Next Sunday, on December 9, Armenians are expected to further consolidate their unique and vastly underreported “Velvet Revolution.” On that day, acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s “My Step” alliance is expected to win a large governing majority in the country’s parliament.
Though this has been barely reported, if it all, in most of the Western media, for the past seven months, landlocked Armenia, with only 3 million inhabitants, has flickered as a small light of hope and progressive democratic change in a Europe increasingly shadowed by authoritarian and dictatorial forces—especially in most of the former Soviet-bloc states of Eastern Europe.
This is a unique revolution in every sense. It is the first full-on revolution in a post-Soviet state that legitimately boiled up from the streets, free of influence from outside forces—be it NATO, the European Union, the United States, or, for that matter, Armenia’s big-brother ally, Russia. As Anna Ohanyan argues in Foreign Policy, the Armenian revolution has much more in common with the democratic transitions in Latin America in the 1980s than it does with the “color revolutions” in Ukraine and neighboring Georgia that were “driven by reformist elites…usually backed by outside players,” i.e., the EU and the US.
And it sort of came out of the blue. True, for the past decade or so there have been mounting but politically limited protests in Armenia around issues regarding women, the environment, unemployment, and related areas. But what some call a “hybrid regime”—corrupt oligarchic rule clothed in a thin veneer of democracy—kept a tight lid on everything through its primary instrument, the Republican Party.
At the onset of this year, I doubt there were 10 people in Armenia who thought a revolution was only a few months away. As might have been predicted, the uprising was really provoked by the brazen hubris of the oligarchs. Since a not-so-legitimate election in 2008, Republican leader Serzh Sargsyan has served two five-year terms as a highly unpopular president. Before he left office, though, the Republicans engineered a constitutional change transferring executive power from the president to the prime minister. And as soon as Sargsyan’s term was ending, the Republicans nominated him to be prime minister, raising fears that he would be in power for life.
Lifelong political activist Nikol Pashinyan, a modest but highly charismatic 43-year-old journalist—and someone who has done jail time for his activism—didn’t take this sitting down. A member of Parliament and leader of a tiny opposition party with no clear ideology, Pashinyan announced that he would not accept this transfer of power, and on March 31 he set out on a protest march from his hometown toward the capital of Yerevan, 120 miles away. His trek began with just a few followers. Over the 17 days it took him to get to Yerevan, his ranks swelled into the thousands. Then into the tens of thousands. And then, in the middle of the capital, to more than 100,000, as ordinary Armenians nonviolently blockaded the streets and paralyzed the country for several days with what was essentially a general strike.
Faced with with a hopeless situation, Sargsyan resigned on April 23. Shortly thereafter, in what might be called a gust of magical realism, the Republican majority in Parliament named Pashinyan (he is commonly called Nikol) as acting prime minister. This was not an act of generosity or opportunism, but rather of realism. The Republicans knew that it was either bite the bullet or face a modern-day storming of the Bastille.
Pashinyan is the first Armenian leader in modern times who is neither an oligarch nor aligned with oligarchs. He rails against undemocratic rule and social injustice, and he frequently walks the streets dressed in jeans, a baggy sweater, and a dusty cap to talk to whoever is there.
But Pashinyan has been in a precarious situation as acting prime minister. He has no governing majority, and no real political party, and could be deposed with a single no-confidence vote. But he has something more important: truly massive popular support. As Pashinyan navigated his way through Armenia’s byzantine electoral rules to finally get to the snap elections now set for Sunday, he was given two opportunities to flex his stunning political muscle. In late September, when municipal elections were held—the first truly free elections in decades—his slate won more than 80 percent of the vote. A week later, when the Republicans tried to pass a law making the promised snap elections harder to hold, all Pashinyan needed to do was post one Facebook call for mobilization; within an hour, tens of thousands showed up at the doors of Parliament, and the sabotage bill died a quiet death.
Lacking a parliamentary majority during his first half year in office, Pashinyan used executive powers to make what changes he could. Several current and former high-ranking officials were arrested on corruption charges. Some subsidies were given to small farmers. And in the only move that has so far ruffled Moscow’s feathers—albeit slightly—he arrested former president Robert Kocharyan for his role in the killing of 10 people in 2008 protests. Kocharyan has since been released but still faces possible trial.
In any case, the Armenian people got the message that Pashinyan was serious; his popularity, at least for the moment, is enormous. One opinion poll gave him a 98 percent favorability rating. I’ve been to Armenia several time in the past few years, and on every occasion, the collective depression was palpable. But on my last visit, in October, it was the opposite. A visible and tangible wave of optimism, a sense of a future, had washed over the population. And no whiff of militarism or repression has accompanied the revolution. Indeed, there has been expansion, not retraction, of democratic and constitutional norms—in themselves revolutionary in today’s Armenia.
Sunday’s election should be a slam-dunk for Pashinyan and his allies. But afterward, there is still much to be hashed out and implemented, and all that good will he’s enjoying could preface mass disillusionment. Pashinyan is facing, among other things, scant resources, a closed border with Turkey; a closed border with Azerbaijan, as the frozen conflict in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enters its fourth decade; and economic and military dependence on Russia, Pashinyan also faces a much thornier issue: What exactly does revolution mean in a place like Armenia? Seven decades of Soviet rule makes anything with the word “socialism” attached to it more than suspect. And three decades of supposed free-market capitalism has also been a failure. What exactly does a democratic revolution mean in this region in 2018? If the old models don’t work, what does?
I got some answers from one of Pashinyan’s brightest advisers. Educated in Monaco with a specialization in finance, and a sometime restaurateur, Eduard Aghajanyan now serves as Pashinyan’s chief of staff. And he’s 30 years old, which tells you a lot about the changes taking place in Armenia. (The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Marc Cooper: Your government came to power in May through nonviolent popular protest, but to date you have governed without a parliamentary majority, something you are projected to win in the December snap elections. What will be the most important outcome?
Eduard Aghajanyan: We are expecting a more stable environment. If we’re talking about investors, we’re talking long-term. People need to have stability. They need certainty. The political scene right now is quite tense, and the so-called counterrevolution, and the people who represent the counterrevolution are obviously doing as much as they can to come back.
MC: The oligarchs who you call the counterrevolution have 25 years of history governing Armenia and have tremendous economic power. Are you concerned about their somehow returning to power?
EA: We have no concerns about that, because we have been brought to power by the people. We have the mandate of the people, and we now know for sure that people are holding firm on the final resolution of the revolution that started in April. All the people who have been a part of the revolution—which is more or less 80 percent of the population—are very aware that this process will come to an end through the elections.
MC: I’ve been in conflictive situations like this before, but this one is unique—both in its past and in the way it came about. So it’s hard to make comparisons. But how can you not be concerned that the oligarchic economic forces will build either a political opposition that’s a serious threat to you, or will sabotage your plans?
EA: When we’re talking about the oligarchs who have been around for the past 20-25 years, we’re talking about people who have been privileged not to pay taxes, but that’s quite a misconception. Why? Because they will be in much better shape when they are brought back into the rule of law. Because it’s not that they were privileged not to pay taxes; they were simply paying taxes in the form of bribes, rather than to the budget of the country. This created an unhealthy and unjust political and social situation. The idea now is to separate business from politics. So business will no longer pay “taxes”—bribes—to a given politician. This is a crime—for both the one who pays and the one who receives.
MC: So you are saying that the old regime intertwined the economic oligarchs with the political class?
EA: Exactly. They were criminally intertwined. They did it mainly through rigging the elections, and now they will no longer have to do that.
MC: So are you saying that, at least in the medium term, the goals of the revolution could be compatible with some of these larger economic interests? There can be coexistence?
EA: Absolutely, yes. I don’t know if you’ve heard that our revolution has been called the revolution of love and solidarity and so on. And in fact it’s unique that we actually came out of a situation that was there for almost 30 years. The government was simply eating the country from within; you can imagine how many people’s interests you touch upon. You can imagine how dangerous that could be for those people,
MC: The last time I was here, when I was talking to friends, I said, “You know, I really love the Armenians, but everybody is so damn depressed. You can feel it on the street.” There was a hopelessness.
EA: Exactly. And what made this revolution was that we could break that hatred, we really hated… We didn’t like ourselves.
MC: That’s sort of an invisible victory in a way, right? I mean, that’s a change that is very significant but not immediately material. You’re talking about a change of mentality.
EA: Exactly. We have been around; we have been in politics… I personally have been in it for 10 years, and the prime minister has been in it his whole life. What we realized was that all the previous attempts at change failed mainly because they were based on hatred, based on talking about only the negative stuff. But this time we were completely ignoring individuals; they were out of the game.
MC: But the main slogan during the 11 days of uprising was Merjir Serjin, which means “Deny Serzh.” I mean, the revolution seemed very much focused on ousting former President Serzh Sargsyan, who you claimed was setting himself up as lifetime prime minister.
EA: That slogan was not about one person; it was about a whole system, which was symbolized by this person. But people were not really interested in this politician, that politician. It was more about ourselves.
MC: A better life.
EA: Yeah, it was more about a better life, it was more about regaining our self-dignity, I guess, regaining our rights, regaining our self-confidence. What was amazing was that this outburst of positive energy came from the students. And we had thought that students were really hopeless, because the previous government made sure to politicize all the universities around Armenia. They had these semi-political university bodies that were…
EA: Not threatening, really. Just rigged. The system was kind of like the Soviet Union, if you want to go into politics.
MC: You had to join the party.
EA: Exactly. The Republican Party was the only way to the top. So that’s how they did it. So obviously in this kind of atmosphere, it’s really hard to find freedom of speech and so on. And actually to find freethinking students who are ready to fight for their rights and so on—it turned out they were already there, we just hadn’t broken through the gates to reach them. But they turned out to be in the front of the revolution.
MC: One of the strange things about Armenia is that this has to be the least ideological country I’ve ever seen in my life, at least, outwardly. Ideology is all around us, but ideology means very little here, for all the reasons we know. In the past 100 years, you’ve had these two unbelievably traumatic experiences: the 70 years of Soviet domination, and then almost three decades of something that called itself the free market, which was not free. So in a way it leaves the field open for you, because you know the two big ideas that are out there—communism and neoliberal capitalism—are discredited. So how does one ideologically understand this revolution? Because when you listened to Nikol Pashinyan’s speeches, from a Western European view they had a definite social-democratic tone to them. But I don’t think you’d be comfortable calling this explicitly social democratic.
EA: In our main platform document, we do not have any ideology. And when we were in the process of creating and establishing a political party, we were being asked this question, quite often from different journalists. The answer that Nikol Pashinyan was giving at the time was that we deny all the ideologies, we deny all the isms, simply based on the fact that none of them have worked so far.
MC: That is arguably true. But certainly you recognize that all political and social institutions have a de facto ideological basis, even if they are not acknowledged.
EA: I have a deeper explanation for this idea of denying any ideology. Basically, any ideology to me seems utopian. It makes a lot of sense that any ideology, or sticking to any ideology—doesn’t seem to be smart, right? We have seen this in all the countries, basically, starting with the United States. Take the US of 2008, the global financial crisis: We have had billions of dollars of quantitative easing [by the Federal Reserve], which was… If you read the books of Milton Friedman, who is supposed to be the father of the free-market economy, this shouldn’t be allowed, right? The system that has been preaching free markets all around the world for the past half-century has done something that the Soviet Union, or even a socialist system, would not have allowed.
Take the case of the so-called second school of economics, which was based on the work of John Maynard Keynes. Before the Great Depression, he used to be a very strong preacher of the free-market economy. He was a huge fan of Adam Smith. At the time he was a big deal within the economic world. Then the great crash came, and that’s when his most inventive and revisionist work took place. And it completely opposed the ideas that he had been preaching before. Everybody was accusing him of having no principle, because he had simply changed his mind based on factual reality. And his famous answer to that was, supposedly, “When facts change, I change my mind.” When facts change, when reality changes, you change your ideology. Sticking blindly to one ideology doesn’t make sense. Maybe we will be the first country having no ideology in terms of economics or politics. But if I were to frame it right now, I guess I would say we are going toward social democratic. Because I would presume that we will have a tax system that will be progressive and that we will be spending more on people’s needs.
MC: Understanding what you’ve said about rejecting fixed ideologies, I’m assuming that this government or this movement does in fact have a set of principles, which is different from a total blank slate. The principles that I hear your revolution espousing are: more democracy, more transparency, more equality, and fighting corruption.
MC: That’s the part that sounds somewhat social democratic. It seems a foregone conclusion that your My Way alliance will win a large governing majority on December 9. But people say the hardest part of any revolution is after you win. What’s going to be your first big challenge when you achieve full power?
EA: First we have to find some productive role for those smaller political forces that are still lost, that are out of touch. I think after the election they will really feel the new reality and will accept it.
MC: That could take a very long time. On your immediate agenda, it seems to me the biggest challenge is going to be economic, the horrific economic inequality. It’s a global issue, but here in Armenia it’s very acute, as you know. And you are up against some pretty formidable and entrenched economic structures.
EA: Yes, I know.
MC: With the kind of resources that Armenia does not have, and with the economic structures that are in place, how do you begin to make an impact? Is your strategy one of redistribution, is it one of increased investment, is it both? I mean, God forbid, if I were prime minister, I would be on the first plane to Georgia.
EA: Redistribution is something that would be of great help. Taxation is central to that, though Nikol has spoken of somewhat flattening the tax. It’s not going to be easy. Because as you know, I presume right now officially 30 percent or more of Armenia’s population is poor. This is not just a humanitarian or demographic catastrophe; it has become a question of national security. So this is definitely our priority. We have to reduce poverty dramatically, as fast as possible.
When we think strategically, there are areas that we will be investing a lot of state resources in. The first one will be education; if we have a proper system, the children of those poor families will have full access to education. This will definitely help in the mid- to long term. So we’re talking 10, 15, 20 years from now.
I don’t know if you know, but Armenia is really strong in IT. This might be considered a part of education, but we’re talking about also investing in production of software technology; that’s a huge priority for us as well. What else do we have? This is my favorite part: We will be investing a lot in areas that are not developed. We will be decentralizing the economy of Armenia. Right now, about 80 percent of economic potential is centralized in Yerevan, which is absurd. There are so many beautiful places here! I love the second-biggest city, Gyumri; it has something really special. So I’d be really happy if within 10 to 20 years the economy really got decentralized. Those places have huge potential for tourism, so tourism is another priority. But you know, everything that I’m talking about, it implies a huge infrastructure that has to be developed.
And one more thing, which was something I was trying to understand in the long term: What is Armenia about? What is Armenia for? How do we justify the existence of Armenia? I organized a discussion with friends of mine here about this, people from different backgrounds, and we asked, What has to be changed? And what do we have to say to the world about us? Basically, we think that Armenia should be perceived as a home for all the Armenians who have fled the country, starting from 1915, and during the Soviet era as well as the post-Soviet era. Our main problem from the past centuries is depopulation. There are about three times as many Armenians in the diaspora as there are in Armenia.
Especially for the past 30 years, there has been a strong debate between those people who fled the country and the people who stayed, who have been accusing the ones who left of being unpatriotic. So basically, our aim is to build a country and atmosphere that says this is your home. And what does this imply? What does home mean to anyone? Safety, comfort, freedom, respect, and opportunity. And I think this is our true vision of Armenia: Armenia as home.