Sat, 1 May starting @ 9:30am: Authoritarianism, Democratization, and ‘Populism’: Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution” in Perspective

Saturday, May 1, 9:30am-5pm


 Authoritarianism, Democratization, and ‘Populism’: Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution” in Perspective

Speakers and program to be announced soon.

Abstract: From end March to early May 2018, a series of peaceful protests and demonstration led to the resignation of Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, whom the then ruling Republican Party he chaired had newly nominated for that office. Having completed his two terms as President, from 2008 to 2018, Serzh Sargsyan’s attempt to remain in power became obvious. This attempt also made it evident that the amended 2015 Constitution, which he had promoted to invigorate democratization by shifting power from the office of the President to the Parliament and the office of the Prime Minister, was merely a ploy to extend his rule.  It was also the proverbial “last straw that broke the camel’s back.” A kleptocratic, semi-authoritarian regime that appeared to control all the levers of power and of the economy suddenly, and unexpectedly, collapsed. This regime change—which the leader of the protests and incoming new prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, referred to as a “Velvet Revolution”—was peaceful, something unusual for a post-Soviet republic. Subsequent parliamentary elections brought to power a new generation, younger deputies mostly between the ages of twenty-five to forty. A similar generation change also characterized the formation of the government. Youth, however, also means inexperience as almost none of the new deputies and ministers had held any political position in the past. Prime Minister (PM) Pashinyan has also turned out to be quite unusual, especially in a rather conservative country, as he rides a bicycle, addresses the population through his Facebook page or face to face in the streets, and displays photos taken with his spouse and children. As a result, the old guard accuses him of being a populist who polarizes society and his supporters of being members of NGOs financed from abroad, including by the Soros Foundation. All of them are said to be “a-national,” that is, individuals who are destroying the traditional “national values” of the country. In this context, this new generation of politicians led by Pashinyan faces the daunting task of reforming a sclerotic, corrupt political and economic system in which all the administrations and enterprises—from the local to the regional and national levels; from elementary schools to universities; from lower-level judges to the Constitutional Court; from small businesses to major ones—were controlled by members or cronies of Serzh Sargsyan’s former ruling party, the Republicans. The military debacle and consequent territorial losses resulting from the Azerbaijani-Turkish war against the self-proclaimed, unrecognized Republic of Artsakh (or Nagorno-Karabakh Republic) in the fall of 2020 have made matters worse. A “National Salvation Movement,” made up of seventeen opposition parties and groups mostly affiliated with the previous regimes, has accused PM Pashinyan of being a traitor and demanded his immediate resignation and the formation of a one-year transitional “salvation” government that would eventually organize legislative elections. Its street protests and demonstrations, characterized by extremely threatening and violent rhetoric but less successful than expected,  the ongoing Covid-19 crisis in Armenia, and the necessity of implementing the painful armistice clauses imposed by the Azerbaijani-Russian-Turkish troika (November 9, 2020) have combined to give the impression of a rudderless State. After much zigzagging, Pashinyan has finally called for legislative elections in June 2021.This conference aims at analyzing what happened in Armenia in comparative perspective and through the prisms of authoritarianism, democratization, and ‘populism’, a term the opposition has used to attack PM Pashinyan. Is what happened in Armenia a revolution? Can the Pashinyan-led regime change be compared to others?  What are the prospects for such political transformations based on past occurrences in Eastern Europe, Eurasia, and Latin America? Is it likely that the rule of law will take roots and corruption will be slowly uprooted? Finally, how can one assess the first three years of Pashinyan’s rule?