Armenia’s Revolution: A Flickering Light in a Darkening Europe

Next Sunday, on December 9, Armenians are expected to further consolidate their unique and vastly underreported “Velvet Revolution.” On that day, acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s “My Step” alliance is expected to win a large governing majority in the country’s parliament.

Though barely reported, if it all, in most of the Western media, for the past seven months, landlocked Armenia, with only 3 million inhabitants, has flickered as a small light of hope and progressive democratic change in a Europe increasingly shadowed by authoritarian and dictatorial forces—especially in most of the former Soviet-bloc states of Eastern Europe.

This is a unique revolution in every sense. It is the first full-on revolution in a post-Soviet state that legitimately boiled up from the streets, free of influence from outside forces—be it NATO, the European Union, the United States, or, for that matter, Armenia’s big-brother ally, Russia. As Anna Ohanyan argues in Foreign Policy, the Armenian revolution has much more in common with the democratic transitions in Latin America in the 1980s than it does with the “color revolutions” in Ukraine and neighboring Georgia that were “driven by reformist elites…usually backed by outside players,” i.e., the EU and the US.

And it sort of came out of the blue. True, for the past decade or so there have been mounting but politically limited protests in Armenia around issues regarding women, the environment, unemployment, and related areas. But what some call a “hybrid regime”—corrupt oligarchic rule clothed in a thin veneer of democracy—kept a tight lid on everything through its primary instrument, the Republican Party.

At the onset of this year, I doubt there were 10 people in Armenia who thought a revolution was only a few months away. As might have been predicted, the uprising was really provoked by the brazen hubris of the oligarchs. Since a not-so-legitimate election in 2008, Republican leader Serzh Sargsyan has served two five-year terms as a highly unpopular president. Before he left office, though, the Republicans engineered a constitutional change transferring executive power from the president to the prime minister. And as soon as Sargsyan’s term was ending, the Republicans nominated him to be prime minister, raising fears that he would be in power for life.

Lifelong political activist Nikol Pashinyan, a modest but highly charismatic 43-year-old journalist—and someone who has done jail time for his activism—didn’t take this sitting down. A member of Parliament and leader of a tiny opposition party with no clear ideology, Pashinyan announced that he would not accept this transfer of power, and on March 31 he set out on a protest march from his hometown toward the capital of Yerevan, 120 miles away. His trek began with just a few followers. Over the 17 days it took him to get to Yerevan, his ranks swelled into the thousands. Then into the tens of thousands. And then, in the middle of the capital, to more than 100,000, as ordinary Armenians nonviolently blockaded the streets and paralyzed the country for several days with what was essentially a general strike.

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