Reading our journal’s year in review article, one may get the impression that we live in turbulent times. The prospects for our liberal order have remained uncertain, in line with a general trend that started worldwide in the aftermath of the Great Recession. But to many parts of the world, 2018 was a year of democratic progress and renewed hope. Ranging from a breakthrough in the Macedonia naming dispute to pro-democracy opposition victories in Malaysia and the Maldives, the past year had no shortage of positive political events. Probably the most spectacular change comes from the ex-Soviet Caucasian country of Armenia, which experienced 2018’s only successful revolution. The story of this modern Velvet Revolution is so extraordinary that, for good reason, the Economist named Armenia “country of the year” for 2018.
Having become independent in 1991 following the dissolution of the USSR, Armenia’s post-Soviet history has many aspects similar to its former “sister republics.” Entangled in a lengthy and bloody conflict with Azerbaijan over the majority-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region, the country was also ruled for most of this time by the Republican Party of Armenia, described by the Economist as a “typical post-Soviet party of power.” The party replicates a structure of patronage that is also present in the United Russia party, the Moldovan Democratic Party, the New Azerbaijan Party or, more recently, Fidesz in Hungary and the Romanian Social Democrats. The party would unite economic oligarchs, political leaders, professionals, civil servants, and other key individuals in order to control the state at all levels and ensure that even in case of electoral defeat, the levers of power would remain with the party.
Surprising to many, it took the Armenian people a little over two weeks of protests to peacefully overthrow this entire system of patronage and political machines. It all started with the inauguration of Serzh Sargsyan, Armenia’s long-running leader, as Prime Minister. A two-term president faced with constitutional term limits, Sargsyan changed Armenia’s regime from a presidential to a parliamentary republic in 2015 in order to safeguard his grip on the country. Oddly enough, Sargsyan opted not to follow other fellow authoritarians and attempt to remove term limits altogether. It is possible that, in a similar fashion to Vladimir Putin, he may have found the move too “obvious.” In 2017, parliamentary elections gave his party a majority, which in turn led to his confirmation as Prime Minister in April 2018, just a week after his presidential term had ended.
Sargsyan’s attempts to cling on to power did not bode well with Armenians, who immediately took to the streets. But this was no Euromaidan. Footage of the protests indicates that the atmosphere looked more like a street party than an actual revolution. Smiling faces, concerts, people handing flowers to the police, and young people playing the guitar are not exactly the kind of images that are associated with the overthrow of quasi-authoritarian regimes.
This pressure and the fear of violence, as well as the increasing popularity of the opposition, may have contributed to Sargsyan’s swift decision to leave office. Of course, there can only be speculation on the reasons for this resignation, as nobody can really know why Sargsyan made no attempts to keep his office. But in his resignation speech, the embattled leader accepted defeat through a simple, memorable line: “Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong.”
Be it Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine or Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia, every post-Soviet revolution was tied to a corresponding charismatic leader. In Armenia, the role belongs to journalist-turned-politician Nikol Pashinyan, who is seen by Western political commentators as a very complex figure with syncretic ideology and ambiguous positions. He is undoubtedly the face of the revolution, but he remains a mystery to many, and there are fears that his popularity may encourage him to take a path similar to his predecessor.
In any case, the only historical certainty is that the revolution started with Pashinyan as leader of a minor opposition party and ended with the same Pashinyan as Prime Minister, supported by an unlikely coalition of the opposition parties and some dissident Republican Party MPs. To no surprise, Pashinyan was not satisfied with the parliamentary status quo and resigned in October to force a dissolution of the Parliament and snap elections. His strategy paid off, and his party won 70% of the votes in the December elections, enjoying a two-thirds Parliamentary majority. The Republican Party was reduced to the role of extra-parliamentary opposition, failing to pass the electoral threshold of 5%.
What is peculiar about Pashinyan is that, while his party has historically preferred European Union integration over closer ties with Russia, once he became Prime Minister he committed himself to even stronger military connections to Russia. Though Pashinyan’s ambiguity in foreign policy formulation may frustrate many observers, it may play to his country’s advantage by keeping both Russia and the EU close to the new government. This might also help explain Russia’s noticeable lack of reaction in the aftermath of the revolution, which stands in contrast to its past negative reactions to other similar events in ex-Soviet countries (such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine).
In any case, the most important aspect of the revolution remains in its essence: it has not only been a peaceful revolution, but it has also been one that respected the constitutional order in its entirety. In Armenia, nobody was forcefully driven out of office. No government building was set on fire. No public square was vandalized. No institutions were dismantled. No article of the Constitution was suspended.
Sargsyan’s resignation led to a transfer of power under the complete control of the Parliament. The same Parliament which had a Republican majority and was considered loyal to Sargsyan. Its eventual dissolution happened according to the provisions of the constitution, with snap elections constituting the ‘peak’ of the revolutionary process. And the entire process was exceptional exactly because of this: it may be an oxymoron, but Armenia essentially had a “legal revolution” in 2018.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Featured image by Bert Pot, via Flickr Creative Commons.