On May 8, 2018, one day before Armenians observed Victory Day, Yerevan once again erupted in jubilation. Opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan had just been officially elected Armenia’s 15th prime minister by the country’s National Assembly, with 59 votes in favor and 42 votes against. The newly elected PM was confirmed by Armenian President Armen Sarkissian and immediately received warm congratulations from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. He also spoke on the phone with Putin personally. This was a striking change of fortune from a week earlier, when the revolutionary leader failed to secure the premiership on May 1, due to the continued efforts by the ruling Republican Party to obstruct such a scenario.
Only one month ago, the prime ministership of Pashinyan would have seemed impossible. The political machine of the Republican Party still dominated Armenian politics, as it had since the late 1990s. It was the fateful decision of Armenia’s then-exiting President Serzh Sargsyan to remain on as PM that prompted Pashinyan to travel throughout Armenia on foot. Supported by his wife, Anna Hakobyan, he and others walked together in protest, from Gyumri to Yerevan. This “Take a Step” initiative signaled the start of the nonviolent April Revolution that culminated in his ascent to the prime minister’s office.
However, the drama has only just begun. Armenia faces many challenges. First among them is political reconciliation. Pashinyan has sought to “close the chapter of hatred” in Armenian politics, and it is now time for the various political forces in the country to come together for the common good. This process is absolutely essential for the new PM as he turns to governance and as he pursues the first order of business: reforming electoral law to ensure free and fair elections. In this regard, there are individuals from the former ruling party, such as the outgoing PM Karen Karapetyan, who could help Pashinyan. Karapetyan’s governing experience, his political and business ties with Russia, and his own impulses for reform are potential assets for the incoming Armenian government. Significantly, as he stepped down from office, the former PM was among the first to extend his congratulations to Pashinyan.
Another, more long-term concern for any future Armenian government is to address the country’s long-standing socioeconomic problems, a process that will likely begin after new parliamentary elections, following electoral reform. Although the revolution was immediately prompted by Sargsyan’s decision to become prime minister, the socioeconomic question was squarely at the heart of it. This question is rooted in the dissolution of the USSR, the collapse of the Soviet welfare system, and the privatization of the Armenian economy in the 1990s. Entire sectors of Armenia’s economic life are monopolized by oligarchs with monikers like Lfik Samo, who act with impunity. Jobs, once plentiful in the Soviet era, are now difficult to find, causing many to seek work abroad, primarily in Russia. Poverty throughout the country remains a major challenge.
Indeed, a striking element of the April Revolution in Armenia was its social consciousness. Most commentators have already observed that the revolution differed from the “color” revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia in that the protest leaders distanced themselves from anti-Russian rhetoric. However, it also differed in the way that social concerns—poverty, jobs, inequality—were at the forefront of the movement. During the protests, one image floating around social media among Armenian activists showed a picture of Armenian children in a rural village living in abject poverty, contrasted with a picture of the ruling elite at an elaborate dinner party, sipping champagne. It was a scene reminiscent of a Victor Hugo novel.
Considering this context, the April Revolution inspired much hope among Armenians from all parts of the country and from all social classes. Its popular leader, Pashinyan, is regarded as a man of the people, not unlike Aleksandr Myasnikyan, the Armenian revolutionary who oversaw the rebuilding of Soviet Armenia in the 1920s. However, as the revolutionary civic activist and father of four exchanges his fatigues and “Dukhov” cap for a suit and the prime minister’s office, the question among Armenians quickly becomes: “Can he deliver?”
If he secures success in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, what will be his socioeconomic agenda for the country? Will he take the tired neoliberal approach as pursued by the “color revolution” governments in Ukraine and Georgia? Or will he strive for a new path in the post-Soviet space—a fair and equitable social-democratic policy (effectively a “New Deal”) for the Armenian people? It is worth noting that even if Pashinyan, or any future Armenian leader, pursues the latter option, change will not happen overnight.
However, for now, Armenia looks toward the future with a cautious optimism, tempered by a pragmatic realism. The April Revolution has given the country a new sense of hope, perhaps best expressed by the revolutionary poet Yeghishe Charents, the Armenian counterpart to Russia’s Vladimir Mayakovsky. Reflecting on his hopes for Soviet Armenia in 1921, he wrote:
Like a dagger pulled out of its case
The future rises, hard, sharp, and ablaze
With sun, never to enter its old dusty place,
Never to be buried in its old sheath of days.