Imagine a scene with a massive crowd of people set in a city of reddish tuff buildings, street signs written in an ancient script, and surrounded by biblical mountains. Envision people from all walks of life—students, teachers, workers, artists, journalists, clergy, soldiers—smiling, laughing, and hugging one another. A sea of flags with red, blue, and orange colors fills the square, and taxi drivers are honking their horns and popping champagne. The atmosphere is stirring and electric! These are ordinary people who stood up for transparent and accountable government. They mobilized to fight for a cause from a grassroots level, and they eventually won against almost impossible odds.
This was the scene on Monday, April 23, 2018, at Republic Square in the center of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The people of this small former Soviet republic in the Caucasus had just heard the news (at first seemingly unrealistic) that Serzh Sargsyan had resigned from the post of prime minister. Sargsyan has served two terms as president, since 2008, and has been involved in Armenian politics in some capacity since 1990. With the switch to a parliamentary political system (similar to that of neighboring Georgia) in 2015, the oligarchs around Sargsyan persuaded him to remain as prime minister in order to protect their interests. Earlier, in 2014, he had publicly vowed that he would not seek to continue his tenure as prime minister and that he would step down in 2018.
His abrupt volte-face earlier this month triggered a protest movement to keep Sargsyan accountable to his earlier promise. It began as a small movement of mostly middle-class students led by Nikol Pashinyan, a muckraking journalist turned politician. However, over time it evolved into a mass movement, involving men and women of all social classes and age groups. By Friday, April 20, Yerevan’s Republic Square was packed with peaceful protestors. This was a surprise to even the protest leaders, including Pashinyan, who has become something of a sensation on Russian TV (his parents, from the Armenian town of Ijevan, expressed great pride for their son on the RBK network). At first, Sargsyan refused to yield to the crowd, but in the end, he resigned on April 23, one day before the commemoration of the 1915 Armenian genocide. It was an incredible act of statesmanship on the part of the outgoing Armenian leader, but more than anything, it was a victory for the Armenian people. “I was wrong,” Sargsyan wrote in his unprecedented resignation letter.