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Armenia: No Organization, No Real Change

By Markar Melkonian 

They took to the streets by the tens of thousands to end corruption and impunity, and to put the lethargy of the past behind them.

In a stunning turn of events, they reached their immediate goal, removing the Republic’s first Prime Minister, Serzh Sargsyan, from office.  And it all took place without bloodshed, thanks to the appeals of opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan, as well as the level-headedness of Sargsyan and the police--and thanks, most importantly, to the forbearance and good cheer of the young demonstrators themselves.

As we know, Pashinyan dubbed the events a “Velvet Revolution.” This was an unfortunate choice of words.  The original “Velvet Revolution,” the one that took place in Czechoslovakia in 1989,resulted in a division of the country, generalized poverty, an explosion of corruption, and abject subservience to Berlin and Brussels.  No surprise, then, that twenty-two years after Vaclav Havel’s “Velvet Revolution,” a Western opinion poll reported that Czechs preferred life “under communism” to the post- ‘89 capitalist regime.  (“Less than a quarter of adult Czechs feel they are better off now than under communism, according to a new poll,” Christian Falvey, Radio Praha, 20 November 2011.)

What took place in Yerevan earlier this month was not a Velvet Revolution; indeed, it was no kind of revolution at all.  

A genuine revolution brings a new class to power.  And a counter-revolution--like the one that removed the last few vestiges of workers’ power fromArmenia twenty-seven years ago--brings an exploiting class back to power.

There is no evidence that the events of the past month have done either of these things.

At the end of May, it seems clear enough that the political monopoly of the big capitalists remains unchallenged as before, and workers remain disenfranchised.  Indeed, so far the faces of the oligarchs haven’t even changed.  (But stay tuned:  we should expect several insiders of the new administration to transform themselves into oligarchs.) 

What has taken place in Armenia since Sargsyan’s resignation was neither a revolution nor a counter-revolution; it was just a change of administration.  With any luck, the change might result in greater accountability by officialdom and employers.  But if this happens, it will take place against the background of continuing capitalist rule and regional conditions of imperialist domination and rivalries.

Some people have described Pashinyan, the “People’s Candidate,” as a democratic socialist.  If only this were not a case of wishful thinking!

Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party describes itself as “liberal,” which meansthat we should expect to hear even more of the same old bilge about the miracles of “democracy and free markets.”

The new Prime Minister’s advisors and his new cabinet include new faces, but they are almost all male, and it does not look like any of them question the neoliberal boosterism that celebrates thirty years of national disaster in Free Independent Armenia.  

Much has been made of Pashinyan’s announcement that he would seek the advice of economist Daron Acemoglu.  The MIT economist’s belief that “democratic institutions” facilitate economic growth seems to dovetail with a prevailing hope among Pashinyan supporters that a more democratic capitalism will be the panacea for Armenia’s ills.  In any case, Pashinyan’s party, like Sargsyan’s Republican Party and Ter-Petrosyan’s Armenian National Congress before it, will in all likelihood represent the interests of one or another clique oflocal capitalist managers for foreign capital.   

It is not as if Pashinyan and his new administration are bad, deceitful people.  If they are to continue to occupy the positions to which they have risen, then they have no choice but to advance the power and wealth of the minority over the majority.  There is a lesson here for observers willing to notice, a lesson about a materialist approach to the study of history.  

At the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council (SEEC) meeting in Sochi on 14 May, Pashinyan affirmed that the Republic of Armenia would continue membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).  Let us recall that Pashinyan and his party are members of the Yelk (“Exit”) Alliance, which, in the minds of some Yerevan residents at any rate, stood for withdrawing from these arrangements. The new Prime Minister’s decision to reaffirm Armenia’s commitment to the EEU and the CSTO should come as a relief to our thoughtful compatriots:  Pashinyan at least is no Saakashvili. 

True, the new Prime Minister’s assurances in Sochi were little more than an acknowledgmentof the facts of life. But for a victorious opposition leader in Yerevan, a prompt recognition of obvious facts should count as something of an achievement:  over the decades, at least one of Armenia’s Presidents, and many of the country’s would-be leaders, too, have not managed to achieve even this. 

At this point, then, it does not appear that we should expect dramatic policy shifts. The new administration will be heavy on the anti-corruption rhetoric, but beyond that, it looks like the changes to come will be mostly stylistic.   

Many of the young demonstrators who took to the streets in April have had a chance to leave the country of their birthbut chose toremain in Armenia.  “This is my country,” more than one of them explained to foreign journalists.

Armenians decades ago had grown sick of privatization, and since then they have grown tired of unemployment and underemployment, too, and of the elimination of affordable healthcare and quality public schools, of gaping inequalities of wealth, of the impunity of plutocrats, of the toleration of domestic violence, and of pervasive bribery, the ravages of mining companies, political misrepresentation, and crooked judges who almost always side with the rich against the poor.  

But now women and men of a new generation are more impatient than they are tired. They want to head in the direction of that genuinely revolutionary demand, equality of opportunity.  

In Armenia as elsewhere, their numbers have been growing and their voices have become stronger and steadier. Yet the decision-makers continue to push policies in the opposite direction:  further privatization of public schools; the privatization of pensions; further cutbacks for healthcare; a longer work week;a lower age for child labor; fewer legal protections for workers; even more tax breaks for the rich, and even more public giveaways for corporationsand mining companies.  As one long-time observer put it, Armenia’s leaders still, at this late date, expect us to hope for “more capitalist solutions to the problems that capitalism itself has created.” 

But in Armenia as elsewhere, fewer people these days are willing to suspend their disbelief.  In the days following the May 8 election of Pashinyan to the office of Prime Minister, groups of women,students, workers, farmers, and consumershave come together at multiple spots in Yerevan and other parts of the country to block streets and highways and to demonstrate in front of public buildings, factories, and offices. Students and parents press their demand to replacea principal accused of corruption; Yerevan residents demand the resignation of the mayor; students at Shirak University in Gyumri demand the resignation of a rector;workers at the Nairit chemical plant demand higher wages; taxi drivers protest traffic enforcement fees that have made it impossible to earn a living; office workers protest job cuts; milk farmers demand higher purchase prices from dairy companies; environmentalists oppose illegal logging in a park.          

In an especially interesting case, workers of the Ararat Cement Factory near the town of Ararat blocked the plant’s entrance with trucks and protested outside, demanding higher salaries. The factory’s owner is none other than the well-known oligarch and MP, Gagik Tsarukyan,founder of the Prosperous Armenia Party. Here, we see the reality of a vision of “prosperity” under the rule of oligarchs who refuse to pay a livable wage to those who produce the wealth.  Ominously, the Pashinyan administration has tapped Tsarukyan’s party for several ministerial posts.  

The demonstrations, strikes, and road blockages since May 8 are some of the most significant developments of the past two months.  They indicate that more and more of our compatriots are giving up hope for capitalist solutions to the problems that capitalism itself has created.  

The demonstrators have been accused of “obviously excessive expectations” (Hayots Ashkhar, 17 May), but their expectations are not excessive. So far, by all appearances, the protesters have been walking a fine line, advancing their demands forcefully, while resisting provocations to violence.  They are to be congratulated—and emulated.   

Recent events have shown us once again that real change—irreversible change that will benefit the majority—does not come from elections.  Real change comes from broad-based struggle in the streets, offices, factories, neighborhoods, and social media.  The more unified and organized this struggle, the less the movement will be susceptible to violent provocations.  

The events that led up to the ouster of the Republican Party from office of Prime Minister were only the latest of years of escalating grievances, from Buzand Street and Dem Em to Nairit, Electric Yerevan, and Khorenatsi Street, and from protests against corruption and domestic violence to farmers’ protests against mining pollution. And yet Armenia still lacks an active organization that brings together the demands of the majority poor and working class population of the country, of women, consumers, farmers, environmentalists, debtors, students, and opponents of homophobia. 

Without a sustained organizational presence on the ground, each of the campaigns will fall far short of its goal, or will at best achieve only partial success, always in danger of being reversed.  As one foreign commentator recently observed: 

When they don’t or can’t move people, demonstrations, marches and “occupy” movements are insufficient. It’s not enough just to be there: The movement has to join or become a political party; the street leaders have to become politicians. 

(Anne Applebaum, “People Power Worked in Armenia.  It Won’t Work Everywhere,” Washington Post, 26 April 2018.) 

If real change is to take place in Armenia, then it will be the work of a well-organized party that brings together a large part of the population within an organization with clear goals to replace capitalist rule by socialism, workers’ power. 

If the events of April and May represent a victory, then the victory goes to the young people in the streets.  In the coming weeks and months, as the disappointments set in, these young people should remind themselves of the lessons they have learned:  people’s power can win the day.  

The exhilarating events of April and May are only a glimpse of the kind of real change this new generation could achieve if it comes togetherunder a common program and organizes for the bottom ninety percent. 

Markar Melkonian is a teacher and an author. His books include Richard Rorty’s Politics: Liberalism at the End of the American Century (1999), Marxism: A Post-Cold War Primer (Westview Press, 1996), and Philosophy and Common Sense (forthcoming from Bloomsbury Academic)..

Comments (14)

Aram
Markar, I am reading this now 10 months after you have written it. I was very optimistic back then, and I wish I had read this article. Reading this now--you have nearly predicted the future. This is perhaps the best analysis of the revolution I have read yet--even through you wrote it before his administration, it seems almost as if it is more accurate now. Bravo--I will be reading more of your articles from now on.
Arman
This article makes very premature, cynical statements. Pashinyan has been in office mere weeks, it is way too soon to judge him like this. There’s an incredible positive energy and desire for change behind this movement both in Armenia and diaspora, that should be given a real chance. Being realistic is fine but being this negative straight away is very counterproductive.
Armam
Quote: “we should expect several insiders of the new administration to transform themselves into oligarchs.” Making statements like these does not form a sober, constructive analysis but a premature, serious accusation. An accusation for which no evidence is given. If Melkonian feels its justified to publish that kind of criticism of people who were assigned to their positions 5 minutes ago, there should at the very least be given a realistic, concrete alternative instead of simply stating the working class etc. should be more organized and better represented. That is a void suggestion if you can not come up with some realistic examples of how that should be realized.
Marz
Unrealistic article! & dripping with negativity Change comes one step at a time, in fact the gradual change is the sane approach. Not sure what alternatives this author proposes. Sound's like he wants to turn on a switch and transform the country to a model of his expectation. It's fine to bring up a skeptics counter view, but this is not objective nor at the right time.
Ara
The sentiments in this piece so those that accompanied the election of Pope Francis. A few years later, few would deny the positive impact of his leadership. It's too early to judge whether Pashinyan is going to be the Pope Francis of Armenia. Signs are mixed. But this kind of negative article, opinion piece or not, smacks of sabotage.
Phillip
Yanis Varoufakis: Is Capitalism Devouring Democracy? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGeevtdp1WQ&feature=share
Alex
The comments aimed at Markar on this piece is a illustration of Armenian society today. I am surprised that he says he is surprised by them. Dare you have a different analysis based on actual revolutions they will jump to crucify you, 150 years of living under imperialism, eating up imperial propaganda and being away from your roots will do that to you, lets not blame too much on these sheeps but on the previous generations who didn't combat this earlier on in our culture. Nikol has been in Parliament for 15+ years and not once pushed a worker friendly policy, neither has any of the parties or party members he has been a part of. From day one he has been smoking his liberal dreampipe. We need free housing for the poor, also for average / poor Armenians to actually to make the journey back home, those do exist worldwide. The poor need access to medicine, education reform ? nope what points does he continue hammer in at his campaign ? He will bring in FAIR COMPETETION. While, the people eat it up without a challenge doesn't mean others dont hold the right to criticize this individual and the policies he plans to pass. To pass this as a revolution is comical, but now is the chance, now is the time to organize a real workers party for Armenia led by the youth to challenge ALL Oligarchs, private banks that our savior Nikol is aligning with. But will they wake up and free themselves from these poverty pimps ? ..To the commentors that say they will no longer read Hetq, because they punlished Markars opinion ? You ungrateful ants, the Melkonian family, bless Montes soul ! has provided more, done more for Armenians than you can ever dream of or Hetq can ever provide and did it in the most dire times for our nation and much more damn DUXOV before y'all made it a brand on shirts and hats. Wake up!
Sergej
Alex, Markar, sorry I didn't realize it's you the Markar Melkonyan, my stupid. Never the less I still stay to my comments. Markar, I don't know if you ever have been in the Czech Republic, if not I would be glad to welcome you there. And don't believe there is any single ideology that can help Armenians out of misery. Whether it is socialism, or liberalism, an so on. I strongly believe the only working mechanism is fair election. Even direct democracy as in Switzerland is imaginable in Armenians. Peopel must have the choice, real one. Any ideology will exhaust it's self in a view years. Big socialist experiments of the world history are know to everybody. There must be privately owned factories, banks, etc. Many young people are dreaming about, one day having their own business. If they achieved that goal, they will become bad Kapitalist in your yeas? Free market doesn't mean blood thirsty capitalists are suckid blood out of poorer poepel. Working and regulated free market means equal chance to everybody. Having profit from hard and honest work is not a crime. Every working person wants to have profits and farmers in the first place. And Armenia need a lot of investments. In every sector. Industry, Agriculture, Healthcare, Infrastructure. If we want diaspora and private equity to invest in Armenia, it is natural to understand they will need return on investment. Otherwise nobody wil be able to invest any more. Without investments there will be only limited and very slow progress in Armenia.
Pacifist from Finland
What on earth this writer wants? Capitalism is bad because not everyone becomes a millionaire? Very sad, one-sided, dishonest writing. With good purpose perhaps, but so naive.
Levon
The hopes and aspirations of the people are frequently undermined by 'revolutionary' leaders so Melkonian's concerns are entirely legitimate. Pashinyan may or may not be at fault. I don't think we know enough about him yet. But the real problems are bigger than him. The constraints imposed by Russia, the power of the oligarchs, and above all the belief that unregulated markets solve all problems of economic injustice rather than cause them represent formidable obstacles to meaningful, lasting change. Melkonian's essay is alerting the people to the problems and trying to increase awareness for the need for sustained and vigilant struggle. We should be thanking him for his vital insights and not vilifying him. As the old saying goes, getting rid of the ancien regime is the easy part.
Markar
I was surprised to read the responses, mostly disparaging, to my most recent opinion piece. And here I thought this would be one of those pieces that elicit no comments... After re-reading the comments this morning, I wish I had begun by congratulating the victorious demonstrators more emphatically, and then assuring readers that I hold Pashinyan in high esteem as an individual—which I do. A few more responses to comments: I agree with Ed’s observation about cultural revolution and the importance of a good educational system. With reference to the latter, Armenia has for the past twenty-seven years been going in the opposite direction. (Armenia: The Curse of Education “Reform” http://hetq.am/eng/news/64395/armenia-the-curse-of-education-reform.html) Regarding the famously happy, prosperous, and free Czech Republic, Sergej should take up the matter with the respondents to the western-funded opinion polls that indicate widespread dissatisfaction with the post-socialist order, and support for the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia. (Sergej need look no further than what one might assume is an approved source for him, namely, Forbes magazine: https://www.forbes.com/sites/dougbandow/2013/10/07/democratic-failure-in-the-czech-republic-authors-a-communist-party-revival/#41dee8b821f2.) And so we have a case of a victim of Soviet invasion in 1968, which obediently jumped right into Uncle Sam’s Coalition of the Willing, to help G.W. Bush invade Iraq and prosecute a multi-trillion dollar war that has claimed one million lives and created tens of millions of refugees that countries like the Czech Republic today refuse to accept. Are citizens of the Czech Republic proud of that, too? Sergej is right, though: the Czech Republic, along with Hungary and of course the Baltic Republics, are often cited as the rare post-Soviet success stories. All the worse for the claims about post-Soviet prosperity, one would think. Ando has a few choice words for an idiot’s opinion. I like the term. I wonder if it would make any difference if I would follow the usual Armenian custom of prefixing a “Dr.” to my name, and adding a few more academic publication credits to my bio blurb. I demur partially because it’s not my style, and partially because I want readers to consider the opinions presented on their own merits, without consideration for titles. And this the commenters have done! In any case, Ando is right: mine are the opinions of an idiot—a round-Earther idiot at a Flat Earth convention. So, Ando takes a good hard look around at a media landscape dominated by tweets from the current resident of the White House, and decides that he needs to register his opposition to one particular obscure idiot. Some people, it seems, demand all neoliberal propaganda all the time, and get angry when they accidentally encounter the opinions of a rare dissenter. Several commenters have described my criticisms as premature. Here’s hoping that subsequent events will prove them right: here’s hoping that the new Prime Minister will distinguish himself as the “democratic socialist” that some have described him as. One of the commenters wrote that the author of this piece has offered no evidence for his views. So it seems that the record of three administrations over the course of twenty-seven years amounts to no evidence. I remember the response to a little piece I wrote for AIM Magazine back in 1993, in which I leveled much more strident criticism against the LTP administration. (“The Indoctrination Years Aren’t Over Yet—Not by a Long Shot,” AIM, October 1993, p. 46.) I won’t quote from it here; I would just encourage Sergej, Ando, Armam, and Marz to get their hands on that article somehow and read it. Back in 1993, people accused me of jumping the gun. “Give Armenia time,” one of the gentler commenters wrote. (AIM, December 1993, p. 9) Others assured me that, in the next few years, Armenia would get its act together and realize the Free Market utopia that the official experts had promised. It is worse than sad to observe that in retrospect my 1993 criticisms appear mild, in view of the damage that Armenia would endure in the coming years. I very much wish that events had proven me wrong. Thankfully, it does not appear that Nikol Pashinyan’s administration is in the same category as, say, the first post-Soviet administration in Yerevan. The new administration now has the opportunity to reverse at least some of the damage that previous administrations have done. Let’s hope it does. Prime Minister Pashinyan’s announced aim of reviewing mining activities in the country is a hopeful sign. On the other hand, Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigoryan’s 25 May meeting with the Resident Representative for the IMF in Armenia---not so much. (https://armenpress.am/eng/news/934985/) Armam wants me to propose a realistic, concrete alternative. Fair enough, here it is: The cheerful, bright, conscientious--and notably young--people who have just pushed through the change of administration should not forget that they have achieved a victory for democracy, and that they did it both peacefully, and outside of the rigged electoral system. They should heed the lessons of other recent struggles, and recognize that (to cite the alternative already described above), they need to form themselves into “a sustained organizational presence on the ground,” “an organization with clear goals to replace capitalist rule by socialism, workers’ power.” OF COURSE socialism is a distant goal. But with enough support, the mere formation of an organization working for this distant goal will have immediate consequences. It will transform energy that might otherwise eventually express itself in pointless frustrated radicalism into a project that will make real change, and it might even strengthen the hand of those within the Pashinyan administration—including perhaps Nikol Pashinyan himself--who want to remain true to the spirit of the Yerevan Spring.
Ando
This was a joke right. If hetq’s goal is to turn off readers and publish every idiots opinion you did he’ll of a job. Congratulations a few more articles like this and you can close your website no self respecting person is going to read this crap.
Hetq
Sergej....it's an opinion piece and, as such, does not necessarily represent the views of Hetq. Thanks for following us.
Sergej
What a piece of desinformation. I have used and ejoed reading articles on HETQ. But I have stopped reading this one after about Velvet Revolution of the Czech Republic. My family has emigrated to the CZ in the early 90's and there are many Armenians leaving there now. Czech peopel are proud of the Velvet Revolution. They ended communist rule, brought freedom, democracy and prosperity. Czech economy is one of the fastest growing in the EU and the corruption is non existent for the ordinary people. Shame on HETQ for publishing such an article. If this is the new trend on the HETQ I will stop reading it.

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