Armenia’s parliamentary opposition has sought to undertake a broad social uprising that aspires to utilize mass civil disobedience, in emulation of the Velvet Revolution, to pressure the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the installment of what they are fashioning as a “national unity government.” While the general objectives of this endeavor have, to a large extent, failed after more than two weeks of protests, the opposition is attempting to qualify the Government’s posturing and negotiations with Azerbaijan as an act of betrayal. As the opposition’s message has failed to resonate with the rest of society, the Government has chosen to ignore the political relevance of these protests, primarily qualifying them as acts of nuisance by a fringe collection of forces that were defeated during the recent parliamentary elections. Similarly, noting the makeup of the leadership of the protests, a collective sense of distrust and illegitimacy haunts the opposition forces. Overwhelmingly composed of representatives of the previous authoritarian regimes that governed Armenia before the Velvet Revolution, the protest leaders are viewed by society as the very forces against whom Armenian society rose up and removed from power. In this context, the anti-Velvet forces are attempting a Velvet-like movement, and the inherent contradiction is not escaping Armenian society.
For the opposition, the problem of legitimacy finds itself immersed with a broader poverty in ideas, as it has struggled to produce alternative proposals and solutions to the problems over which it is seeking to assume power. This, in turn, is reproducing a continuous conundrum that the parliamentary opposition is not able to resolve: how to undertake a legal regime change, but do so undemocratically. To many, the proposition of a “national unity government” is a euphemism for unelected forces to take the reigns of power without electoral legitimacy. More specifically, the very forces that were recently defeated in the parliamentary elections are demanding the authority to form such a “national unity government.” In this context, the opposition is not calling for snap elections and thus asking the Armenian people to make the determination, but rather, they are unilaterally demanding the resignation of the democratically-elected Prime Minister and the installment of a governing force that has no electoral legitimacy. This paradox, of course, is self-negating, and more to the point, it disregards the will of Armenian society. If, as the opposition suggests, the silent majority rejects the Pashinyan Government and thus supports the opposition’s agenda, then why do they refrain from seeking elections as a democratic remedy? If a set of political forces are able to engage in mobilization, civic activism, and continuous protests, then they are certainly capable of organizing and participating in elections. It is this refusal to seek power through electoral means that is enhancing the suspicions of Armenian society. Noting the limited scope of support that the opposition protests have garnered, Armenian society is not viewing these protests as an attempt to “save” Artsakh, but rather, it is viewing it more as an attempt at a power grab by the anti-Velvet forces. The inherent anti-democratic ethos of the protest leaders is curtailing the potential of amplifying the legitimate grievances that a lot of citizens have against the current government. That the source of amplification is deemed by Armenian society to be far worse than the source of the grievance speaks volumes to the problems of legitimacy that Robert Kocharyan, Serzh Sargsyan, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation suffer from.
The Problem of Civic Fiber
In terms of grassroots, diverse, and bottom-up strategy of mass mobilization, the current protests are the reverse of the Velvet, as this campaign is more defined by top-bottom funding and organization as opposed to a diverse coalition of various social forces mobilizing against the government. Dominated by the two parliamentary coalitions, with the hard core of the activists composed of devoted ARF members, the structuration of the protests lack organic grassroots characteristics. In this context, whereas the Velvet was spontaneous and organic, the current protests are generally choreographed and performative. While the current protests are attempting to emulate the effectiveness of the nonviolent, experiential and participatory politics of the Velvet, the inherent limitation facing the current opposition is its inability to grow the scope and magnitude of its campaign. More specifically, whereas the Velvet demolished the institutional wall between civic protests and political-electoral activity, the current protests seek to reverse engineer the Velvet, only to find itself in a purgatory of justifying its lack of democratic credentials and absence of broad civic legitimacy.
From a strategic perspective, the Velvet was defined by the application of nonviolent disobedience that refrained from aggregating in a few familiar spaces for large-scale protests. Rather, it had a decentralized structure that was spread out, self-governing, yet closely coordinated in paralyzing Yerevan. The current protests, on the other hand, have centralized coordination, no self-governance of diverse groupings, and severely lack the manpower to paralyze the capital. In this context, the Velvet was defined by “unity, strategic planning, and nonviolent discipline,” in which protesters came from “almost all segments of Armenian society,” where civil society leaders played a crucial role in formulating a “unifying” message that robustly resonated with much of the country. The current protests not only lack a unifying message that resonates with society, they also lack support from civil society, while displaying acute limitations in strategic planning. More specifically, strategic planning during the Velvet relied on the spatiality of the protests, where a dispersed strategy increased the geography of discontent and enhanced visibility. This, in turn, undermined the disruptive potential from the government, as dispersion exhausted and diluted the resources and capabilities of the police force. In the current protests, attempts at spatiality have failed, for activities outside of Yerevan, for example, have resulted in the suspension of activities within the city, while the inability to increase the geography of discontent has undermined attempts at visibility. The outcome has been the limited activities of a few thousands protesters for a few hours out of the day, with specific concentration on only a couple of streets in the center of Yerevan. As such, instead of snowballing, the current protests suffer from chronic stagnation.
The Problem of Leadership and Enthusiasm
The Velvet had a unique set of leaders, which included both civic society activists as well as opposition parliamentarians, thus fusing organizational capabilities with well-tuned political messaging. Just as importantly, regardless of what current sentiments may be towards Nikol Pashinyan, during the social uprising, he possessed all of the characteristics of a charismatic leader whose ability to communicate and resonate with almost every segment of Armenian society proved crucial to the success of the Velvet. The current protests, on the other hand, suffer from a drought of charismatic leaders, and more so, there is a lack of clarity and cogency as to who the singular leader is in representing and shepherding the campaign. Further complicating the crisis of leadership is the conflicting presence of Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan, both of whom have their own factions, resources, and separate basis of support within the protest campaign. That they both overshadow, even without overt involvement, the image of Ishkhan Saghatelyan, is emblematic of the leadership problem facing the protest campaign. Further convoluting the leadership makeup is the presence of such individuals as Artur Vanetsyan and Levon Kocharyan, as the former is deemed Sargsyan’s second-in-command, while the latter has become a posterboy for the Kocharyan dynasty. The confluence of monotone, unappealing, and rhetorically-weak leaders has contributed to an enthusiasm gap, further diminishing the capacity of the protests to spread beyond the opposition’s core of supporters. This, in turn, has produced concerns of fatigue and low motivation, thus forcing the protest leaders to not hold protests on certain days, or engage in activities for only a few hours, thus denigrating the growth potential of the campaign’s scope and magnitude.
Collectively, these factors contribute to an exponential decline in the probability of success when calculating the “math of the protests.” In an expansive study encompassing more than 300 political campaigns throughout the 20th century, quantified results demonstrate that approximately 3% of the total population in a country must actively participate in nonviolent protests in order to produce effective outcomes. During the Velvet, for example, at its peak, approximately 200,000 participated, roughly 6.7% of the population, hence reifying a productive outcome. For the current protests to have a chance of success, the 3% threshold must be met, which requires 90,000 continuous participants. That the current protests have come nowhere close to even half the numbers of this threshold informs the immense difficulties they are having in undertaking mass mobilization.
Protest and civil disobedience are important and inalienable components of a democratic society, and to this end, the very act of protesting, and the very right of protesting, as an act of political will, in and of itself, cannot be devalued or denied. The issue, however, is not in the act, but rather, in the inability of the act to grow and resonate with the rest of society. The more protests fail to grow, and the more they fail to resonate, the more they become an exercise in myopism. As the demands of the protestors fail to correspond with the will of the people, society begins reaching its tolerance threshold: the narrow demands of the few cannot usurp the will of the many. This determines the continuum from fringe to mainstream. What the current opposition needs to more cogently comprehend is that support for the likes of Kocharyan, Sargsyan, and even Saghatelyan, are not and cannot become mainstream. As such, until they resolve their crisis of leadership, which reinforces their crisis of legitimacy, they will continue to frolic on the fringes of the political arena. The conclusion, therefore, remains singular: if those genuine activists who have genuine grievances want this government gone, then they must also get rid of the Kocharyans and Sargsyans from their ranks. Until this happens, the transition to mainstream legitimacy will be a Sisyphean endeavor.
1- Pinckney, J. (2020) Donning the Velvet: Non-violent resistance in the 2018 Armenian Revolution. In: Broers, L. & Ohanyan, A. (eds.) Armenia’s Velvet Revolution: Authoritarian decline and civil resistance in a multipolar world. London, Bloomsbury Press, pp. 119–140.
2- Important assessments in this section are borrowed from Anna Ohanyan and Nerses Kopalyan, “How to Train Your Dragon: Armenia’s Velvet Revolution in an Authoritarian Orbit.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Vol. 55, Number 1, pp. 24-51.
3- Ohanyan, A. (2020a) Belarusians can learn a lot from Armenia’s Velvet Revolution. Al Jazeera, 21 August. Available from: https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/8/21/belarusians-can-learna-lot-from-armenias-velvet-revolution/
4- Chenoweth, E. & Stephan, M. (2012) Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. New York, Columbia University Press.
5- Ishkanian, A. (2018) “Armenia’s unfinished revolution.” Current History. 117 (801), 271–276.
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