For the first months of 2018, observers of Armenian politics quietly wondered what would happen in April, when the nation was set to officially transition from a presidential to a parliamentary republic. Would Serzh Sargsyan, President since 2008, stay on as Prime Minister? Or would he stand down in favor of someone new? He kept quiet about his intentions until just days before the transition was set to occur—when the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) endorsed him for the premiership.
Serzh, as he is known in Armenia, was widely unpopular, and stood for the status quo: oligarchic control over much of the economy, endemic corruption, and—most frustratingly of all—a government that seemed entirely content with these realities. In the face of 20 percent unemployment, almost 30 percent of the population living on less than $3 a day, an extremely tight credit market, crumbling infrastructure, a dangerously low birth rate, and staggering emigration, the HHK insisted that everything was going smoothly.
Many Armenians had hoped that Karen Karapetyan, Prime Minister since 2016, would stay on after the shift to a parliamentary system. Though a nominal member of the HHK, Karapetyan had won a reputation as a maverick during his tenure as mayor of Yerevan, and brought a relatively dynamic, business-minded spirit to the premiership. But by opting for Sargsyan over Karapetyan, the HHK signaled that real power would remain in the hands of the old guard, and that no meaningful reforms would be forthcoming.
Nobody—least of all the ruling elites—anticipated that a major popular challenge would emerge against Sargsyan. At most, citizens were expected to “let off steam” in minor protests, just as they had in seemingly every year of Sargsyan’s rule.
The first protests appeared to confirm this belief. The only major opposition initiative was organized by Nikol Pashinyan, a 42-year-old Member of Parliament who had been jailed for anti-Sargsyan activities from 2009 to 2011. One of just nine MPs definitively oriented against the HHK, Pashinyan organized a march from the northern city of Gyumri to Yerevan, arriving in the capital on April 13. There, he delivered a fiery speech condemning the government—specifically criticizing embezzlement of military funds, which he argued nullified security-based arguments in favor of Sargsyan. But just a few thousand, predominantly middle-aged and elderly supporters attended the rally.
Pashinyan and a small group of these supporters then blocked a central intersection with benches, tents, and dumpsters. For the next two days, though the protesters made headlines and drew casually friendly onlookers, they did not gather significant crowds. The police, seemingly keeping with their “letting off steam” strategy, kept far away.
On Monday, April 16, the day before Sargsyan’s planned election as Prime Minster, large groups of students joined the protest movement, succeeding in completely closing several of Yerevan’s most important avenues and halting subway service. They then gathered outside the National Assembly, led by Pashinyan, where they confronted police for the first time. A confused melee ensued, in which around a dozen protesters—including Pashinyan—were lightly injured by stun grenades, tear gas, and barbed wire.
On Tuesday, Sargsyan was officially elected Prime Minister, and Pashinyan began holding nightly rallies in Republic Square—the capital’s largest open space—and calling for a non-violent “velvet revolution.” Throughout the week, the rallies grew, Pashinyan held marches in various suburbs, and Armenians in villages and small cities also began to protest. However, life continued as usual in most areas of Yerevan, and most observers still expected demonstrations to die down just as in years before.
But on Friday, April 20, the situation in Yerevan suddenly changed dramatically. Seemingly unbidden, tens of thousands of flag-waving protestors poured into the streets, blocking almost all traffic in vast areas of the capital; truck drivers and computer programmers went on strike; and thousands of drivers across the city began blaring their horns in support of the demonstrations.
Even the protesters themselves seemed taken aback by the rapid developments. But their momentum was undeniable, and when massive demonstrations continued on Saturday, the mood shifted to one of jubilation, with loud cheers, patriotic music, and fireworks joining the endless sound of car horns.
Sunday, April 22 was a pivotal day. In the early morning, Pashinyan announced that he would meet with Sargsyan to discuss the terms of the latter’s resignation. The two indeed met, but their conversation, which was broadcast live, lasted just three minutes. Rather than resigning, Sargsyan appeared to threaten deadly violence against protesters, whom he dismissed as “7 percent of the electorate,” and then stormed out of the meeting.
About an hour later, Pashinyan was arrested, along with two other MPs who had helped lead the protests—despite their constitutional immunity as members of parliament. The police then announced that all further demonstrations would be forcibly dispersed. Hundreds of grassroots organizers, as well as ordinary participants, were arrested, and many were injured. For a brief moment, it appeared that the government had retaken control.
However, Sargsyan’s conduct during the abortive negotiations, Pashinyan’s arrest, and the authorities’ seemingly total disregard for popular will ignited massive resistance. Close to 200,000 people took to the major avenues of Yerevan, including thousands who had traveled from other parts of Armenia. One major march surrounded the prison where Pashinyan was being held. Eventually, all the marches converged on Republic Square, and the enormous, leaderless crowd held a defiant rally. Despite their earlier threats, the police retreated, seemingly overwhelmed by the size of the demonstration.
On Monday morning, most workplaces, schools, and universities were closed, and student-led demonstrators filled virtually every street in Yerevan. Just before noon, news began to circulate that hundreds of uniformed soldiers had joined a major march, and shortly thereafter Pashinyan and the other MPs were released. By then, close to 500,000 demonstrators had packed Republic Square and the surrounding streets. Shortly after 4 p.m., Sargsyan abruptly resigned, admitting: “Pashinyan was right. I was wrong.”
What factors prompted such a sudden, unforeseen turn of events? How did Nikol Pashinyan—mostly unknown in Armenia until two weeks ago—manage to break Sargsyan’s decade-long deadlock on power?
First, Pashinyan and his co-organizers employed innovative tactics to expose the near-unanimity of popular opposition to Sargsyan. By holding daily marches in far-flung suburbs of Yerevan, they gave previously ignored constituencies a chance to participate in demonstrations, gradually mobilizing tens of thousands of first-time protesters. And by asking motorists passing marches to “beep if you’re against Serzh”—which, according to videos and eyewitness accounts, nearly all of them did—they created powerful illustrations of the shallowness of the regime’s support. Meanwhile, the government was unable to mobilize even a semblance of a counter-movement, either on the streets or on social media, effectively ending any illusions that might have been harbored regarding its popular legitimacy.
The second factor that helped topple Serzh Sargsyan was timely intervention from clergy and soldiers. The Armenian government had long relied on the Armenian Church hierarchy for legitimacy, and during Sunday’s pivotal events there were reports of policemen appealing to clergy to help disperse “illegal” protests. However, far from sending demonstrators home, a group of priests instead led a march to Republic Square, shielding participants from arrest or police violence. A photograph of the priests went viral on social media, largely destroying the government’s claim to speak for the Church.
Even more important was the fact that several hundred uniformed soldiers joined the protesters on Monday, which demonstrated that the government could no longer rely on its own security services. Less than four hours after the soldiers appeared, Sargsyan abruptly resigned.
Third, the “Velvet Revolution” succeeded because—despite repeated attempts to do so—the government was unable to credibly paint Pashinyan or his supporters as dangerous. At each of his rallies, Pashinyan called for total nonviolence, insisting that his supporters must “turn the other cheek” if attacked, and that anyone who so much as cursed at a police officer could have no place in the movement. The crowds seemed to accept this guideline, cheering loudly and raising their open hands whenever a speaker reiterated non-violent principles.
Additionally, given Armenia’s ethnic and religious homogeneity, there was never a threat that the protests would trigger communal violence. Though government officials attempted to draw parallels to the bloody aftermaths of revolutions in Ukraine and the Arab world, these comparisons held little currency in the absence of irredentist minorities, Islamists, or similarly polarizing groups.
Fourth, and finally, the impending date of April 24—Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day—played a vital role in the denouement of the demonstrations. The authorities feared that April 24, when Armenians traditionally walk en masse to memorial sites, would turn into a massive anti-government demonstration, which would be impossible to forcefully disperse.
In the aftermath of Sargsyan’s shock resignation, questions remain about the broader goals of the “Velvet Revolution.” Though “Reject Serzh” was the protesters’ original slogan, their demonstrations always had self-evident implications reaching far beyond Sargsyan himself. From the beginning, Pashinyan and his co-organizers demanded an end to oligarchy and corruption, emphasized their support for rule of law, and called for elections unmarred by allegations of fraud. Protesters’ homemade signs, social media posts, and even boycotts of oligarch-led businesses showed that vast numbers of them agreed: They were marching against Armenia’s entire political-economic status quo, not just Serzh. In this regard, the “Velvet Revolution” is a classic pro-democracy uprising, similar to the movements that accompanied the collapse of the USSR 30 years ago.
Unlike those uprisings, however, the Armenian protests have not, in any discernable way, been directed against Moscow. Neither Pashinyan, his co-organizers, nor any other faction has criticized Russia—or, for that matter, even discussed foreign policy—during the protests.
Nevertheless, many in the Western press have forced a “Russia angle” into their reporting and analysis, suggesting that the Armenian protests represent a reproach against Moscow. These suggestions are not just inaccurate; they also reflect a long-standing Western tendency to overemphasize Russia’s importance in Armenian affairs, forgetting the fact that the two countries do not share a border, a language, an alphabet, a church, or even a common history dating to before the 19th century.
Rather than belonging to Russia’s “camp,” as many Western strategic analyses assume, Armenia has since independence sought allies wherever possible, attempting to simultaneously maintain warm relations with the United States, the European Union, Russia, and Iran—all as bulwarks against Azerbaijan and Turkey. This was the strategy Sargsyan pursued, and it will almost certainly be the strategy pursued by his successor.
Whatever comes next, the past two weeks constitute a historic milestone for Armenia. The country has not seen demonstrations on such a scale since the independence movement against the USSR, and for the first time since independence, a sitting leader has been forced out by popular demand. Having realized and asserted their power, Armenian citizens seem primed to enter a new phase of engagement, activism, and optimism.
Nikol Pashinyan has gained an enormous constituency, and his speeches and press conferences make clear that he believes the job of the “Velvet Revolution” is just beginning. He and his supporters believe that the entire HHK must be swept from power, and hold that no HHK figure can remain even as interim Prime Minister.
Late on Tuesday, acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan cancelled planned negotiations with Pashinyan, accusing the latter of heavy-handedness. Pashinyan responded by calling for renewed demonstrations, and overnight it was unclear how the situation would develop.
Karapetyan seemed to be making two gambles: First, he calculated that he had emerged from the revolution with his popularity relatively intact. Second, following 11 days of protests, Monday’s victory celebrations, and Tuesday’s solemn commemoration of the Genocide, he may have expected that Armenians were unlikely to pour back into the streets in overwhelming numbers.
However, he appears to have been wrong on both counts. Throughout Wednesday, hundreds of thousands once again shut down most of Yerevan, this time calling for a total rejection of the entire HHK. The demonstrators were joined by dozens of MPs who had opposed or remained on the sidelines of the “Reject Serzh” movement, and by evening, the HHK’s coalition partner, the ARF-Dashnaktsutyun, pulled out of the government and threw its support to Pashinyan. This left the protest leader just six votes shy of the threshold needed to be elected interim Prime Minister in elections on May 1.
Many now expect that this gap will be filled by defecting HHK MPs, especially after a Thursday announcement by Armenia’s President—like Karapetyan, a nominal member of the HHK—lauding the “organized and civilized” protests and urging parliamentarians to respect the will of the people. The coming days will show whether they heed his call—and whether the “Velvet Revolution” can sustain itself beyond its early, improbable success.