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The Armenian revolution: a mishandled opportunity

Inept management and inconsistent policies have caused disappointment among an Armenian civil society eager for reform.

July 5, 2021 - Armen Grigoryan - Articles and Commentary

Yerevan Cascade. Photo: Chris Hall / Shutterstock

Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution”, the civil disobedience campaign that ousted Serzh Sargsyan from office in April 2018, was ultimately the result of a long-term struggle led by the political opposition. The opposition’s struggle continued even after the violent suppression of protests following a fraudulent election that handed the presidency to Serzh Sargsyan. On March 1st 2008, upon orders given by Sargsyan’s predecessor, Robert Kocharyan, police and army units used automatic weapons against protesters. Ten people were killed and nearly 200 were injured. At the same time, around 150 people were arrested during the unrest. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party was formed in 2015 as the direct result of a youth movement established soon after the events in 2008.

Apart from the political opposition, there were other actors in the country that eventually made the 2018 revolution possible. These include human rights defenders, anti-corruption groups, journalist unions, NGOs promoting democratic values and various informal organisations. These groups were subsequently ready to participate in the protests of April 2018 after Pashinyan and a small group of his associates encouraged the population to take to the streets. Certainly, the organisations were crucial in facilitating large-scale social mobilisation.

The revolution paved the way for snap parliamentary elections in December 2018. This vote was the first in about two decades that was not marred by widespread vote buying, ballot box stuffing or violence against the opposition. While the Armenian National Congress party, the main driving force behind the 2008 protests, abstained from participation in the elections, its supporters and some other non-parliamentary parties were rather optimistic about the future. Some civil society activists were even elected to parliament on Pashinyan’s list, becoming a part of a two-thirds majority led by the prime minister. Hopes were high as Pashinyan and his team promised to take several steps towards strengthening civil society. Promises included reversing state capture, implementing transitional justice, constitutional and judiciary reforms and reform to the election system.

Narrowing the “window of opportunity” for reforms

Despite this, by spring 2019 some potential problems could already be identified. For example, it was clear that the circle of government decision makers was narrow and many of them had little experience. This was made particularly clear by the inability of certain figures to govern by delegating tasks, which often resulted in micromanagement. The parliamentary majority elected due to Pashinyan’s personal popularity also included too many people with little political experience, as well as a number of leaders’ relatives, classmates, former officials and even some defectors from the Republican Party. Dependence on the leader significantly reduced members’ willingness and potential to monitor the decisions and actions of the government. Additionally, Pashinyan’s cabinet was mostly formed from an old cadre that was better at promising change than delivering real reform.

Whilst Pashinyan was willing to call the 2015 constitution “a jacket tailored personally for Serzh Sargsyan” several weeks before the revolution, he ultimately decided to avoid amending it until after the next planned parliamentary elections in December 2023. This decision was taken despite repeated warnings that the constitution, which was initially designed to ensure Sargsyan and his Republican Party’s long-term rule, lacked proper checks and balances and could even result in a protracted political crisis. Previous promises to condemn state capture and implement transitional justice were simply dismissed. While independent experts and civil society representatives were invited to parliamentary hearings and some consultations, their proposals for more consistent reforms were rarely entertained by the new administration.

The former head of the Delegation of the European Union to Armenia, Piotr A. Świtalski, noted in his book The Armenian Revolution: An Unfinished Cable that “for many civil society activists, the government well into 2019 was still a mixture of old and new Armenia”. He went on to say that the changes in personnel, particularly in the law enforcement agencies, “were only symbolic, perhaps even too symbolic to be positively appreciated by civil society. The basic cadre of managers remained the same”. Świtalski also noted that civil society and many experts now “mock the ruling party’s philosophy as moderate progress within the bounds of the law” (clearly an allusion to Czech satirist Jaroslav Hašek’s joke ‘Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of the Law’).

There were no breakthroughs in judicial reform despite promises regarding the vetting of judges, integrity checks and other measures. Moreover, a number of judges and prosecutors previously involved in persecuting the opposition (particularly during and after the 2008 events) were even given promotions. For a long time, the government ignored repeated demands to establish additional checks on the police and the National Security Service (NSS). For instance, they refused to repeal a clause stipulating that these institutions must be directed by officers ranked no lower than colonel. The absurdity of such stubbornness reached its peak in May 2020, when Pashinyan, disappointed with the performance of two previous NSS directors, made 29-year-old Argishti Kyaramyan deputy head of the Investigative Service. As a law enforcement officer, the former deputy of the State Control Service (an anti-corruption body) could simply be promoted to colonel. Kyaramyan was appointed deputy director of the NSS the next day and he later became director of this organisation. After all of this, however, his service lasted only four months. His resignation simply led to another seasoned, old cadre colonel to assume the office.

It should be noted that the government did agree to re-establish the country’s interior ministry after a sustained advocacy campaign by civil society. Among other functions, this body would supervise the police. This reform was made partly possible by a commitment to establish a new police patrol unit with financial support and advice from the European Union and US. The adoption of a simple proportional election system should also be noted as another important reform. However, this reform only happened a few weeks ago, as the government, now weakened by the military defeat in autumn, had to agree to snap parliamentary elections in June.

Criticism refuted, consistency lacking

It should be mentioned that the government’s indecisiveness and reactive approach has become a key obstacle to reform. Ever since summer 2018, the government has constantly been on the defensive against propaganda promoted by media and social network accounts affiliated with Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan’s son-in-law Mikayel Minasyan. These accounts and groups remain firmly opposed to most of the suggested reforms and have even tried to compromise the country’s democratic values and civil society. Despite these clear challenges, the government has failed to adopt an effective communication strategy. The Pashinyan administration has also not fulfilled an earlier promise to adopt a law promoting transparency in media ownership.

These failures were rather paradoxically accompanied by unwarranted self-confidence and arrogance. Pashinyan’s team has increasingly dismissed warnings from experts and civil society representatives about the reforms and has even shown disrespect towards critics.

Shortly before the war, on September 15th 2020, Pashinyan mocked “people who learnt about the revolution a week after May 8th 2018 (the day he became prime minister) and became warm supporters of the revolution values”. Discussing the issue of who ‘owns’ the revolution was not a wise choice considering the fact that the mass civil disobedience seen in 2018 was made possible by people affiliated with various political and civic groups.

The parliamentary majority recently appointed three representatives of the former establishment to the constitutional court. The sheer absurdity of this situation was made particularly clear by an obvious contradiction within Pashinyan’s own promises. In May 2019 he announced that all judges whose verdicts had been overturned by the European Court of Human Rights would be dismissed. Despite this, one of the judges appointed in September 2020, Yervand Khundkaryan, had thirteen of his verdicts overturned by the ECHR. As a result of these events, the government had to pay 312,000 euros in compensation.

The post-war situation and the snap elections

Political instability after last autumn’s disastrous war with Azerbaijan increased disappointment among Armenian civil society. This was particularly true as some of the warnings earlier dismissed by Pashinyan’s administration became real problems following the conflict. For months before the war, civil society had been warning that the government’s approach could help revive the careers of former presidents Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan, the Republican Party and other forces whose political ‘death’ seemed certain after the December 2018 elections. Such a revival could also involve an unreformed judiciary connected with the former establishment.

After signing the Russia-brokered ceasefire on November 9th 2020, radicals and supporters of the former regime ransacked the government headquarters and Ararat Mirzoyan, the parliamentary speaker. A few days later, people associated with some high-ranking former officials were apprehended for illegal possession of weapons. In all the associated court cases, the judges overruled demands that the perpetrators be subject to detention. Furthermore, the constitutional court ruled that the trial of Robert Kocharyan and others connected with the events of March 1st 2008 must be dismissed, as a clause of the criminal code (in fact, adopted under the previous regime) vital to the case had been ruled non-constitutional.

Disappointment related to these missed opportunities for reform was further exacerbated by some of the government’s own policies that could potentially threaten freedom of speech. In response to the rhetoric of the radical opposition, the government proposed criminalising the defamation of state officials. However, Pashinyan ultimately decided to adopt an amendment that simply increased the fines related to defamation and public insults. Members of the former regime, eager to get Moscow’s support, nevertheless decided to increase their verbal attacks on civil society and even threatened to disband a number of organisations seen as “national security threats”.

Despite the country’s disastrous military defeat, the snap parliamentary elections on June 20th  once again gave Pashinyan a strong majority. This was largely the result of the public’s bitter memories of the Kocharyan and Sargsyan era. Despite this, the two former presidents’ blocs will be the only opposition in the new parliament and they may use their position to intensify their campaign of propaganda and obstruction. While Pashinyan promised a renewal of reforms, his willingness and capacity to deliver remains uncertain.

Armen Grigoryan is co-founder and vice president of the Yerevan-based Centre for Policy Studies, and a member of the advisory board of the project Resilience in the South Caucasus: Prospects and Challenges of a New EU Foreign Policy Concept, implemented by the Institute of Slavic Languages and Caucasus Studies, University of Jena.

This article is a part of a research project supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Small Grants Programme. Opinions expressed in this publication do not represent those of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung or any public or private institution.

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