I RECENTLY CAUGHT the start of a revolution that swept Armenia’s autocrat from power and replaced him with an opposition newspaper founder. It started as a mass demonstration and, had it been crushed, it might have hardly been remembered. More striking was that it was completely nonviolent. Also, it happened in Vladimir Putin’s backyard in a post-Soviet country.
Armenia’s government-sanctioned TV news stations, of course, did not cover the demonstrations, and the international press was late and sparse. But demonstrators live-streamed themselves on Facebook to protect themselves against a crackdown that never occurred.
Eventually, the “what happened” of the revolution would be reported by major international outlets and it would be known and accepted that the out-of-the-blue opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan had become Armenia’s new prime minister, elected only after Serzh Sargsyan, having served the maximum of two terms as president, backed down on his quest to remain in power, this time as prime minister — a post that had been significantly upgraded in time for his anticipated tenure. On April 23, 2018, after days of protests, Sargsyan resigned with a remarkable admission: “I was wrong, while Nikol Pashinyan was right.”
But the official narrative seemed lamentably inadequate to describe what had actually happened. The how and the why of this revolution intrigued me, so I went to the capital city of Yerevan to understand the set of events that had been doubly titled “Armenia’s Velvet Revolution” and the “Revolution of Love and Solidarity.”
Yerevan is a strikingly small national capital, rich in public sculpture, with an opera house, puppet theaters, expensive restaurants, strip clubs, boxing gyms, chess clubs, nascent wine bars, and lovely parks within a 10-minute walk from each other. Buildings are generally not painted. The more reverential architecture is comprised of walls of monochrome stone.
The recent revolution had as much to do with Armenia’s history and its precarious position against its hostile neighbors as it did with Sargsyan’s abuses.
The 1915 genocide against the Armenians by the Turks created a global diaspora. Of the eight million ethnic Armenians on the globe, only three million live in Armenia. Turkey also took control of Mount Ararat, which looms within sight of Yerevan. In addition to substantial speculation that it is the resting place of Noah’s Ark, Mount Ararat features prominently in local art and culture and also in marketing for cigarettes, banks, and brandy. What Ararat precisely means is in the realm of the poets, but the mention of it will cause a response that is at once sad and bitingly hopeful.
To the east is Azerbaijan, against whom wars, skirmishes, and conflicts have been fought since the end of the Soviet Union. With the perpetrators of a historic genocide on one side and a military foe on the other, Armenia has a sense of national purpose and cultural cohesion that went on display during the protests against the dictator.
“We joined together and we were standing between the police and the Armenian people,” said Shavarsh Mudaryan.
We told the police that we are all part of the Armenian family. We told the police that we don’t need to fight with each other because we already have enemies. We don’t need enemies in our own country. We want them to join us and be a part of the revolution. After that, many of the police joined with the people. We had not been this happy for 30 years, so it’s not just a revolution, it’s a new page of our lives.
North of Armenia is Georgia, which shares a peaceful border; and beyond Georgia looms Russia, whose notable absence during the revolution remains a source of speculation. Why didn’t the claws of the Russian bear strike down on the “Revolution of Love and Solidarity”? One theory has it that Russia was too preoccupied with Syria and Ukraine to take on further foreign intervention.
Photos from the revolution show members of the clergy and military walking with the demonstrators. Nobody I interviewed expected this to lead to an actual revolution. “If a revolution was being planned, they would have stopped it,” as local journalist Ani Navasardyan phrased it.
Many people described a personal transformation when they witnessed the demonstrations growing larger. They felt something extraordinary was happening and that they were a part of it and that the experience of “freedom finally coming to our country,” in the words of Olya Azatyan, was a sublime moment.
A man named Momik Vardanyan felt this sensation after Sargsyan’s concession, and he coined the exuberant name “Revolution of Love and Solidarity” from a coffee shop called Café Illik, co-founded in August 2016 by Anahit Sahakyan.
“Soon after opening, artists, LGBT members, feminists, and communist started to meet at the cafe and passionate conversations about society began in the back,” Sahakyan told me.
I started to want to believe. I told people that I don’t believe but I’ll do everything to support you. It was risky, though. They could come and close it and I would lose everything. I have two children, what if something happens to me?
This was a flexible movement that only preached one thing: the nonviolent removal of Sargsyan from power. This permitted maximum creativity from its participants. For example, volleyball games were set up to block streets. Also, at 11:00 p.m. every night, people would clang pots and pans together out their windows. “The police could not stop everyone,” as Olya Azatyan said.
One of the other important noises out the window was Vardanyan screaming from the second floor of Café Illik. “Momik started shouting about the revolution of love and solidarity from the balcony and then the whole street started shouting,” recalled the co-owner Anahit Sahakyan. She reflected, “It was one of the happiest times of my life.”
I tracked down Momik Vardanyan and asked him to tell me the story of the phrase “revolution of love and solidarity.”
“I wrote it down on my Facebook and then ran to Café Illik and I started to shout it and the people there started to shout it together,” he said. “The next day my voice was gone and I wrote it on a banner and went to the square. People saw it and started to shout it. Everything was like a coincidence,” he said.
Other people at Café Illik made banners about the “Revolution of Love and Solidarity” that would be shown and shouted the next day. The day after that and with a tense struggle ahead, as the question of who would become the next prime minister was yet to be decided, Nikol Pashinyan called the movement the “Revolution of Love and Solidarity” and the whole country had a name for what was underway.
I asked Vardanyan when, he thought, the revolution would be complete. He said:
The revolution is just beginning. When we defined the revolution of love and solidarity, we said: let this revolution continue and let it be a revolution of love and solidarity. It will be good that this revolution does not end. Because the revolution implies that it must be permanent. If there is a place for struggle, you should be in that struggle — no matter if it is in your country, your city, or the things around you.
There should always be a struggle for equality and justice. It has always been an agenda, even before the revolution. You can’t fight only for privileges or for good jobs. And to struggle against the ideologies that strengthen unhappiness and people blaming themselves for unhappiness. The revolution must always continue.
Currently in Yerevan, evening news broadcasts tell stories of high-level officials being arrested and charged (ex-president Robert Kocharyan became the first former head of state of a former Soviet republic to be temporarily held in custody, for example). Those being currently jailed were perceived as untouchable prior to the revolution. Prime Minister Pashinyan’s public statements regarding this are rooted in the idea that all arrests must be grounded in evidence and the rule of law. During a Facebook broadcast on June 25, 2018, he said,
I cannot put anyone behind bars. However, I can and will put those who have committed financial abuse and those who have gained well at the expense of public funds behind bars. And the decisions regarding who will be behind bars and who will not be behind bars will be made by the prosecutor’s office.
On the more local level, the promise of the revolution was to rid the country of corruption. However, because corruption involves integrated economies, this is harder than it sounds. People would take loans out to pay off a government official to train as a police officer, for example; and then, once working as a police officer, they would pay back that loan in part through seeking and accepting bribes for traffic violations. The issue, then, becomes one of adjusting police salaries that traditionally made corruption a near-necessity — in addition to loan reform within the banking system. Challenges like these are constant and present in the society.
Most Armenians seemed aware that tinkering and time would be necessary. I purchased a ticket to the Yervand Kochar Museum, and sometime later, as I was leaving, a woman who works there raced after me, stopped me, handed me my receipt, and said with a large smile, “Our new prime minister says we need to do this now.”