After mounting a large-scale and ultimately effective campaign of civil disobedience, a movement of “people power” in Armenia, led by Nikol Pashinyan, a young member of parliament, appears to have delivered on multiple fronts. The embattled and unpopular prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan, was forced to step down on April 23. More importantly, the civil disobedience campaign also produced civic engagement at extra-ordinary levels, thereby opening a new chapter to Armenia’s statecraft.
While a great victory for the movement on the ground, the slim majority of the incumbent regime which Serzh Sargsyan represented, blocked Mr. Pashinyan from being elected as interim prime minister during the parliamentary elections on May 1. In an effort to regroup, the incumbent Republican party prolonged the crisis, pushing the people back into the streets. According to the constitution, next election will be held seven days after today’s vote.
The political sophistication of the people is evident both in terms of their disciplined approach to nonviolent strategies, but also their determination to pursue their goals through the existing constitutional order, no matter how flawed. They have already successfully registered their protest at an attempt at constitutional engineering, by repudiating the attempt of the embattled ex-president-turned-prime minister to secure a de facto third, and potentially indefinite, term in power.
The crisis is over the institutional foundations of the state. The constitution has been respected, despite the discredited parliamentary elections in 2017 that brought the incumbent Republicans to power. This institutional adherence has offered Armenia a solid democratic opening, and a chance to translate this popular movement into a long-term democratic consolidation. The people realise it, the incumbent party in the parliament does not.
Lessons learned from around the world
The movement needs to continue working through the institutions, no matter how flawed and fragile. A path that is incremental, patient, inclusive and open to compromise appears to be one that has worked in other cases of democratic consolidation, and may well deliver in Armenia.
In Chile, popular movements opposed to the dictatorial regime initially supported “all forms of struggle”, including violence. However, by 1986, the opposition had transformed and broadened its tent to build a “homeland for all”, with a focus on nonviolent civil action.
Similarly, in Ghana, the leader of the opposition party insisted on participating in the 1996 election, without a clear path to electoral victory, and spawned a largely non-violent civil society movement. It was not until the 2000 elections that Ghana underwent a peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box and that initiated democratic consolidation in the country.
In many respects, Armenia is in a better position than many other nations attempting democratic transitions. In contrast to democratic movements that formed against military dictatorships in South America, or those of Portugal and Spain in the 1970s, Armenia’s movement follows a relatively long period of gradual liberalisation occurring against a broader backdrop of semi-authoritarianism.
The events in Armenia are an instructive example of how a “little bit of democracy” is ultimately an oxymoron, in both language and practice.
The Armenian movement is perhaps more similar to that of Hungary in the 1980s than to those of Georgia or Ukraine in this century: It is distinctly non-geopolitical, with its leaders explicitly dissociating themselves from larger global powers, and appears to be fundamentally grassroots and organic.
The Armenian movement has unfolded within the constitutional parameters of the state without challenging the state’s foundations. This is ultimately both a tactical advantage for the movement and a long-term gain for Armenian statehood: rather than starting from scratch, a daunting task in a geopolitically charged and highly authoritarian neighbourhood, the focus is on restructuring and reforming, rather than rebuilding the entire constitutional system.
The existing schism between the civil and political realms is an impediment for translating the will of the people on the streets today into institutional outcomes in the parliament tomorrow.
Democratic transitions are inherently multi-level processes. They involve civil society, political society, rule of law, state apparatus, and economic society. Armenia’s foundations for a successful transition and a democratic consolidation are, perhaps surprisingly, strong.
As evident in the success of the large-scale civil disobedience movement, the country possesses significant capacities in its civil society. Its administrative state remains functional as well. Market-based economic institutions are evolved and intact, albeit dominated by oligarchic interests and large businesses.
The rule of law, while arbitrarily applied, at least has created the basic expectation among the populace of the need and value of constitutional adherence. It is in the arena of political society, defined as free and inclusive electoral contests, where Armenia has lagged since independence. Electoral fraud and reliance on administrative resources to control ballot outcomes have, over the years, crippled trust between society and the government.
And it is on this area of societal trust that the current movement would do well to focus. The existing schism between the civil and political realms is an impediment for translating the will of the people on the streets today into institutional outcomes in parliament tomorrow.
Pashinyan, the opposition movement’s leader, has been deftly striving to build public solidarity and reject the notion of political vendetta. These are the right tones to strike in any movement that endeavours to advance popular protest to democratic consolidation.
Risks and rewards moving forward
As highlighted by researchers who study such events throughout history, many mass civil movements have toppled non-democratic regimes, but if left alone, it has been remarkably difficult for them to produce democratic transitions and consolidations.
For successful outcomes, the complementarity of civil society with the political society of the state is necessary. Parties, elections, electoral rules, political leadership, alliances and legislatures are needed to translate democratic energy from the streets into the formal political institutions of the state. Simply put, the people may have done their part, but invariably the time comes for the politicians to exercise their skills in negotiation, compromise and alliance building.
In Armenia, under continued public pressure from the streets, the clock is ticking for politicians.
For the longer term, any new government in Armenia will need to produce and present a clear democratic dividend to the population. Brought to power on a wave of economic discontent, the new government will be under pressure to deliver quickly.
Working through broad coalitions of political parties, in partnership with civil society, will be essential towards managing expectations and reforming the institutions of the rule of law.
Consensus-based governance in parliament will be needed to evaluate potential reforms to the existing constitution which, while functional and in some ways progressive, does not sufficiently preclude means by which democratic and anti-authoritarian gains may be rolled back in the future.
Armenia’s much-contested and newly minted parliamentary system offers tools to accommodate a Republican Party that will invariably see its near-term political fortunes decline. Democratic consolidation will succeed only if power transitions occur through the ballot box, with votes conducted with unimpeachable electoral integrity. Losers need to know they can both gain and lose power through elections.
The civil movement was in many ways not about Sargsyan, nor should it be about Pashinyan. It is about an eroded social trust between the government and its people. This can be repaired by a clean vote, peaceful transfers of power, and a constructive and healthy push-and-pull between a perpetually active civil society and legitimate political forces, for years to come.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.