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Armenian Youth End Soviet-Era Inertia in Velvet Revolution

For Armenia’s post-independence generation, the victory was also a counteraction to the country’s Soviet past.

Supporters of Armenia's new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan celebrate his election during a rally in Republic Square. Pashinyan was elected during a special session of Armenia's National Assembly.

It is a rare moment for Armenia: There is a resurgence of optimism, in no small part, because of the country’s youth.

This past April and May, it was the youth, under the leadership of opposition leader and journalist Nikol Pashinyan, who organized the country’s Velvet Revolution. The movement developed in response to President Serzh Sargsyan’s announcement that he would seek a third consecutive term as the most powerful figure in Armenia. Hundreds of thousands of citizens gathered in the capital’s Republic Square, some having walked for hours from neighboring rural towns to participate.

The protests began unassumingly. Even as sizable crowds took to the streets, there still remained widespread disbelief that Sargsyan would carry through on appointing himself prime minister after having already served two presidential terms. Demonstrations began more as a fervent reaction to the audacity of the regime’s move to maintain power by giving the role of prime minister new authority while disempowering the role of president. In the beginning, protesters didn’t even believe that forcing Sargsyan to resign was possible.

The country had endured dishonest presidential elections in the past, and Sargsyan’s announcement to transition presidential powers to the role of prime minister seemed only part of a longstanding history of corruption.

Under Sargsyan, the country suffered “major impediments to the economy,” says Khatchig Mouradian, a lecturer in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies at Columbia University. Another seven years under Sargsyan’s rule as prime minister would have further hampered economic growth, as monopolies would have continued to prevail under an oligarchic system.

Moreover, “the mood in the country would have continued to be one of resignation, pessimism and apathy,” says Mouradian. “People would have continued voting with their feet — by emigrating. The snail’s pace at which reforms were being implemented had done little to alleviate the people’s grievances. A reboot seemed essential, yet far out of reach.”

In early April, Sargsyan officially became prime minister, and the opposition movement gained new urgency. Quickly, protesters strategized. Demonstrations would occur during designated hours in the day, with times and locations announced over social media well in advance. Protesters would also avoid inciting police, who have, in the past, exerted force on crowds after sundown. Above all, protesters would preserve peace.

“No one predicted this outpouring of popular support, let alone calculated it,” says Mouradian. “History is often made through an amalgamation of contingencies, circumstance, the rapid seizure of opportunities and tactical decisions that determine the fate of a grand strategy. The Velvet Revolution was a successful, bloodless regime change because of the unflinching will of its leader, the sustained galvanization of the youth and the realization of the ruling Republican Party that a violent crackdown would not only be futile, but detrimental to the country.”

The youth had learned from prior iterations of protests in their country. Their parents and grandparents can still recall how, in 1988, they had gathered in Republic Square, a similar scene of thousands, then protesting the loss of the autonomous region, Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. (A referendum held by a regional government of Nagorno-Karabakh had shown overwhelming support to unite with Armenia; however, the governments of Azerbaijan and the Soviet Union refused to recognize these results.) In 1988, however, protests only persisted for a week before Soviet tanks and the rumor of snipers disbanded crowds. Armenia would remain under the Soviet Union until 1991.

“It is important to emphasize that these changes did not occur overnight,” says Mouradian. “Civil society in Armenia has mobilized successfully on specific issues in the past, and there have been political leaders who have galvanized thousands yet failed to achieve regime change. These past experiences paved the way for the Velvet Revolution.”

It’s these past experiences that have cultivated an Armenian youth today who are unafraid. They are the first generation to grow up in an independent state, outside of Soviet influences. “For some of them, stories from that era seem like tales, why we would ever live behind the iron curtain,” says Aram Gyumishyan, former deputy director of the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies in Yerevan and a graphic designer. In the early years of Armenia’s independence, the gate to freedom had been opened, says Gyumishyan, but only partially.

Government officials remained wary of what complete freedom would entail. As a result, freedom persisted in a liminal space — somewhere between looking back at Soviet tactics of strongman leadership and giving more of a substantial voice to its people. This created a dissonance for youth who had only known this partial freedom but had never experienced the movement away from Soviet rule firsthand. Incited by Sargsyan’s particular actions, the youths’ demand for greater transparency and accountability speak to a larger desire to redress systemic unfairness on the executive and judicial levels.

“The biggest problem in Armenia is not only economic, but one related to justice,” says Gyumishyan. “When everyone is fair before the law, people will become tolerant and even thrive. From the leader to the end. Trust — this was missing, and it’s missing in most post-Soviet countries.”

After nearly two weeks of consistent protests, Sargsyan resigned as prime minister in late April, saying,” Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong. There are a few solutions to the current situation, but I am not one of them.” What the youth had accomplished was not an isolated victory, but the counteraction of Soviet-era inertia.

“The Velvet Revolution touched all generations,” says Gyumishyan. In the last two months, he continued, people’s “ownership over their country is stronger.” His only hope is that “it’s a real [lasting change]” and that Pashinyan remains the voice of the people.

“Pashinyan is under tremendous pressure to deliver on a number of fronts within a short period of time,” says Mouradian. Abroad, one of Pashinyan’s priorities is to assure that Yerevan will maintain its close ties with Russia as well as further develop relations with Europe. Moreover, Yerevan’s international alliances will remain as strong as they had been prior to the revolution. Domestically, “Pashinyan faces the difficult but necessary challenge of uprooting corruption and unshackling the economy from the grip of the oligarchy — all the while charting a path towards economic growth,” Mouradian continues. It is imperative that Pashinyan encourages a meaningful engagement of the Armenian diaspora. Not only is the actualization of the “New Armenia” yet another challenge, Mouradian says, it is also an exciting opportunity.

It’s “not easy to move a country,” Gyumishyan says. Critical to the revolution’s success was the absence of external influences. This was a movement driven entirely from inside the country, by the willingness of its own people. Mouradian echoes a similar sentiment, saying, “It is important to note that the Velvet Revolution was an indigenous movement that channeled the aspirations of the Armenian people and not the product of direct foreign intervention.”

Of course, the possibility of foreign intervention remains a real concern in the wake of the Velvet Revolution. Moscow had expressed initial unease, which “stems from its concerns about maintaining Armenia within Russia’s sphere of influence,” says Mouradian. “Yet Moscow seems to be cautiously accepting the new reality on the ground — and Pashinyan’s reassurances have been crucial in this regard.” Azerbaijan is also “keenly invested in Armenia’s politics, and would seize any opportunity to resume hostilities with Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, should it sense an opportunity.”

The almost inconceivable achievement of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution also demands the question of whether a similar movement may be accomplished in other post-Soviet states. “Armenia seems to be an outlier in the region,” says Mouradian. “While its neighbors are becoming less free, and strongmen are concentrating power into their hands (the recent presidential election in Turkey is a case in point), Armenia has moved in recent months from a presidential to parliamentary system, and the Velvet Revolution has infused Armenia’s democracy with a much-needed breath of fresh air.”

Continuing, Mouradian says, “Although every country has its particularities, the protests in Armenia stand as a compelling example of the power of peaceful protests to transform societies and institute regime change.”

The main reason for the Velvet Revolution’s success, Gyumishyan says, was a shared desire for equality that surpassed other political differences. Even those with Soviet nostalgia, those who miss the sense of security that came from regular paychecks and the image of a fearless leader, even this class had supported the youth, says Gyumishyan. For “even they desire equality.”

Today’s Armenia is not even the Armenia of just three months ago. The country has awakened to a new level of political consciousness and witnessed the change that their own people have effected.

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