Nikol Pashinian is now Armenia’s new prime minister.
It was a long slog against well-entrenched Republican Party (HHK) domination, but the raw popular discontent that propelled the Velvet Revolution’s explosive success will not simply dissipate with the old guard’s retreat and the HHK’s momentary decline. Now begins the hard work.
Pashinian may indeed be uniquely positioned to staff and lead a government capable of navigating the tumult that contributed to his elevation, but the sheer complexity of the landscape means putting his anti-corruption, pro-democracy agenda upon inherently unforgiving terrain.
Colour and the Shape
Did Armenia just have a colour revolution? The answer depends on who is asking—and who is answering. In the dominant Russian narrative, colour revolutions are a metonym for anti-Moscow putsches driven by Western democracy promotion organizations, intelligence agencies, and local rabble-rousers, with the inevitably rumoured or invented involvement of US philanthropist George Soros. It is even described as a form of Western hybrid warfare.
Sensitive to that narrative, Armenia’s protesters have been careful to avoid the “colour revolution” moniker, and have taken great pains to communicate the domestic orientation of the Armenian political crisis, as well as the new government’s intended continued partnership with Russia. If anything, the new government has been keen to demonstrate that its activities were not directed against Moscow and reportedly kept in close contact with Russian authorities as events unfolded. Russia’s official agnosticism during the protests, followed by quick congratulations following Pashinian’s elevation, suggests its strategy has been working.
It is also likely that the Russian leadership has learned to be more flexible amid such situations, mindful of its complicated perception in Armenia and the limits its hard-line policies imposed elsewhere, such as in Georgia and Ukraine. Either way, Russia’s official reaction has been notably quiescent.
Yet, in reality, colour revolutions describe extreme public and civil society discontentment as expressed in mass protests, vented in the public arena due to uncompetitive and/or anti-democratic restrictions on political institutions. More akin to a seismic event or eruption than an operationalized political phenomenon, colour revolutions can be shaped, guided, and influenced, but they can only be so contained and managed. Revolutions, after all, have a distinctly historiographical reputation for autocannibalism.
The record is not encouraging. Even among the most “successful” of colour revolutions, their success in totality is decidedly suspect, if not downright worrisome. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution government fell from self-inflicted wounds, only to be replaced in a democratic election by Viktor Yanukovych’s kleptocratic regime, whom had to be removed in yet another revolution in 2014. The ideals espoused in Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution soon gave way a starker authoritarianism under the new government, with semi-democracy only re-established after another popular uprising in 2010—notably with Russian help. Even Georgia, arguably the most successful of the non-Baltic post-Soviet states, failed to appreciably democratize until the Rose Revolution government was pushed from power in 2012, with the present government increasingly mired in its own moment of stagnation
From that perspective, it’s no wonder that Armenia’s protest leaders have avoided colour revolution nomenclature, but that does not make the Velvet Revolution any less susceptible to the colour revolution blues. As recent history has shown, the euphoria that tends to accompany successful colour revolution events rarely translates into major, lasting policy accomplishments—at least not without significant additional disruption—and the afterglow of societal unity, and commensurate political capital for the new government, is typically ephemeral.
This may be particularly true in Armenia, which, despite longstanding single party domination, is comprised of a fractious landscape of oligarchic interests, ideologies, and groupings of varying degrees of radicalism. Pashinian and his confederates managed to pull together an impressive alliance to dislodge the ancien regime, built with not just a few defections from the HHK’s own sprawling coalition. But these are organizations with their own demands and agendas; can Pashinian’ satisfy them all? What happens if he does not?
As if on cue, the ultranationalists responsible for storming and occupying a Yerevan police station in 2016 are now hitting the streets to demand their comrades be released from prison. While it is true that the 2016 protests were, in many respects, an important step in the opposition’s journey that culminated in Pashinian’s rise, it is also true that Erebuni gunmen’s use of radical violence caused the deaths of two police officers and triggered protests amid calls for territorial maximalism—an untenable strategic option for Armenia.
Another obvious point of contention relates to how Pashinian’s anticorruption drive might be interpreted in Moscow. While Pashinian’s artful handling of the Russia question has managed to keep relations with Moscow stable, his policy agenda may inherently conflict with Russia’s perceived interests in the country, which often interact and overlap with the same oligarchic interests that have throttled Armenia’s progress for so long. More broadly, many of the major preceding mass protests that contributed to Armenia’s Velvet Revolution—Electric Yerevan, the Gyumri massacre, and even the Erebuni police hostage incident—had more than a twinge of Russia-sceptic overtones.
Pashinian’s cautious embrace of Russia in Sochi, where the two leaders met for the first time during a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union (which Pashinian has previously called for Armenia to leave), seemed to telegraph amity, but also recalled another notable past post-revolution meeting.
Mikheil Saakashvili, freshly minted as Georgia’s president following the 2003 Rose Revolution, began his administration with a program of outreach to Russia, even famously announcing in his inauguration speech that he was “not pro-American or pro-Russian,” but “pro-Georgian”—a near-exact formulation that Pashinian himself used during the April protests. Like Saakashvili, Pashinian’s first trip abroad was to Russia, where hope for positive relations, and not mutual acrimony, was the dominant theme. Of course, Pashinian is hardly doomed to repeat Saakashvili’s many mistakes, but it is hard to ignore the comparable slate of structural conflicts that plagued Georgia-Russia ties are also a factor in the new Armenia currently under construction.
All of this looms beneath the long shadow of Azerbaijan and Armenia’s tense standoff over Nagorno Karabakh—and the complex strategic variables it implies. While Armenia has accomplished what weeks ago may have widely been seen as the unbelievable, the long road only gets rockier from here. In an era of declining Western engagement in that region and worldwide, Armenia’s revolutionaries will have to rely on their wits and savvy to succeed. But Armenia has faced off bigger adversities before, and persisted.