Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

People power prevails

Ten days of demonstrations forced the resignation of the unpopular prime minister of Armenia who also served as president for a decade, reports Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian

 

Yerevan’s Republic Square celebrates the Velvet Revolution

In amazing scenes in Yerevan’s Republic Square, the people of Armenia danced, cheered and waved the striped tricolour of their flag, in celebration of the unexpected resignation of the country’s former president and seven-day prime minister Serj Sargsyan, after protests lasting 10 days against his continued grabbing of power in the country.

At a time when Armenia and its Diaspora were preparing to commemorate the so-called “first genocide” of the 20th century perpetuated by Ottoman Turks who made great efforts to annihilate the Armenian nation, killing 1.5 million 103 years ago, the country erupted in protests against its corrupt government, after which the people stood to celebrate their achieved demand on the eve of the commemoration.

“Abrelu Abril” — an old expression in Armenian that is commonly used in poetry, songs and speeches related to the genocide — is translated as “April for survival”. Thus, the people of Armenia decided to voice their rights and demands loudly in protests, but this time against their own government.

In a country of three million, thousands went into the streets of the capital Yerevan, as well as Gyumri and Vanadzor, the second and third largest cities of the Republic of Armenia. The number was climbing every day and the 10 million Diaspora Armenians were closely following the protests, sometimes joining the crowds via social media.

Suzy Melkonian, 34, a journalist, took part in the demonstrations from day one. “At first we weren’t so sure we were going to come out victorious as Pashinian started his rally from Gyumri and his supporters were few. But when the rally reached Yerevan other campaigns and parties joined him in support, we, thousands, joined him too,” Melkonian told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The campaign, “Qayl ara merjir Serjin” (“Take a step reject Serj”), which was the chants in the streets, was led by opposition lawmaker, National Assembly member Nikol Pashinian who announced the beginning of a Velvet Revolution. Pashinian, the leader of Civil Contract Party and head of Yelq (Way out) opposition faction, called for the blockade of roads all over the country 21 April, something that was met with opposition, especially from Diaspora Armenians who are closely connected to the parties to which they belong.


Sargsyan walks out of a meeting with opposition leader Pashinian

Suzy Sirunian took it first as a duty to join her people in demonstrating, no matter the end result. “It took me some time to understand the prime minister’s resignation, it took me some time to understand the victory of this Velvet Revolution in which I took part; I simply couldn’t believe we made it,” Sirunian, 21, a student at the Academy of Fine Arts, told the Weekly.

At first security forces in Armenia, sometimes in civilian clothing, started to arrest dozens who were blocking the streets of the capital. A few days later a hundred soldiers joined the protesters in a remarkable development, something that probably prompted the prime minister to resign.

“Marches got bigger and the people’s will power got stronger when police started to arrest activists and use tear gas against demonstrators,” said Melkonian, “after which we all decided we will not go home until our demands are fulfilled and we witness some change in our country.”

In his abrupt resignation statement Sargsyan stated: “I am addressing you for the last time as leader of the country. Nikol Pashinian was right. I was wrong. The situation has several possible solutions, but I will not take any of them. That is not mine. I am leaving office of the country’s leader, of prime minister. The street movement is against my tenure. I am fulfilling your demand.”

“Led by the young Pashinian, this new opposition stood out as the exception, mixing a potent combination of charisma with a good sense of street politics, which only makes this current confrontation more serious,” Richard Giragossian, director of the Regional Studies Centre (RSC) in Yerevan told the Weekly, adding that it was this challenge, coupled with Sargsyan’s obvious misunderstanding and misreading of the changing Armenian reality, that led to his downfall.

Sargsyan agreed to meet Pashinian a day before his resignation, but stormed out of the meeting within minutes, claiming he was being blackmailed and that only seven or eight per cent of the population were demonstrating in the streets. Pashinian came out of the meeting to the streets, announcing protests will continue so long the people’s demand was not yet fulfilled. While in the street, Pashinian and two of his opposition allies were arrested, then released the next day, hours before the resignation announcement.

The unpopular and less charismatic Sargsyan was the only candidate for the post of prime minister on 17 April, nominated by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia and supported by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and other parties too, with 77 MPs voting for him with 17 against.

“He was courageous in doing the right thing and leaving the stage, refraining from any moves resorting to violent resistance. In this context, his resignation was a rather rare example of the victory of non-violent people power over an entrenched leader,” said Giragossian.

It was Sargsyan’s third term in power to which the people revolted. The unpopular president served two consecutive terms and then was nominated prime minister.

“For the Armenian government, the country’s transformation to a new parliamentary form of government was largely seen as a pre-determined passage of power,” Giragossian told the Weekly.


Yerevan

Earlier, in March, and for the first time in Armenia’s history, and as a result of an amended constitution, President Armen Sarkissian was elected by the National Assembly instead of going through a voting system. Sarkissian was recommended by Sargsyan, the then president, who ran unopposed due to no other nominations by the parties. The newly elected president, with 90 votes out of 105, will stay seven years in a non-renewable term.

“Although hampered by concerns over Sarkissian’s apparent violation of the recently amended Armenian Constitution’s requirement of presidential citizenship, Sarkissian was able to deflect any direct challenge to his candidacy related to his British citizenship, granted in 2002, but which he claimed to have renounced in 2011,” Giragossian said.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the peaceful nature of the unfolding events in Armenia and called for continued respect of the rule of law and human rights.

“This is just the beginning, our victory will be complete when we see the real change in the government of Armenia,” Sirunian told the Weekly.

“There are fears and concerns over the power of the ruling Republican Party, which is seen as potentially even more dangerous as it undermines the necessity for consensus and compromise by relying on one-party dominance,” Giragossian commented, adding that new, extraordinary elections are now crucial, especially to reflect the new Armenian political reality.

Leader of the Armenian Velvet Revolution Nikol Pashinian, 42, was member of the Armenian National Congress, an opposition movement led by former president Levon Der Bedrossian. He was also the editor of Armenia’s liberal newspaper Haygagan Jamanag (Armenian Times) which has been highly critical of the governments of former presidents Robert Kocharian and Serj Sargsyan. Pashinian was jailed in 2009, released in 2011 after an amnesty measure was passed by the National Assembly freeing him along with other political prisoners. In 2012, he was elected to the National Assembly.

“The Republic Square was never packed with tens of thousands; we are celebrating an unprecedented victory thanks to our new national hero Nikol Pashinian,” Melkonian told the Weekly.

“They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds,” a quote by Greek writer Dinos Christianopoulos, was frequently the watchword of Diaspora Armenians who consider themselves descendants of the survivors of the genocide. Now this quote is commonly used by the people of Armenia, too, determined to change their country for the better.

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