ZOiS Spotlight 9/2019

Revolution in Armenia: before and after the elections

by Gayane Shagoyan 06/03/2019
Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s new prime minister. ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Foto

There was a joke in Soviet Armenia that when Armenians started mass protests in Yerevan in 1988 to reunify Karabakh, an autonomous enclave in the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, the Berlin Wall was demolished. Thirty years later, when the global political trend was towards intensifying authoritarianism, it seemed that Armenia was shifting towards democracy.

In spring 2018, Armenia saw five weeks of anti-government protests that eventually led to a parliamentary election on 9 December and a transfer of power. The unusually peaceful nature of these events explains why some deny that the power shift, which took place under the pressure of masses in festive mood, was a revolution at all. Nevertheless, a new parliament was formed in accordance with Armenia’s criticised constitution, which had been ratified in a disputed referendum in 2015 but was strictly adhered to by the new revolutionary government.

Some observers have compared the Armenian revolutionaries’ legal obedience and strong desire to act in accordance with the constitution with the tradition of Latin American revolutions. But Armenia had a precedent in its own history: Armenia was the only Soviet republic that tried to leave the Soviet Union by ensuring that it followed all procedures set out in the Soviet constitution.

A parliamentary republic with no political parties

The ‘Armenian spring’ of 2018, like many revolutions, came quite unexpectedly. Neither the initiators of the protests nor political scientists had expected an easy and virtually non-violent shift of power. Just one month after the transition, observers explained in detail why the revolution had been inevitable. A revolution is like an earthquake: it is possible to predict where one will happen, but never when. The signs of the coming cataclysm became evident when the government cleared the political arena of all opposition parties and strengthened a de facto one-party system of governance, in which MPs from the ruling party outnumbered all others. Any ideological agenda was removed from the election campaign becoming a part of regular civil protests.

The trigger for the Armenian revolution was the transition from a presidential to parliamentary system of governance, which was undertaken for one purpose only: to allow the former president, who had reached his term limit, to stay on in power as prime minister. The ruling party—and others—resembled a club of powerful businessmen who needed parliamentary mandates as a guarantee of immunity. That is why the new parliamentary system, seen as a more democratic way of governing, was turning into a stronger imitation of democracy in Armenia.

The election as a transfer of power or the end of the revolution

As a result of the parliamentary election on 9 December 2018, members of the revolutionary Civil Contract party and members of no party together received more than 70 per cent of the vote. This made it possible to elect Nikol Pashinyan as Armenian prime minister and thus mark the end of the revolution by legitimising the transfer of power. However, all parties in Armenia practically remain weak institutions. In fact, they are still at the formation stage and lack distinct ideological directions or mechanisms of party management.

International observers judged Armenia’s 2018 parliamentary election to be free and transparent and a rare instance of an election that was not disputed. Pashinyan’s party gained a high level of legitimacy both in the parliament and in government. Many of his allies who formed the temporary government have now become MPs, but he is still forming the new cabinet. The two opposition parties that entered the parliament are not strong opponents of revolutionary transformations, having supported Pashinyan during the spring revolution. Thus, the weakness of post-revolutionary Armenia is also the absence of a strong parliamentary opposition.

Revolutionary syndrome in post-election Armenia

One of the biggest challenges for Pashinyan is the need to change his image from that of revolutionary to that of manager, a task he has not always succeeded in. He was definitely readier for the failure of the revolution than for its victory. All his symbolic steps are still quite popular and convincing. He is trying to minimise the distance between authorities and citizens, preferring direct channels of communication to indirect ones through the mass media; that is why he has continued the regular Facebook addresses he established during the revolution. Revolutionary rhetoric appears now and then in his speeches at various events, and he cannot get rid of it entirely. He declared even the government’s new and rather weak programme as ‘revolutionary’, although his explanations of its revolutionary nature were unconvincing.

For the present, the new authorities are just starting to work out their reforms and rules of communication with citizens. Also, the effectiveness of the government’s management varies wildly depending on individual appointments; the most successful is considered the minister of health. Unpopular appointments currently seem much more numerous, but low approval ratings are natural given the revolutionary expectations. However, the euphoria of the revolution has not yet evaporated. This is more visible among Armenia’s diaspora, but in the country in general the authorities still enjoy a high vote of confidence.

Gayane Shagoyan is an anthropologist and senior researcher at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia.