So finally Nikol Pashinian, leader of the mass uprising in Armenia, has attained his dream of becoming the prime minister of the Caucasian republic. On 8 May, in an election in which he was the sole candidate, the Armenian parliament elected him prime minister with 59 votes to 42. This result is, on its own, a tribute to the power of the people: it confirms the fall (perhaps temporary) of Serzh Sargsyan, leader of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), which had won the parliamentary elections only a year earlier, in April 2017, taking 58 of the 105 seats and the rise of Pashinian, who was an obscure opposition politician, leader of the People’s Party, wielding three seats in parliament and a member of the Yelq (Way Out) alliance, with nine deputies, until he became the leader of the powerful mass uprising that started on 12 April. After less than a month of popular demonstrations, the strongman of Armenia has left the stage to a newcomer.
There is no reason to rejoice at this stage. It is, no doubt, true that Sargsyan’s rule was an oppressive quasi-autocracy that served the Armenian oligarchy. This was, in fact, the main reason why the Armenian people has spent most of the last four weeks on the streets. But Pashinian himself is a bourgeois politician who, having taken his chance and succeeded in galvanising the people, is now trying to ride into power on the crest of the people’s revulsion at the sheer corruption of the earlier political setup and the concomitant inequalities. He will in all probability make do with cosmetic touches in the regime, simply changing some of the leading cadres, and even compose with certain more receptive currents within the RPA. It is only by breaking with his leadership that the Armenian masses can achieve any meaningful change of course that will pull the working masses out of the misery they have been immersed in since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As we will see below, the contradictions within the ruling circles may provide an opportunity for this kind of breakthrough in the not too distant future.
The character of the uprising: revolution?
The Armenian masses call their uprising a “revolution”. This is not, in our opinion, exactly the true nature of the phenomenon. Let us first quickly go over the facts. The whole movement started on 31 March when Nikol Pashinian set out from Gyumri, the second largest city in the country for a march to Yerevan, the capital city. He was protesting against the fact that, by having been recently elected prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan had really circumvented the limit of two terms imposed on the incumbent president of the country, having amended the constitution along the way to turn the country from a semi-presidential system into a strictly parliamentary system, so much so that both the president and the prime minister are now elected by the National Assembly. On the way, many people joined Pashinian so that when he arrived in Yerevan the marchers were in the thousands. On 12 April, there was a demonstration on Republic Square gathering 10 thousand people. The movement soon snowballed into over 100 hundred thousand, reaching reportedly the figure of 160 thousand at its zenith. Though it may seem modest in countries with a large population, this figure should be considered gigantic in a country with a population of less than 3 million. Yerevan is a city with a population of barely over one million. In Istanbul, a city estimated to be between14 and 15 million, the counterpart of that 160 thousand would be a full two and a half million! The first few days Yerevan was a solo protestor, while other cities started to move in somewhat later. The very significant Armenian diaspora, apart from certain notable exceptions, did not join in, a fact very significant in itself as we shall see.
The uprising went through several distinct stages. From the 12th to the 22nd, the police tried clumsily to repress the movement. On the latter day, the prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan, agreed to meet Pashinian. However, that meeting lasted only three minutes, as Sargsyan left the negotiation table that was set in front of the piercing eyes of the media, a grave tactical mistake on his part, and had, that very same day, Pashinian detained, along with some three hundred of his supporters. This caused an immense uproar. The next day, 23 April, the masses came out again and this time there were new layers of society protesting on the streets, from the priests to the military. Having received the signal of a dangerous escalation, Sargsyan had Pashinian released and resigned his post. That was the end of the first stage. The main slogan (apart from the oft chanted “Hayastan”, i.e. Armenia) had so far been “Sargsyan, go!” There was reason to believe that the goal having been attained, the movement would pack up and go home.
Pashinian and the masses had their different agendas, but neither was ready to go home yet. Having got rid of the strongman, Pashinian immediately started negotiations with the Republican Party, as well as the other parliamentary groups. To prove his deference to the existing regime, he ordered the protests stopped. However, the RPA refused his plans to become the interim prime minister until early parliamentary elections. Sargsyan had counted on turning power to his deputy and close collaborator, Karen Karapetyan. So, after a reprieve on 24 April, demonstrations came back with a vengeance on 25 April. This time the masses started chanting “RPA, go!” We see here already the latent contradiction between Pashinian’s plans and the mood of the masses. Whereas the latter immediately turned against the regime, Pashinian was ready to come to terms with the RPA, provided that the RPA allow him to steer the country to early elections, where he was hoping to achieve a landslide on the crest of his newly-won popularity.
This second stage culminated with the RPA ceding some ground. An election for prime minister was scheduled for 1 May with Pashinian, “the nation’s candidate” in his own words, the only one running. However, after a long-winded debate in the National Assembly, he was voted down by the RPA deputies. The votes for of the Tsarukyan alliance (31 deputies), of his own Yelq alliance (9 votes), and of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnak, ARF) did not suffice to have him elected in the face of the RPA majority of 58.
Typically, Pashinian had again called off the demonstrations on Republic Square once he was given the possibility of presenting his case to parliament. However, on 2 and 3 May, he brought out the crowds once again. Yet he was again promised that he would be able to run as a solo candidate on 8 May. For a third time he took the masses off from the streets. Nothing shows more graphically that Pashinian was in fact using the masses as his bargaining chip in his tug-of-war with the RPA.
The vote on 8 May finally gave him the position of prime minister. The representatives of the majority made it clear that only a minimum number of RPA deputies would vote for him to make his election possible. The final tally was 59-42 in his favour. It should be clear to everyone that although Pashinian has now reached his proximate goal, he is but a hostage of the RPA, since his future hangs in the hands of the clear majority of that party. Certainly, given the victory of the Pashinian camp, there is a distinct possibility of a bleeding of the RPA, with a certain number of deputies abandoning the parliamentary group of the party to join Pashinian’s Yelq. But it is equally possible that a trap has been set up for him: Once the masses are withdrawn from the streets and abandoned to the humdrum of daily routine, the RPA may come back to push Pashinian up against the wall or even bring him down in a vote of confidence, the first opportunity offering itself after the discussion of the new government programme, probably in a month’s time.
All this clearly shows that the uprising was kept consciously by its leadership within the straitjacket of the legal framework born of the 2015 constitutional referendum. Pashinian had no intention of questioning or bringing down the regime itself. The only substantial change attained was a change of the guard. In that sense, although the Armenian events go beyond the level of a popular rebellion, that is the type of movement such as the Gezi Park events in Turkey in 2013 or the Iranian events at the beginning of this year, during which the masses desperately revolt against the political and/or socio-economic regime in power, but do not, either objectively or subjectively, pose an alternative power structure to replace the existing one, nonetheless they are far from deserving the characterisation of a “revolution”. The masses may, of course, in their jubilation of rediscovering their great potential, regard these events a “revolution” in a much more limited sense, but at no point did the leadership of the movement even faintly hint at bringing down an entire power structure. So far the Armenian events have nothing to do with a revolution that deserves its name.
As for the qualifying noun complement “velvet revolution”, it is best to remind the masses that the elevation of civil disobedience to the level of principle costs even real revolutions an immense loss. Just to remember the experience of the Egyptian revolution is more than enough.
The character of the uprising: colour revolution?
It is no secret that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in fact of the bureaucratically degenerated workers’ states in general, the Eurasian region has witnessed the eruption of events that are similar, in their outward appearance to revolutions, but are nonetheless closer to counter revolutions in substance. Such was the uprising in Belgrade in 2000, the so-called “Revolution of the Roses” in Georgia in 2003 and the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2003-2004, as well as the Maidan movement in the latter country in 2014. In each of these cases, although the government in power was already of a bourgeois nature, nonetheless the movement was designed so as to continue and deepen the process of capitalist restoration in the countries in question at the domestic level and establish closer ties with imperialism (NATO, the US and the EU) at the international level. In a certain sense, these were a continuation of the 1989 wave in Central and Eastern Europe and the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, themselves akin to the events described as “colour revolutions”. The same has been said of the Arab revolution of 2011-2013, but that proposition is totally void of basis, the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions bearing the character of genuine political revolutions with a distinct potential of permanent revolution.
Given that recurring experience, left-wing analysts have understandably been loath to characterise mass uprisings in the Eurasian geography as revolutions, rebellions or even progressive movements. The name of George Soros has been whispered on many different occasions to disparage a mass movement. It is of course true that in many such uprisings, pro-imperialist “NGO’s” or “civil society organisations” take part as well, lending such movements a mixed character, but, as the example of the Arab revolution amply demonstrates, such dismissal of instances of the outburst of the rage of masses, in particular plebeian masses, against cruel and exploitative regimes may prove disastrous. Not to recognise a genuine revolution is as harmful as, if not more so than, mistaking a backward movement for a revolution. Here, as elsewhere, the concrete dialectic of each event should be studied on the basis of its own merits.
In the case of the Armenian uprising, there was additional reason to fear the advent of a “colour revolution”. The EU, acting as the seemingly peaceful and well-intentioned agent of NATO, carried out free trade area negotiations with Armenia at the same time that it was making overtures to Ukraine in the immediate pre-Maidan period in 2013. This initiative by the EU had been thwarted at the last moment when Armenia opted for the Eurasian Economic Union dominated by Russia and the Collective Security Treaty of the Commonwealth of Independent States. And yet this fear seems totally out of place.
There are at least four reasons for this proposition. First, Pashinian has been adamant in all his declarations that under his prospective government, there will be no turnaround in foreign policy and that Armenia will maintain its special relationship to Russia, the latter conserving its status of strategic partner. It is true that he also suggested that relations with the EU and the US will be developed, but the same was said of China and Iran. Pashinian made a special point of meeting the Russian ambassador to Yerevan, Ivan Volinkin, in order to reassure Russia of his intentions.
Secondly, as opposed to its swift reaction to other instances where one can genuinely talk of “colour revolutions”, Russia has not at all seemed worried by the upheaval in Armenia. Although both Sargsyan and Karapetyan are regarded as “Moscow’s men”, Russia did not stand behind them as against the uprising. The most serious interference by Russia was Putin’s declaration on 26 April to the effect that the “resolution of the crisis situation in Armenia must take place exclusively within the parameters of the current constitution and on the basis of the results of the legitimate parliamentary elections held in April 2017”. It will be remembered that this is strictly the framework in which a solution has been found, Pashinian not challenging the legitimacy of either the constitutional referendum of 2015 or the elections of 2017.
Third, Russia in fact has such extensive political, diplomatic, military (the closed Armenian-Turkish border is guarded by the border troops of the Russian Federation) and economic ties to Armenia, that it is difficult for all actors to challenge what most commentators regard a “unique” relationship.
Fourth, the diaspora, which has the power of a well-to-do Armenian bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie in many countries where it has a sizeable presence, did not lend an extensive and organised support to the uprising, to the chagrin of the domestic forces standing on the side of the uprising. Add to this the fact that many within the upper classes of the Armenian republic questioned immediately the wisdom of taking to the streets again on the 25th of April in the wake of the resignation of Sargsyan on the 23rd and the stopping of the demonstrations on the 24th. The upper strata of Armenian society seems to have feared, as Putin apparently did as well, that this powerful movement might well get out of hand and move beyond control.
Finally, even under the previous government, the regime was not alien to Western imperialist interests. The new president of the republic, now an office with a ceremonial set of duties, was and still is Armen Sarkissian (hence the sarcasm of the Armenian people before the uprising regarding the “Sargsyan-Sarkissian regime”). This man, after serving for four months as prime minister under Levon Ter-Petrossian, the first president of independent Armenia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, spent all his life in London and continental Europe before moving recently to Armenia only to be given the presidency. He has been consultant to British Petroleum, Alcatel, Telefónica, has close business relations with Russian and Kazakh oligarchs, is friends with people in high places, such as Prince Charles and Dariga Nazarbaev, the daughter of the Kazakh autocrat, is involved in large scale investment in Turkmenistan and is a capitalist in his own right. A typical “Her Majesty’s President of Armenia”, this man seems to embody the organic characteristics of the class of oligarchs in post-Soviet Armenia, with its cross ties to both Russian and Western capitalist interests. Hence Western interests were well-represented even before the uprising.
The character of the uprising: the people versus the oligarchy
Whatever the nature of the relation of the masses to the sudden rise of the prestige of Nikol Pashinian, one thing is crystal clear: behind the immense outburst of the masses lies the poverty and misery the Armenian people have been suffering ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the obscene inequality that has gripped society. 30 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line and the youth is cornered into a situation of desperately facing a bleak future.
That is why it can safely be said that the masses and their momentary leadership are really moved by very different dynamics. Pashinian is clearly a bourgeois politician out to rapidly climb the ladder of power and compose with a power structure that is corrupt and repressive through and through. Whatever change may come about under him (if, that is, he manages to remain in power for long) will not include a meaningful amelioration of the economic standing of the poor and destitute. His choice of first move is ominously a repetition of what went before him: he visited Nagorno Karabakh as soon as he was voted in as prime minister. This is precisely the trajectory of the 1988 upheaval in Armenia. Rather than extending a hand to the people of Azerbaijan, Pashinian seems intent on ruling through the opium of nationalism as did his venerable predecessors such as Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sargsyan. The Turkish and Azerbaijani socialists will be ready to extend their hands to their Armenian sisters and brothers when the time comes. But obviously for the moment, under Pashinian, the time is not ripe for this.
So we are face to face with a situation pretty similar to that in Tunisia. It was the youth suffering from unemployment and poverty of the so-called “interior” of the country that started the whole process known as the Tunisian revolution. However, under the cross currents of Islamism and the European Union, with France, the former colonial power taking a lead role, the Tunisian revolution ended up as simply a political revolution that achieved, nonetheless, the establishment, at least for the moment, of bourgeois democracy. But the dynamics of the Tunisian revolution having originally been fired by the poverty-stricken masses especially of the “interior”, new uprisings erupted in January 2015 and again January 2017, precisely on the basis of demands for economic opportunities, employment and equality. The same may be true of Armenia in the future. The Armenian people have been patient for too long in the face of the extreme poverty that faces a majority of the population. Now that the genie has come out of the bottle, now that the masses have witnessed their own power, it would not be surprising to see them discarding Nikol Pashinian as their hero and leader in the not too distant future and taking things in their own hands.
For that kind of prospect to turn into a liberating act, the socialists of Armenia should not waste one single day in starting to organise the masses on the basis of their grievances and get prepared for the inevitable showdown in the future.
The din of rebellions and uprisings
The Armenian uprising is the fifth such people’s mass movement since the beginning of 2018, in other words in the last five months. The year opened with Iran, a neighbour of Armenia. The fire then spread to Tunisia. Next in line was Romania, reacting against corruption. Then came Slovakia, in response to the killing of a journalist and his girl friend. And now Armenia. All these are the sign of the extraordinary nature of the times we are going through. The cycle of revolutions, uprisings and rebellions that opened with the Arab revolution of 2011 has not been closed. It has changed form and gone underground. Like the mythical mole of Karl Marx, it surfaces from time to time only to dip again. When some day it seizes many countries together or in synchronisation with each other, the bush will catch fire and no power on earth will then be capable of extinguishing that fire.