The leader of the mass protest movement that brought down Armenia’s right-wing government has been elected by parliament as the new prime minister. Hovhannes Gevorkian looks at how this happened — and what the near future might hold.
Serj Sargsyan from the right-wing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) resigned as prime minister late last month in the face of huge protests. However, a May 1 parliamentary vote failed to deliver a majority to make opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan PM, even though he was the sole candidate under consideration.
After repeating mobilisations, including a vast general strike the next day, the ruling HHK finally decided to vote for Pashinyan on May 8.
It was this upsurge and strike that forced the change, after the HHK sought to discredit the candidate of the unified opposition. The HHK felt compelled to change stance as its reputation is very bad at the moment.
Even before the general strike that Pashinyan called, the stores and supermarkets such as City Supermarket or SAS Supermarket were boycotted and blocked because its owners are from the HHK.
It is no surprise that the growing anger of the mass movement resulted in an astonishing general strike. This was the first general strike in the country since the independence movement about 30 years ago.
The May 2 general strike was worthy of the name. The whole country was paralysed, all roads in and out of Yerevan blocked. In the city itself, one could not move in a car. Taking the bus or the metro? Not possible, as they were on strike too. Workers from all sectors joined the strike; students, teachers, even actors and singers took part.
The most notable strike was probably at Zvartnots Airport, where workers made a moving declaration that they would join the mass movement. With the roads to the airport closed, basically everything was shut down.
It is important to mention that the working class did not only choose not go to work, but also took part in various forms of civil disobedience. Party offices of the hated HHK were surrounded. Protesters even blocked the ministries.
The roads only partly opened in the afternoon so that people could join the central rally at Republican Square. And indeed, they joined once again in their hundreds of thousands.
When the HHK announced it would finally vote for Pashinyan, the “candidate of the people”, it was clear the movement that had overthrown the HHK government on April 23 was once again successful. The mass movement had essentially decided the next prime minister.
But as the protesters left the rally, it also seemed that this was both a climax and the beginning of the end. Pashinyan declared that all actions and mobilisations should cease the next morning after it was clear that he would get the votes to become prime minister.
He stated: “Despite [the HHK] announcement, we need to be vigilant. But tomorrow, you will go to class. Whatever you have missed, you will read tonight.”
This does not necessarily mean the movement will now slowly fade away. The recent days showed that Pashinyan is, in a sense, truly the candidate of the people, as he is by far the most popular figure in Armenia right now.
Of course, he would be nothing without the mass movement. What would he be if the people had not participated spontaneously in acts of civil disobedience, blocking the streets by themselves? Yet since April 13, when the movement started, Pashinyan took part in all the daily actions, even injuring his hand as he tried to break through a police blockade.
During the movement, he managed to broaden his leadership over the mass movement to the point where he is now almost seen as a messianic figure promising to liberate Armenia from corruption and poverty.
This has also meant that the actions, including the general strike, did not have the opportunity to be more militant.
Although Pashinyan himself called for “revolutionary committees” to occupy the institutions, he always reminded the people that they should respect the capitalist constitution and law of Armenia.
In his mind it was always a democratic movement, but the people participated not only to have free and fair elections, but also better living conditions — a typical characteristic in poor semi-colonial countries. The credibility of democratic demands will very quickly lose its effect if they do not bring about economic improvements.
So far, Pashinyan’s economic and social program is hardly visible. He has been careful not to commit himself to an economic program.
The near future
During the movement, Pashinyan not only managed to show himself as an activist, but also as a serious politician who gained the support of big companies like the Grand Holding Company, Grand Candy or Grand Tobacco. He also negotiated with co-opted opposition parties, such as the Tsarukyan Party of the oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan.
As the movement grew and strengthened, questions arose about the role of Russia, as there are about 4000 soldiers in the country who protect the Armenian-Turkish border.
What would Russia do? Would they intervene like in Georgia in 2008? Pashinyan was never seen as “pro-Russian” like Sargsyan and the HHK, who have close ties to the Russian state and business interests.
But Pashinyan was also never “anti-Russian”. Asked by journalists whether he was “pro-Western” or “pro-Russian”, he simply answered: “I am pro-Armenian.”
It is not only with regard to his management of the movement, where he finds himself in between radicalised students and hated oligarchs, that has he been a brilliant strategist. This is also true of foreign policy.
Pashinyan knew he could never come to power within the existing system in Armenia against the will of the Kremlin. No surprise that he quickly established close relationships with the Russian Embassy, even stating that he will deepen the relationship with Russia.
As he declared his solidarity with the Republic of Artsakh — artificially “independent” but a very important part of Armenia — it is likely that there will be no big changes in the foreign policy in a region where the conflict is frozen.
In Armenia itself, Pashinyan promised that after a period of transitional government, he will dissolve the parliament and call for new elections that will be free and fair under a new electoral code.
As the masses were victorious against Sargsyan, it is clear they will stay vigilant and closely watch what Pashinyan does. They have experienced their own power.
With the general strike, they showed their strength as workers in a country where bosses behave like lords who can do whatever they want. This is a country where the working class has been shaken by a high unemployment rate, and where workers are in danger of falling into poverty.
The mass gatherings and civil disobedience actions, and most importantly the general strike, pave the way for a future in which there will be no compromise between the radicalised masses and corrupt oligarchs.
It is for that reason that workers, popular classes and the youth must have no illusions about Pashinyan and the liberal forces.
For the working class and the masses, it is crucial to forge an independent political alternative able to respond to the structural problems of the workers in Armenia, and serve as an example for the rest of the region and beyond.
[Hovhannes Gevorkian is an Armenian socialist currently studying in Germany, where he is a member of the Revolutionary Internationalist Organisation. Abridged from LeftEast.]