Is Armenia facing a colour revolution? Popular protests on the rise in Emerging Europe

Is Armenia facing a colour revolution? Popular protests on the rise in Emerging Europe
Armenian protest leader Nikol Pashinian was detained in Yerevan on April 22 during the eleventh day of opposition demonstrations.
By Ben Aris in Berlin April 22, 2018

Armenian protest leader Nikol Pashinian was detained by masked police in Yerevan on April 22 during an opposition demonstration shortly after televised talks between him and Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan broke down during the morning.

The Armenian protests have been swelling and are part of a popular pushback by the people of countries from the Baltics to the Caspian Sea against their abusive and corrupt leaders. Most of the demonstrations have proven fruitless with the leaders reaching for the traditional tools of repression, arrest and media manipulation.

Sargsyan walked out of his meeting with Pashinian, a member of Armenia’s parliament and leader of the Civil Contract party, after just three minutes, accusing the protesters of blackmail because Pashinian said he had not turned up to negotiate but only to talk over the terms of Sargsyan's resignation and arrange a peaceful transition to a new government. Pashinian was arrested despite enjoying parliamentary immunity from arrest and prosecution.

As Armenia, which has a strong street protest tradition that includes the 2015 Electric Yerevan protests over electricity tariffs, awaits to see whether Monday April 23 will bring an eleventh day of protests that match or outsize those held so far, some observers are pondering over the chance of Armenia facing its own “colour revolution” similar to the popular protests that in recent years have overthrown governments in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

The arrest of Pashinian is an attempt to behead the protest movement but it is unlikely to be successful, as it appears to be a spontaneous popular outpouring. As April 23 progressed, more and more reports came in of protests also breaking out among the big Armenia diaspora.

"The crowd of marchers now went back the way we came, and now have come to a stop. Earlier people said we were going Republic Square, others talked of western embassies. But no one knows," one local journalist tells me. “Now there is no organisation, it’s spontaneous,” tweeted Joshua Kucera, a journalist covering the protest as it developed on April 22.

The protest is apparently undirected by outside forces as there is no geopolitical interest in Armenia, an impoverished country on the edge of Europe. The nation is a member of the Russian-led trade bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), but some observers contend it was pressured to join by Russia in part to get access to weapons in the face of the Armenians' longrunning conflict with neighbour Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Russia has around 3,000 troops in Armenia, mostly stationed in Gyumri which is 100 kilometres north of Yerevan. It also sells arms to Armenia as well as Azerbaijan while regularly presenting itself as a mediator between both sides over the still active Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” tweeted Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer on German and European studies at King’s College London.

The protests are a reaction to Sargsyan's recent appointment to the job of prime minister, after he reached the end of his two permitted terms as president. Recent changes to the constitution have created a parliamentary republic meaning the job of prime minister is now the most powerful in the country. Opponents fear Sargsyan, heavily criticised for the corruption and economic mismanagement seen during his time in presidential office, is intending to stay in power for life. While president, they say, he denied he had any intention of becoming PM, although Sargsyan claims his comments were misunderstood.

Sargsyan's job-switch can be taken as yet another example of the general drift towards illiberalism that has afflicted the whole of the Emerging Europe region. Freedom House said there are now more authoritarian regimes in Emerging Europe than democracies and the watchdog has registered the broadest score declines in the project’s 23-year history: 19 of the 29 countries assessed had declines in their overall Democracy Scores.

However, increasingly the people of these countries are unwilling to stand to one side while their leaders ignore their wishes. Ukraine has seen two revolutions in the last decade – the Orange Revolution in 2006 and Euromaidan in 2014.

0418_Armenia_politics_demostration against PM 5 Republic square in Yerevan, #Armenia

Lively street protests are the popular response du jour
Protests have become common in several capitals other than Kyiv, but none have resulted in new colour revolutions. Ukrainians have been radicalised and are quick to make a challenge to the government’s authority if they think their political masters are not behaving in the people’s best interests. A crowd of protesters even pulled opposition politician Mikheil Saakashvili over the Ukrainian border when he tried to enter the country without a passport and then pulled him from a police van when he was later arrested for the same infraction. Public protests for and against the government are pretty much a weekly occurrence these days in Ukraine.

Hungary was wracked by similar large-scale protests only the weekend before. At least one hundred thousand anti-government protesters took to the streets in Budapest on April 14, demanding a fair electoral system and an investigation into voting irregularities a week after Prime Minister Viktor Orban's populist national-conservative Fidesz party won a supermajority at the polls.

In the Czech Republic, healthy turnout at protests organised across the country in early April were credited by many observers with turning caretaker populist Prime Minister Andrej Babis away from the idea of negotiating with a neo-fascist party for support that would enable him to form a government. Though Czech President Milos Zeman urged him to ignore the protesters, Babis returned to talks with the Social Democrats for another stab at arranging a government with the centre-left.

In Slovakia in mid-March even the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico failed to stem a growing tide of protests with tens of thousands of participants demanding real change in the governance of the country following the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend. The assassination sparked questions over apparent links between the mafia and the government.

Romania saw countrywide mass protests in November last year and again in January this year when the government tried to ram through laws that would end the independence of the judiciary. Romania has been the scene of anti-corruption and anti-government protests for a year, with the biggest rallies being organised in February 2017, when more than half a million Romanians demonstrated to show their discontent with the government’s move to change criminal legislation which would have partly decriminalised abuse of office.

Poland also saw similar mass street protests last summer against proposals of the national conservative ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) to reform the country’s Supreme Court and weaken the independence of the judiciary. The EU also objected to what was seen as backtracking on democratic principles and threatened to sanction Poland, but the government pushed a watered down version of the laws through anyway.

The authoritarian state of Belarus saw a rare outpouring of popular protests last March during the country’s “Freedom Day” in reaction to the government effort to impose a “lazy tax” on the unemployed, amongst other complaints. However, the Minsk events demonstrated that the Belarusian leadership under President Alexander Lukashenko has little reason to fear a possible Ukrainian scenario in Belarus thanks to his tight control of the country.

Even Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, was the scene of a string of anticorruption protests last autumn followed by popular protests this April after President Ilham Aliyev's re-election as president in what was widely regarded as a rigged election.

Russia, meanwhile, saw its first wave of regional protests last summer, organised by anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny for dozens of regional capitals. Previously all such demonstrations of any impressive size were confined to Moscow. Navalny’s regional protest tour followed on from big public protests against Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev in March 2017, the $1bn wealth of whom had been exposed by a Navalny investigation. Navalny was eventually arrested by riot police on January 28 just before Russia’s presidential elections as he walked to join protests in Moscow. He was barred from challenging Vladimir Putin in the presidential election even though he was seen as the only potential rival with any real standing.

Lately, Russia has been trying to close down the encrypted Telegram messaging app that is proving uncrackable and is widely used by Russia’s Duma deputies. The attempt has been a fiasco to date as the co-founder of the service, the self-exiled Pavel Durov, has defied a court order to hand over the digital keys to the FSB intelligence service, while the state watchdog shuttered several million IP addresses but still proved unable to stop the app from working.

"For seven days Russia has been trying to ban Telegram on its territory – with no luck so far. We were able to survive under the most aggressive attempt of internet censorship in Russian history with almost 18 million IP addresses blocked," Durov tweeted on April 20. 

On April 20, Durov called on Russians to throw paper planes (the company logo) out of their windows at exactly 7pm Moscow time to show solidarity with the company. The request was reportedly met with enthusiasm by many Russians. The courtyards of Moscow’s residential high rises were littered with paper planes.

Back in Yerevan, the organisers are organising a demo for May 8 outside the new parliament. On that day it will convene for the first time for its autumn session.