Monday Commentary: Armenia's long journey
07 May 2018

Recent popular protests in Armenia may not necessarily amount to a revolution, and this may be for the best. In any case Nikol Pashinyan is more a Vaclav Havel than a Leon Trotsky, and he has already indicated what are his priorities for change in the country, argues Dennis Sammut in this week's Monday Commentary on

Barring some last-minute hiccup - and given the events pf the last three weeks that cannot in any way be excluded - Nikol Pashinyan will tomorrow (8 May) be elected as Armenia's prime minister. It will be the end of an extraordinary turn of events. Only two weeks ago Pashinyan was briefly imprisoned, and the same parliament was being asked to lift his parliamentary immunity. One week ago, in the same parliament, his candidacy failed to garner enough support, and was voted down with 56 against 45 in favour.

Much has changed in Armenia in the last two weeks, but one thing everyone seems to agree on is that tomorrow will close one chapter in this political drama - the end of the first lap of a long journey that the Armenian people have now embarked upon, a journey that will always be hazardous, often unpredictable, and a journey whose final destination is still not clearly defined. The peaceful popular protest that Pashinyan initiated has won the first round. Those currently in power in Armenia realised that the popular movement Pashinyan unleashed was simply too big to be suppressed, their positions too vulnerable. Once the genie was out of the bottle, there was no way to put it back in. Their acceptance of Pashinyan as prime minister is a recognition of that fact.

Is this a revolution?

Many years ago, as a student at the London School of Economics, I participated in a course led by my academic mentor and friend, the late professor Fred Halliday, that analysed revolutions - from the American, the French and the Russian, to the more recent ones in Iran and the so-called velvet revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia. Over weeks we discussed how revolutions often end up disappointing those who make sacrifices for them. Disillusionment soon creeps in as opportunists take advantage of the situation to make gains and settle scores.

I met Fred Halliday years later in Armenia, shortly before his untimely death in 2010. We discussed Armenian politics, and we both came to the conclusion that in Armenia the conditions for revolution did not exist, but that change in the political landscape was inevitable.

Nikol Pashinyan has characterised the popular protests in Armenia in the last four weeks as a velvet revolution. Time will tell if he is right. Not every popular uprising leads to deep enough changes to be characterised as a revolution, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Revolutions often lead to long periods of turmoil and disruption. Armenia needs change badly, but can ill-afford disruption. Luckily, Pashinyan is more Vaclav Havel than Leon Trotsky - the choice of the term "velvet revolution" was no coincidence. He has been careful to emphasise continuity in many spheres, including on key issues related to defence and foreign policy. His main concerns seem to be in the area of governance, and this is also where many on the streets of Yerevan and other Armenian cities will expect him to deliver.

If tomorrow he is elected as prime minister - with the acquiescence even if not the whole-hearted support of the current ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) - his mission to deliver the kind of shake-up his supporters expect will not be easy. Sooner or later Pashinyan will need to get a mandate from the people, through the ballot box rather than street protests. Only a clear and unambiguous election victory will enable him to do the shake up necessary in an orderly and constitutional manner. This work will start tomorrow, but the process of transformation may take years. The world will watch to see if the Armenian people will keep faith with their new leader in the meantime.

Several internal and external factors will influence the process. Can the Armenian economy be revived quickly enough so that a new government can deal with many of the bread and butter issues that forced the people on the streets this spring? How will the all-important Armenian Army react to reform? Will developments around the Karabakh conflict derail any reform project?

External factors are also important. Pashinyan's protest movement is clearly home grown. Foreign interests, not least the Russians, have not overtly interfered in the process. They must not do so in the future either, nor must anyone else. This is a journey the Armenian people need to make on their own.

Pashinyan's vision

Soon Pashinyan will need to outline a much clearer vision of what he hopes to achieve, than the general statements he has made so far. He will also have to decide how inclusive his movement is going to be. Central to the issue is the role that the RPA will play in the future. It has so far been organised as the party of government, held together by patronage. To remain relevant, it needs to quickly change itself. It is often accused of containing many bad apples. But it also has within it many valid persons who still have much to contribute to their country. Pashinyan may decide it is better to work with them, at least in the short term, even if many of his supporters may find this distasteful.

Pashinyan himself, has over the last weeks grown in stature. He has been firm, yet showing flexibility as required - not only by changing from his iconic combat fatigue t-shirt into a dark suit, when necessary, but in tangible political terms too. He remains in his speeches humble about himself and ambitious for his cause. Even if of his other talents the Armenian people know little, they appear ready to give him their trust. But many also understand, the undertaking he is taking on is far from easy and time may not be on his side.

source: Dennis Sammut is the Executive Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research) His Monday Commentary appears weekly on

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photo: Nikol Pashinyan in his iconic combat fatigue t-shirt