s I was a young boy empowered by the changes happening in the Soviet Union, living with high hopes of decent life for my newly independent Homeland and myself. Soon, those hopes were crushed by war and oppression, by greediness and poverty, by depreciation of values and demoralisation of heroes of my times. I hope this is not going to happen to my children and to me the second time. I hope that another wave of the war over Karabakh is not imposed on my nation in order to keep its aspirations within the geo-political limits. Unfortunately, most of the revolutions in the history are coupled with wars following them, forced or internally generated, or both together. Thus, I am reluctant to call the change happening in Armenia a revolution, even of Love & Solidarity. I would rather call it a civic movement and a social transformation, keeping the epithets modest and the aims ambitious – not the other way around. Whatever, I hope for and I count on the increased support to Armenian by the moral community of the world unconditionally standing for peace and justice, democracy and rule of law, and finally for human dignity. I hope…

Nikol Pashinyan and his team have repeatedly affirmed that the events in Armenia are no way a “colour revolution”, and they have no predisposition of drastically changing the country’s foreign policy and its geo-political orientation. And this is clever. However, the recent civic movement in Armenia and the transformation it embarks have distinct civilizational orientation. And this is orientation towards European values of intrinsic democracy and human centred society. This is where Armenia will need encouraging solidarity and tangible support from the EU and its member states. First of all given the new context and reality, the timeframe and priorities of the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) should be revisited. I assume visa regime liberalisation should become a priority number one, as a highly symbolic and ethical measure showing unconditional solidarity – “knock, and it will be opened to you”. The other crucial support that Armenia needs from the international community is extra measures ensuring that the conflict over Karabakh remains on track of peaceful resolution. As mentioned above it has a potential of becoming a “punishing” tool. And finally the young people of Armenia defiantly deserve better openings for their personal and professional growth, as well as for their civic engagement. First of it was thanks to them that now we are talking about New Armenia, and they are determined to ensure further positive change. I am sure this is a generation that can achieve a lot, if due empowerment, guidance and facilitation is in place. What a blessing to have young people who you can count on!

Further Information:

Vardan Hambardzumyan, Executive Secretary of YMCA Europe
vardan(at)ymcaeurope.com 

Links and Literature:

“He Was a Protester a Month Ago. Now, Nikol Pashinyan Leads Armenia”
The New York Times | May 2018

'He's not a populist, he's popular': Nikol Pashinyan becomes Armenian PM
The Guardian | May 2018

“EU Backs New Armenian Government’s Reform Agenda”
Azatutiun | June 2018