Anahit Shirinyan and Richard Giragosian say that while Armenia's recent revolution lacked clear Russia vs. the West overtones, post-revolution success could have broad implications.
On this week’s foreign policy radio broadcast we look back on April’s home-grown political revolution in Armenia, considering how it succeeded, what comes next and the precedent it sets.
The year 2018 didn’t begin well for Armenia, explains Richard Giragosian, director the Regional Studies Center, an independent think tank in the country.
He paints a bleak portrait.
“Armenia lives in a tough neighborhood. It’s crime-ridden, it’s impoverished, it’s the ghetto of the former Soviet Union … We saw over a decade of entrenched political dominance by one ruling party … entrenched poverty, mounting disparities of wealth and income, little signs of any real breakthrough in democracy or reform.”
Political and economic stagnation in Armenia isn’t a new phenomenon, but when President Serzh Sargsyan completed a not-so-subtle power grab involving a constitutional rewrite and his own promotion to the new role of prime minister, Armenians had had enough.
“Against that backdrop, we saw in 11 days a rare success of non-violence and people power that toppled the government,” Giragosian says.
Less than a month later, former journalist and protest figurehead Nikol Pashinyan was appointed as Prime Minister.
Anahit Shirinyan, an academy associate at Chatham House, was in the Armenian capital of Yerevan when Sargsyan stepped down, and says April’s protests were the culmination of years of simmering anti-government tensions.
“This is not the first time that Armenians have taken to the streets to protest – to file their grievances against their government,” she explains. Protests have accompanied elections since 1996, but they have evolved in recent years to encompass a range of other political grievances, drawing more participants to the streets.
Armenia’s April revolution is different in many ways from the 2014 overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
“In this case, the Russia versus the West dilemma was completely irrelevant for Armenia because Armenia couldn’t, and I still think cannot, afford to make a geopolitical choice between Russia and the West,” she explains.
Armenia was a part of the Soviet Union for 70 years until 1991 and still has close ties to Russia, but neighboring Turkey and Iran work to hold Russian interference in check.
“I think it was actually very good for the Armenian revolution that it is devoid of the geopolitical angle,” Shirinyan adds, noting that whereas Ukraine’s new leaders could point to deepened security and economic ties with Europe as a distraction from a necessary crackdown on corruption, Armenia’s new leaders will be more accountable to proximate grievances.
“In a sense, this offers maneuvering space for this government to fully focus on domestic reforms and deliver on them,” she says.
“In the case of Ukraine we saw a resolution being highjacked and the ascendance of just another corrupt elite. In the Armenian context, there was a conscious decision to avoid this kind of political change being transformed into a beauty contest between Moscow and Europe, or the West versus the East.”
Even though Armenia’s revolution was not a tug-of-war between Russia and the West, its outcome may have implications for that broader struggle, Giragosian adds.
“After all, a victory in Armenia – a victory of democracy – is also a victory of the West and the defeat of the pressure and coercion preferred by Russia.”
So what’s next for Armenia?
A tough road, Giragosian says, in which the country will have to “try to play a weak hand a little bit better.”
“We’re now in a more difficult stage of governance,” Giragosian explains. “The real problem here is the old guard.”
Politically, Prime Minister Pashinyan needs to consolidate enough power to force new elections and fill up the parliament with his supporters. That won’t be easy, since the outgoing former Republican Party still holds the majority of seats in parliament, and those legislators will do everything they can to maintain the status quo.
Pashinyan’s economic challenges are equally daunting, as he confronts entrenched oligarchs in a bid to open up Armenia’s economy to the world.
“Clearly, economic liberalization is going to be an important focus of reforms,” Shirinyan says, noting that an “entrenched oligarchic system” loaded with monopolies has prevented the formation of an economic “level playing field.”
“Of course the geography still makes many of the economic opportunities limited, but Armenia hasn’t actually so far tried to have a truly liberal economy in order for us to be able to gauge how well can this economy in reality perform in the current geopolitical and geographical circumstances.”
Landlocked Armenia is further isolated from regional and global commerce thanks to closed borders with Turkey to the west and Azerbaijan to the east. That means Armenia’s export-oriented economy is unlikely to flourish. But the country’s tech sector is booming and capable of breaching those geographical constraints by linking up Armenia’s 3 million citizens with a diaspora population estimated to be three times as large.
“It’s one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, where open borders matter much less,” Giragosian says. “Moreover, much of the agent of change in the demonstrations were the new generation of youth, some of which are real drivers and innovators in the country’s IT sector.”
But perhaps the best thing for Armenia, Giragosian says, is if outside economic support is tied to specific domestic reforms, thereby preserving and building on the accomplishments of the revolution
“I think the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the European Union have an important role to play in crafting an approach called ‘conditionality,’ where financial support for the government will be directly linked or tied to specific outcomes and achievements in reform. That way there’s less of a danger for backsliding.”
And if that conditional support for Armenia succeeds in transforming a once-stagnant post-Soviet state into a dynamic and democratic one, Giragosian says the model set by Armenia’s revolution could be profound.
“This is a wake-up call. This is a scary message for neighboring Turkey, neighboring Azerbaijan – the more autocratic, authoritarian states whose corrupt, entrenched elites may be under much more of a degree of defensive paranoia.”
Use the audio player at the top of this post to listen to or download our full interview with Anahit Shirinyan and Richard Giragosian.
- Richard Giragosian’s interview with WikiTribune, “Where next for Armenia after the ‘velvet revolution’?”
- Anahit Shirinyan’s interview with Euronews, “How 11 days of protests brought down Armenia’s leader Serzh Sargsyan”
“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas at U.N. Headquarters in New York.