It’s the People, Stupid: Debunking the Myths on Protests in Armenia
By Asbed Kotchikian
Since April 13, 2018 protesters in Armenia’s capital Yerevan have been gathering in public spaces, barricading roads and demonstrating against the apparent continuation of the country’s leadership under former President (and newly minted Prime Minister) Serzh Sargsyan.
Sargsyan’s move to continue his rule came as he supported and spearheaded through his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK in Armenian) constitutional amendments in late 2015, which effectively transformed the Republic from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government.
While Sargsyan initially dismissed the claim that he was seeking the office of PM, in early 2018 representatives of his HHK party as well as his ally, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutyun (ARF-D), started floating the idea that Sargsyan was the only apparent and qualified candidate to continue managing the country as PM.
With a comfortable lead in the parliamentary election of 2017 (which was marred by reports of vote-buying and other electoral irregularities), the HHK and ARF-D formed a ruling coalition controlling almost two-thirds of 105-member National Assembly. This allowed Sargsyan to proceed with his plan to nominate, and confirm Armen Sarkissian, the new President of Armenia (mostly a ceremonial position since the constitutional amendment).
While the recent demonstrations, sit-in protests and acts of civil disobedience are not a new phenomenon in the country, there are many trends that are common to similar outbursts that have occurred in Armenia in the past couple of years. The most notable of these include: the summer 2015 “Electric Yerevan” movement which witnessed mass demonstrations against the hike of electricity prices; and the July 2016 hostage crisis where a handful of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans and others stormed a police station in Yerevan, took hostages and demanded, among other things, the resignation of then President Sargsyan.
The main functional similarities among the recent protests and demonstrations in Armenia, is that they are all manifestations of disenchantment and frustration with the political malaise that has dominated the country in the past decade or so. This political dissatisfaction has been closely associated with Sargsyan’s rule, who has managed to consolidate all the levers of power to guarantee his continued control of the country.
That being said, every time a socio-political issue triggers protests and demonstrations in Armenia, there is almost always the same reaction—or myths—that Armenians or Armenia analysts project and utilize to either describe or discredit those events. This is especially true for government and pro-government circles in Armenia as well as organized diasporan institutions operating on a different plane than that of Armenia. It should be noted that while talking about the Armenian Diaspora, it is counter-intuitive to assume that all of the diasporas are organized, or that the organized institutions represent the majority of the diasporan views when it comes to issues in Armenia.
Myth 1: The protests are isolated cases of a few disgruntled individuals
The ability of any regime or a group to discredit their opponent almost always comes down to the numbers game. To discredit any group or movement, it’s always possible to downplay them as “few reckless individuals” or to deny that the motivation for these gatherings are nothing more than “adventurists” trying to make a name for themselves.
This myth is usually propagated by the regime and its supporters in, what can be described as an “ostrich policy”, where ignoring the socio-political ailments of a society and having a tunnel vision of what is good in the country are a far better strategy than taking responsibility and trying to address those issues.
This myth has been echoed on more than one occasion in Armenia during the past several years (March 2008 events, “Electric Yerevan:, etc.) and took the form of “eyewitness” accounts and news reports that demonstrators were small in number and that the crowds gathered in various public spaces were nothing more than a bunch of young individuals who were just letting off steam. While it is true that most of the demonstrations in Armenia have a large percentage of younger (less than 30 year-old) activists, it is not unusual that this demographic is more active and involved in social movements as it is the generation that was either born or grew up in post-Soviet Armenia. Unhindered by censorship and supported by social media, it is this group that seems to have the ability and flexibility to mobilize and get organized in order to channel not only their own frustration but also the frustration of their parents.
Regardless of the number of protesters, whether they’re in the hundreds or in the thousands, a responsible government should be equipped to address those issues but more important to listen to what is being said rather than dismiss it as “child’s play.”
Myth 2: Protesters are being led by opportunist politicians to further their own goals
One interesting phenomenon that almost all demonstrations, protest or movements in Armenia (and elsewhere) have in common is that rarely do they begin with leaders calling for action. The most common typology of mass movements is that, more often than not, leadership emerges from the movement but doesn’t necessarily initiate it. Protests and revolutions in Ukraine (2004), Georgia (2003), Tunisia (2010), Egypt (2011), Iran (1979) and elsewhere showed over and over again that mass protest and uprisings rarely had a clearly defined and identified leaders; rather the leadership emerged from the ranks or was sometimes hijacked (or handed over by the protesters themselves) by political figures.
The need for politicians to be relevant at times of demonstrations or revolutions is best captured by the words of Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, a French politician “There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.” (While this quote or a variation of it is attributed to Ledru-Rollin, it is more likely apocryphal).
Nikol Pashinyan, the most visible face in the Yerevan demonstrations, has been trying to establish himself as a viable opposition leader at a time when no other political force or party has stood up in support of the protesters. One cannot articulate the true motives of Pashinyan—whether he truly believes in the movement or if it is just an opportunity for him to become more relevant in Armenia’s political scene—but he does have a record of unsuccessfully trying to play a leading role in previous mass demonstrations in Yerevan (especially during the 2015 “Electric Yerevan” movement and 2016 “Sasna Dzrer” hostage crisis).
Regardless of the motives of politicians in attempting to lead demonstrations, the true intention of these demonstrations cannot be simply dismissed as adventurism or opportunism. However, there is always a risk that any politician who manages to take control of a movement might end up abandoning their constituents, thus throwing them into deeper despair and hopelessness (something that occurred in the aftermath of 2013 presidential elections and the ensuing mass protests).
Myth 3: “Hidden hands” are guiding these protests
Perhaps one of the most common defense mechanisms to utilize force against demonstrators, as well as to dismiss the true nature of the discontent they articulate, is through false claims. One such claim and a conspiratorial argument by regimes and their supporters is that “outside forces are encouraging these movements to destabilize our country.” This attitude and argument is not uniquely an Armenian phenomenon; rather one can observe similar attitudes in the larger post-Soviet space, the Middle East and other regions. (The list is long but similar arguments have been used in Chile in 1970 after the election of leftist Salvador Allende, in Egypt in 2011 during the Tahrir Square demonstration, in Ukraine in 2013).
The epitome of this myth was in March 2008 when after the disputed presidential elections in Armenia (which witnessed the rise of Sargsyan to power), there were mass demonstrations in Armenia. The government eventually utilized force to disperse the protesters with the support of various political parties in and outside of the country. The most common explanation given by diasporan organizations, which were criticized of inaction at a time when human rights were being violated in Armenia, was that “the government had provided undisputed proof that the demonstrations were being controlled by outside forces and that it was the prudent thing to close ranks with Sargsyan even if his election was questionable.”
This strategy of “outsiders” threatening the nation has become more prevalent in recent years around the globe and has provided populist leaders with an opportunity to create enemies when there are none. Such cases have occurred in Hungary recently under Viktor Orbán, in the United States under Donald Trump and in Russia under Vladimir Putin.
Observing strategies like this, one cannot but help remember the words of 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
Myth 4: Diaspora to the rescue?
One major misconception that still persists is the level and extent of the potential contribution of Armenian Diaspora when it comes to issues of socio-political justice in the Armenia. There have been many attempts by political figures in Armenia (mostly opposition) to recruit the help of the diaporas… mostly to no avail. This misconception is perpetuated by the constant affirmation, dubbed the “diaspora as a savior” syndrome, sought by some politicians. The erroneous view that the diaspora can serve as savior for Armenia’s opposition has been repeatedly manifested in recent years (be that the appeal that “Sasna Dzrer” made to the diasporans to help their movement or be it the invitation that Pashinyan has extended to “prominent” Armenian figures such as Serge Tankian or Charles Aznavour to join their movement.
As mentioned above, a clear distinction should be made between the organized diaspora institutions vs individuals who have their separate connection, understanding and interpretation of events in Armenia. Providing a factual analysis of what percentage of the Armenian Diaspora is huddled around institutions (the most prominent ones being the Armenian General Benevolent Union and the ARF-D) is near impossible. An educated guess might be not more than 20%, which means that an overwhelming number of diasporan Armenians are either indifferent to, or have a limited impact on, socio-political issues in Armenia.
Regardless of the reasons why the Armenian Diaspora (be that the organized masses or the independent individuals) is more often than not passive about such events in Armenia, the fact remains that the expectations of Armenians in Armenia from the Diaspora, far exceeds the willingness of the Diaspora to engage in any meaningful contribution to improve the political climate in the country.
One of the commonly repeated mantra in various circles has been the positive role that the Armenian Diaspora could play in the democratization process of Armenia. While this is not a farfetched expectation, one has to keep in mind that even if a large number of Armenians live in (quasi)democracies, most of them do not practice democracy within their immediate institutions. Elections for organizational and community leaders in most diasporic organizations are not much different than what Armenia has witnessed in its on local and general elections in the past two decades.
What adds insult to injury is that most of the diasporan media has either criticized the recent demonstrations in Armenia or belittled them, focusing instead on Genocide recognition or the 100th anniversary celebration of the short-lived Armenia’s First Republic. This is not a new phenomenon, and in recent years most Armenians in Armenia have come to realize that for the Diaspora, maintaining the political status quo is something acceptable even if that meant the consolidation of Sargsyan’s power in Armenia and the increased chance of a single party rule in the country.
Change, real change in Armenia, cannot be imported, it must be brewed and implemented from within. It’s about Armenia’s citizens taking ownership and demanding their rights without waiting for the diaspora’s contribution. This realization seems to have taken root in recent years where the diaspora’s role has become less relevant (at least among the younger generation) in the minds of Armenian citizens.
Previous experiences of mass demonstrations and protests in Armenia could provide a window as to how the latest “Reject Serzh” protests might end. While the protesters might increase in number in the coming days, the regime will not hesitate to wait for the right moment to use limited force and dismantle the barricades and disperse the demonstrators. It is often said that demonstrators learn from their previous experiences but that is also true in the case of governments.
Utilizing excess force in the past (especially during “Electric Yerevan” movement when the Armenian police used water cannons to disperse the initial gathering of small number of protestors), could swell the number of people in the streets.
The likelihood of this and any future protests to successfully change the regime and achieve Sargsyan’s resignation as PM is quite low. However a more important issue that one has to keep in mind is that demonstrations are not always able to realize the goals that they set out to achieve. Over the past several years, demonstrations and protests in Armenia have gone through predictable cycles. After the initial outburst, mass gatherings and demands, they wither away until the next outburst. The challenge has always been to find opportunities and organization to continue with piecemeal attempts to reform the electoral, political, educational or social spheres in between those outbursts. This is most probably because of the absence of a viable opposition party which could take on the mantle of social reform in between elections and/or in between demonstrations.
Nevertheless, these flickers of demonstrations and civil disobediences are an important mechanism to make sure that no matter how much power is consolidated at the top echelons of government, the ability to assemble and reject unilateral decisions by the regime will always keep the glass ceiling of political oppression higher and, to some extent, keep the political leadership on their toes. In an ideal world, the energy and dedication of the demonstrators should be channeled and translated into political/legislative action, but since none of the political parties in Armenia (including self-labeled opposition groups) is capable of translating that energy, the best that one could hope for is to maintain the level of political awareness and activism among the citizens.
Even if the repeated demonstrations in Armenia run the risk of fomenting disenchantment, as they are not able to achieve the larger goal of seeing the departure of Sargsyan and his regime, this is perhaps an episode in the larger context of keeping Armenia’s citizens aware of and responsible for protecting their rights.
Wars are won one battle at a time!
(Asbed Kotchikian is a professor of political science and international relations at Bentley University, just outside of Boston. He has taught and lived in Armenia extensively and has researched social movements, civil society and ethnic conflicts in Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.)