Armenia’s Democratic Dreams
The country’s Velvet Revolution took its cues from democratic movements in Latin America rather than from other revolutions in the post-Soviet world. Here’s why that’s a good thing.
At a time when authoritarianism seems resurgent, Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution has set the country on a path toward sustained democracy. And the movement did so not by following the courses charted by closer neighbors in the post-Soviet world but by following a trail blazed somewhat farther away in Latin America nearly 40 years ago.
Before this year, Armenia was ruled by Serzh Sargsyan, who assumed power through a highly controversial—and much protested—presidential election in 2008. Sargsyan was re-elected in 2013, and then, as the end of his second term drew near, he announced that he would step in as the country’s first prime minister within a newly configured parliamentary system. Anger about his power grab quickly boiled over, and soon calls for Sargsyan’s resignation echoed in Armenia’s streets. The protests spread when Nikol Pashinyan, an opposition leader in parliament, was detained for his role in organizing and leading the initial marches. He was soon released, and Sargsyan announced his resignation on April 23. Only 11 days of peaceful protests and civil disobedience had passed. After a few rounds of votes in parliament, Pashinyan was elected as prime minister.
In power, Pashinyan and his administration had to work with a parliament still dominated by members of Sargsyan’s Republican Party. That party’s standing is largely viewed as illegitimate because of the systemic electoral fraud that plagued the last parliamentary and presidential elections. And so, on Oct. 16, Pashinyan resigned as a way to push for snap parliamentary elections by mid-December. His Yelk (Way Out) Alliance is widely expected to dominate that vote, which would return Pashinyan to power as prime minister—this time with a friendlier (and hopefully more trusted) legislature.
In all its twists and turns, Armenia’s Velvet Revolution shared relatively little with the post-Soviet color revolutions. Rather, similar to many Latin American shifts from military to civilian rule in 1970s and 1980s, the Armenian transition was slow in coming, driven by nonelites, and unfolded through the country’s institutions rather than against them.
First, Armenia’s Velvet Revolution represented the climax of a decade of peaceful protest centered on human rights, women’s rights, environmentalism, and labor and employment issues—all explicitly non- or minimally political causes. Such activism created a model for advocating and securing tangible compromises from government figures. Small-scale protests also established nonviolence as a credible strategy. By the time Sargsyan announced his intention to become prime minister, there was already a well-known template in place for responding.
That progression mirrors the evolution of Latin America’s democratic transitions in the 1970s and 1980s, which stand out for their grassroots support and for being grounded in broader social issues such as the elimination of literacy requirements for voting, reductions in the voting age, and the removal of other barriers to political participation. Such advocacy saw the electorates of Brazil, Honduras, El Salvador, and Peru expand massively, which helped to consolidate democracy. In Argentina, meanwhile, slow-building protest against the deeply repressive military junta eventually weakened it until it was finally done in by the war with the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands.
These cases stand in stark contrast to the post-Soviet color revolutions, which were often sudden and driven by reformist elites, who were themselves usually backed by outside players, most notably the European Union and the United States. Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, for example, included mass protests but really resulted from the loss of faith at the top rather than a push from below. The revolution’s top-down nature allowed one of its leaders, Mikheil Saakashvili, who was quickly elected as president after the protests died down, to strengthen the executive branch of the government with little pushback from largely compliant parliamentary forces. Interelite competitions in the aftermath of the other color revolutions in Serbia and Ukraine produced paralysis within their governments, paving the way for illiberal forces to retake power later on.
The Velvet Revolution’s emphasis on consensus building also had more in common with Latin American revolutions than the color ones. Pashinyan spent his time bargaining both within parliament and the executive branch and among the mass mobilizers in the street. For example, he negotiated with various factions in parliament to hold a vote for the prime ministership as a way to reconcile the preferences of the protesters with parliamentary processes. He has likewise worked with both civil society movements and unaligned parliamentary groups to gain support for holding snap elections.
Such push and pull between the incumbent regime and the democratic opposition was central to many Latin American transitions as well. Government changes in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru all entailed some form of dialogue and, ultimately, a pact between the incoming and outgoing forces. The most notable example here is the 1985 Bolivia Pact for Democracy, which brought the authoritarian government and the leading opposition party together around a series of drastic reforms meant to address mounting economic crises. Another example is Uruguay, when opposition forces were simply incorporated into a coalition government after the 1989 election.
By contrast, during the color revolutions, the power transfer between the incumbent and the reformers tended to be total and often one-sided. Whether in Georgia’s Rose Revolution, Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution, or Ukraine’s Orange and Euromaidan revolutions, there has been very little in the way of consensus building, with reformers generally pushing their opponents out of government entirely.
There is also something to be said about a revolution unfolding within an existing constitutional order rather than in opposition to it. The Velvet Revolution explicitly and consistently adhered to Armenian constitutional prescriptions for government change. The most dramatic example is that Pashinyan was elected only after hours of questioning by parliament, mostly by the Republican Party, whose leader, Sargsyan, had just been unseated.
Similarly, in Latin America, most of the democratic movements restored previous constitutional orders that were interrupted by military governments. Since the transitions in the 1970s and 1980s, few leaders have sought to change their countries’ constitutions to cement their newfound power. In contrast, after being elected president of Georgia, Saakashvili promptly introduced constitutional amendments that tilted power in favor of the executive branch. Such actions have undermined the revolution and weakened Georgia’s nascent democracy.
In Latin America, democratic revolutions developed slowly, involved outgoing regimes in the transition, and operated within a flawed but formal institutional and constitutional order. Democracy has become relatively more consolidated despite ongoing challenges from the far-right, as in Brazil. In the former Soviet world, where protest was sudden, involved less consensus building, and entirely dismantled the old system, democracy has not been as durable. Indeed, in Georgia, Ukraine, and Serbia, it remains compromised and exceedingly fragile.
It is good for Armenia that the country looks to be following Latin America’s pattern more than that of the former Soviet states.
It is good for Armenia, in other words, that the country looks to be following Latin America’s pattern more than that of the former Soviet states. Like in Latin America, the leaders of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution have already sought to translate successful mass mobilization into sustained civic engagement on less glamorous policy issues, such as tax evasion, legal reform, and business development. The experience of blocking streets with music and dancing, holding boycotts, and negotiating with security forces helped turn participants into stakeholders, and those stakeholders are rallying to take on other unpopular figures, such as the former mayor of Yerevan, Taron Margaryan, who has long been seen as corrupt and incompetent.
Something similar happened in Latin America: Human rights groups in Argentina evolved after the transition and expanded their goals to include transitional justice, human rights education, new legal protections for various minorities, and an end to discrimination. This stands in sharp contrast to revolutions in the post-Soviet world, where a lack of post-revolutionary civil society has precluded sustained engagement, undermined political pluralism, enabled re-emergent authoritarianism, and, in some cases, fostered the rise of right-wing populism. In Georgia, for example, many people who had been in the nonprofit sector joined Saakashvili’s government and became unwilling to criticize the administration. They fell for a classic trap: In their research, Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, the editors of The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, showed that civic demobilization is one of the most potent threats to democratic consolidation.
Armenia may be on a good path, of course, but it still faces problems. The country’s economy has recovered from a slump during the 2008 global financial crisis, registering a GDP growth rate of 7.5 percent in 2017, the largest increase in the past decade. But the country’s poverty rate remains high—30 percent, by some accounts. Armenia’s private sector also needs reform. As a first step, the current government launched a corruption investigation into government-linked oligarchs.
Another challenge is that the West has been slow to give its support to the new government, appearing to want to wait and see instead. In turn, the government has had to look inward for money, which puts it under pressure to continue working with the same old economic elite. It will be difficult for Pashinyan to continue to pressure local oligarchs to conduct business more transparently even as he relies on them for funding through taxes.
Also complicating things for Armenia is its region, where Russia is resurgent. From the onset of popular demonstrations, Pashinyan proactively engaged regional powers, affirming that the movement was neither pro-West nor pro-Russian but was foremost motivated by domestic political, social, and economic concerns. During the revolution, sustained engagement headed off direct Russian intervention, even as the beleaguered authoritarian elite seemed to be trying to get Russia involved. And on a recent visit to the Caucasus, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton pushed for Armenia to revisit its historic and strategic alliance with Russia and to join the United States in its efforts to isolate Iran, one of the only two countries with which Armenia has an open border.
But Armenia will still have to be cautious. Its democratic transition has altered the regional fabric, at least by creating a small democratic block with neighboring Georgia. Both countries will need to work together, something the experience of Latin America underscores. It was only by coming together that Latin American countries were able to contain the imperialistic impulses of the United States.
Armenia’s Velvet Revolution offers a range of lessons for democratizers stuck in so-called hybrid regimes, where authoritarian states are cloaked in shallow democratic institutions. Peaceful and slow-building protest created sustained pressure for change, while pushes for democracy through formal institutions within the existing constitutional order loaned the revolution legitimacy. The movement has also shown that a healthy civil society is indispensable, both for confronting authoritarian regimes and consolidating democracy. Without it, it will be hard for transitioning countries everywhere to stay on the right side of history.