Armenia’s Revolution Will Not be Monopolized

An Armenian protest leader just secured the office of prime minister by a landslide—but, thanks to his own efforts, he’ll still face plenty of opposition.

Nikol Pashinyan casting his ballot during early parliamentary elections in Yerevan on Dec. 9, 2018. (Karen Minasayan/ AFP/Getty Images)
Nikol Pashinyan casting his ballot during early parliamentary elections in Yerevan on Dec. 9, 2018. (Karen Minasayan/ AFP/Getty Images)

MASIS, Armenia — “Who will we vote for? Nikol Pashinyan, of course!” said Karen Karapetyan and Aghavni Tovmasyan, incredulous. This couple in their thirties arrived at a polling station here last Sunday to vote in snap parliamentary elections. Their candidate won by a landslide: the My Step Alliance, in which Pashinyan’s Civil Contract is the leading party, took 70.5 percent of the vote. “Mighty, mighty, mighty people!” wrote Pashinyan on his Facebook page the morning after the results. “I love you all, I’m proud of you, I bow before you.”

Pashinyan was swept to power on a platform of combating corruption, widespread poverty, and unemployment. All those problems are on show in this town of 18,000 in the shadow of Mount Ararat. Locals in Masis work in agriculture or two large tobacco factories; most of the town’s industry was shuttered after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Places like Masis thirst for change. And there’s no disputing that Pashinyan has brought it: The meteoric rise of the 43-year-old journalist turned opposition politician seemed unprecedented until this spring. When longtime president Serzh Sargsyan attempted to switch positions into the newly empowered prime minister’s office, thousands of Armenians took to the streets in protest. After a tense standoff, Sargsyan resigned and Pashinyan became acting prime minister in May. The peaceful overthrow of the ancien régime became known as Armenia’s Velvet Revolution.

The mood in Yerevan remains high, as do hopes for the future. But for several months after the revolution, Pashinyan had to contend with a parliament dominated by the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), led by the ousted Sargsyan. Sunday’s vote changed all that, solidifying the change of power during the revolution and consolidating the strong popular mandate Pashinyan enjoys (an opinion poll taken by the International Republican Institute in October gave the prime minister an approval rating of 82 percent.)

But while he is increasingly seen as such, Pashinyan was not the only face of the protests in April and May; leftists, social democrats, and nationalists of many stripes took to the streets alongside his movement. “This election was really about the opposition,” remarked Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Caucasus Institute, a Yerevan-based think tank. “It was obvious that Civil Contract would get most of the votes, most probably a large majority.” The Karapetyans in Masis said while they voted for Nikol, they hoped to see the other parties enter parliament “so he rules better. It’s important that he has opponents.”

Amendments to the country’s constitution from 2015 ensured that he will: even in landslides such as this, the opposition is collectively ensured a third of all parliamentary seats. Besides the My Step Alliance, just two of the 11 parties on the ballot papers cleared the 5 percent threshold to win those seats: Bright Armenia, a liberal pro-European party and former coalition partner of Pashinyan’s party, took 6 percent of the vote. Prosperous Armenia, headed by Armenia’s most influential tycoon Gagik Tsarukyan, took 8 percent.

But by far the biggest upset on Sunday was that the RPA, which dominated Armenian politics since 1999, failed to clear the 5 percent threshold required to win parliamentary seats, losing all the 58 they previously held. Election observers voiced concern over “a wave of hate speech” they say Pashinyan provoked toward the RPA in the run-up to the vote.

While election observers praised the elections as free and fair, the turnout was unexpectedly low, at 49 percent (compared to over 60 percent in parliamentary elections last April). “The low turnout can be explained by the fact that people weren’t driven to polling stations in buses [carousel voting]. There was no coercion, but people also weren’t paid money to vote anymore,” said Iskandaryan. “I also suspect that compared to last year, everybody had a clear idea of who would win; voters may have felt that if there’s no fight, what’s the point of voting?”

With the RPA absent, there is now no force in Armenia’s parliament which does not fundamentally support the overthrow of the Sargsyan government in May. Word in Yerevan is that while counterrevolution once seemed a distant possibility, it has become an impossibility. “It was remarkable,” said Arsen Gasparyan, senior advisor to Pashinyan, of the RPA’s failure to enter parliament. “A political party which basically ran this country for 20 years doesn’t have the capability to get 5 percent. We all know that previous elections had irregularities, but we’re not talking about 20 or 30 percent, we’re talking about 5 percent for a party which had a parliamentary majority. Many people still don’t understand it.”

Yet Anahit Shirinyan, a Chatham House academy fellow specializing in Armenian politics, sees no mystery in the RPA’s banishment from parliamentary politics. “The overwhelming majority of Armenian citizens rejected not just Serzh Sargsyan, but also his party, and that system,” she explained. “The Republican Party is associated with carrying out one-party rule for years, and by extension all the socioeconomic problems Armenians are dealing with today.”

In its election platform, the RPA conceded that mistakes had been made under the Sargsyan regime. “The price of a mistake in politics is a loss of power, and we have paid that price,” began their statement. “We know and have accepted our mistakes, but our actions have been unjustly smeared.” When asked what those mistakes were, the RPA’s leading candidate on the party list, Vigen Sargsyan, explained that “it was the usual problem of any party which is in government for too long: There’s too much bureaucracy, and you lose contact with your grassroots. They become echoes rather than voices.” Sargsyan, a former defense minister, added that the party manifesto contained “a whole list of mistakes.”

Nevertheless, the RPA has also gone on the offensive, declaring in a post-election statement that the elections were “democratic in their form, but not in content.” Sitting in his office at party headquarters, beneath a portrait of Serzh Sargsyan, RPA’s vice president Armen Ashotyan told Foreign Policy that “it’s sad when a country has no real opposition. Pashinyan succeeded in having the most comfortable opposition for himself. We acknowledge that we’re a little frustrated, but after the enormous pressure and hate speech against us, we still managed to gain nearly 60,000 votes.”

“When you see the combined results of the Republicans and the Dashnaks [the RPA’s junior coalition partner, which also failed to pass the 5 percent threshold], that’s almost 100,000 voters. They’re people who put national values and patriotism at the cornerstone of their political views,” continued Ashotyan, lamenting that this conservative electorate would not be represented in parliament. Ashotyan assured FP that the RPA would survive to fight another election.

In that spirit, the Republicans and their allies appear to be appealing to Armenia’s strident social conservatism as the basis of their opposition to Pashinyan. “If you’re concerned about the degradation of traditional values, vote Republican,” ran one party poster. “We are a Christian democratic party; of course we’re concerned about church-state relations and family values,” explained Vigen Sargsyan. Furthermore, party leaders including Vigen Sargsyan have stoked fears of what they call Pashinyan’s “populism,” drawing parallels with other anti-establishment movements across Europe. “Nikol Pashinyan is clearly part of this global trend of populism,” Ashotyan told FP. “Thanks to this revolutionary euphoria, he has put rose-tinted glasses on nearly every Armenian citizen.”

Yet Armenia’s new parliamentary opposition appears to be taking its democratic responsibilities seriously—including in holding the country’s new leadership accountable. Bright Armenia is an avowedly pro-EU and classical liberal political party which had been a coalition partner of Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance in Armenia’s last parliamentary elections in 2017. “We decided to run separately because we had too many different approaches to various issues, including foreign policy. But those debates were all internal, within our faction. I think it’s healthier for us to openly air our differences and have those debates in parliament,” party leader Edmon Marukyan told FP on the evening before the vote. Marukyan described the tendency to equate support for the revolution with loyalty to Pashinyan as “unhealthy and problematic.” “It doesn’t matter who you are; if you don’t have somebody to oppose you, you’ll be in trouble. Any government with such high legitimacy needs an opposition.”

At a televised pre-election debate between party leaders, the first of its kind in Armenia, Marukyan strongly clashed with Tsarukyan, the Prosperous Armenia leader, questioning the businessman’s involvement in politics. “I don’t think Prosperous Armenia should have a place, they’re clearly part of the old way of doing things,” Marukyan told FP. “And I crushed Tsarukyan in the debate.” (Marukyan recently said he considers Bright Armenia to be the only opposition party in parliament.)

Tsarukyan could not be reached for comment. But at Prosperous Armenia’s offices, the party’s chief of staff Ruben Manukyan dismissed the widespread belief that the party was mostly an electoral vehicle for its wealthy benefactor. Whether they admit it or not, argued Manukyan, most political parties in Armenia form around personalities rather than concrete ideologies. “Yes, we have a very colorful leader, but we also have a good team of people surrounding him who have experience, particularly in the economy. As our leader says, improving it has to be the priority.”

“I think most people who voted for Bright Armenia or even Prosperous Armenia considered them to bear the same revolutionary agenda,” explained Shirinyan, the Chatham House fellow. “What helped Tsarukyan was that at the time of the revolution he wasn’t part of the old coalition government, although he was often quite complacent [in opposition]. But people expect these forces to work together to deliver results, they don’t really care about the confrontation.”

Beyond his general commitment to improving living standards and combating corruption, Pashinyan remains something of an ideological enigma, once describing Armenian politics as a post-ideological landscape. “I have never said I am a liberal,” began Pashinyan when asked about his convictions at a press conference for international journalists after the vote, at which FP was present. “There are no clear lines between political ideologies anymore … in the 21st century, those lines disappeared. It’s not acceptable for me to call our party ‘liberal,’ ‘centrist,’ or ‘social democrat,’ because the goals we have to achieve are beyond ‘-isms.’”

Yet when asked during the same press conference about the government’s stance toward social welfare, Pashinyan showed his cards, speaking of the importance of attracting foreign investment and lightening the tax burden of small businesses. “The previous government found it very convenient to keep people poor and buy their sympathy by giving them bread or money. But now we say to our people that they can earn their own bread through honest work. And we are going to encourage [them] not to expect help, not even from the government,” concluded the prime minister.

Some analysts believe that over time, the contradictions within such a “big tent” party as Civil Contract will become clearer. “Perhaps no other party participating in the elections has such explicit differences at the level of individual members. They could become future leaders of different factions within the My Step Alliance, which is currently quite unclear in terms of its ideological platform,” said Zhanna Andreasyan, a lecturer in sociology at Yerevan State University.

Whatever colors Pashinyan eventually nails to the mast, he now commands a huge parliamentary majority. As such, the struggle is now on for his government to meet the immense expectations Armenians have of their new, post-revolutionary order. Many ordinary Armenians such as the voters of Masis appear to care little for “-isms,” as long as they can bring tangible improvement to their lives, many of which are blighted by rural poverty.

For now, Pashinyan’s reputation as the man of the people who fought and won appears to be enough to inspire hopes for change. “If you play chess, you’ll know what Zugzwang is,” began Gasparyan, the presidential advisor. “That’s what Armenian politics faced from 1996 until the Velvet Revolution: Any possible change in domestic politics looked like it would only worsen things. Pashinyan got Armenia out of Zugzwang; that’s why people love him.”

Maxim Edwards is a journalist covering central and eastern Europe. He is a former editor at openDemocracy and a former assistant editor at OCCRP. @MaximEdwards

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