The civic movement that started on April 13 in Armenia under the motto “Take a step, Refuse Serge” has stricken a historic success: on April 23, Serge Sargsyan, the contested ex-President turned into Prime Minister, handed on his resignation. He thus opened the way for a peaceful resolution of the political crisis; one that should end with a democratic transfer of power.
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The main difference between the 2018 and the 2008 movement was its critical mass: mainly formed of young people and students between 18 and 30 years old –at least in the first days-, the protests staged the first utterly post-Soviet generation. This youth was born and grown in independent Armenia and that creates an irreversible reality –one that Armenia did not have time to root down in 1918-1920 and that paved the way for Bolshevik conquest. As a USC Institute of Armenian Studies scholar, I met some of these young people last year in Armenia. I interviewed them as volunteers in the Four-day war in Karabakh. In almost all of them I encountered the desire for a better Armenia, the wish to make their country strive, the readiness to work for it despite deceptions and negative judgements. In 2015, Electric Yerevan was also a youth protest. But it was a single-point agenda, and stopped when the government reversed its decision to increase electricity prices. This time the youth rallied behind a political leader that gave them an objective: refuse the open course turning Armenia into a dictatorship; and the means: non-violent protests, blockades of the streets and marches.
How Serge Sargsyan became so isolated remains still unclear. He never lost support from the Republican party, he still officially heads. Contrary to what happened during the protests of 2008, no high level politician nor high-ranking military officer rallied Nikol Pachinyan’s movement. The new President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, mediated a meeting between Nikol Pachinyan and Serge Sargsyan. On April 22, after the breakup of that meeting, Pachinyan and some of his colleagues were taken into custody. Despite the arrests and Serge Sargsyans’ threats to Nikol Pachinyan that lessons of March 1 had not been learned, that meeting exposed the weakness of the Prime Minister. It also incidentally made him confess he endorsed the crackdown of 2008 as well as the political benefits he reaped from it for 10 years. Whatever the reasons, massive use of force was not a preferred option this time. Serge Sargsyan abstained from repeating the dramatic scenario with which he began his rule. On April 23, Defense minister Vigen Sargsyan called again on a negotiated solution. Parliament’s President, Ara Babloyan, first deputy Prime Minister, Karen Karapetyan, and Dachnak’s party leader, Hrant Markarian, the junior coalition partner of the government, visited the arrested law-makers in custody and called for finding a solution. Russia did not extend a helping hand to the embattled Premier and chose to remain very cautious, probably already pushing for its next favorite candidate to the post; the European Union and the US urged Armenia to respect rights of demonstrations and to refrain from disproportionate police reactions.
With the resignation of Serge Sargsyan, the first step of the movement has been achieved. The second step, ahead of us in the coming days and weeks, is to accomplish a democratic transfer of power through elections that finally give Armenia a legitimate leadership –something Armenian citizens have not enjoyed since Levon Ter Petrosyan’s first election as President in 1991.
This is the second velvet revolution taking place in Armenia. The first one we are celebrating the 30th anniversary this year. It started with the Karabakh movement in 1988 and ended with new authorities and Armenia’s independence in 1991. This first independent government had to confront war for Nagorno-Karabakh and a huge socio-economic disaster resulting from the 1988 earthquake and the break-up of the Soviet Union. In the course of the next 5 years, Armenia’s democratization derailed. Its path to sovereignty of the people, economic prosperity and social justice went astray. Despite deceptions and hardships however, a new generation was born and raised in an independent Armenia. We witnessed its determination and maturity following suit pacific political demonstrations these last weeks. Let us hope that the second velvet revolution accomplishes what the first one had in store but eventually failed to achieve: work hard in order to transform Armenia into a prosperous and just state where citizens can live with dignity and fulfill their potential.