Armenia’s revolution continues

Richard Giragosian, Regional Studies Center (Yerevan, Armenia)

Subscribe for Newsletter

Download PDF

On May 19 Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan urged supporters to block the entrance of all court buildings. This was the reaction to District Court’s decision to free the ex-president Kocharian. “Revolutionary” methods of dealing with the situation only demonstrated that the government made a serious mistake not reforming the judiciary sooner.

After several thousand activists turned up to heed that call on May 20, Pashinyan suspended the action and held a televised national address to announce a new mandatory “vetting process” of all judges, with new requirements for greater transparency that include declarations of wealth and assets and other international “best practices” in legal reform. Weighing the issue, on May 23 the European Union expressed readiness to help the Armenian authorities reform the domestic judiciary by providing the appropriate “technical and financial assistance.”

As a direct form of criticism for Pashinyan on  May 27, a group of 163 of the total 229 judges in Armenia after the extraordinary meeting of the “General Assembly of Judges” in Yerevan issued a statement that expressed cautious support for the Armenian government’s sweeping plan to reform the judicial system. However, the judges demanded that they must be consulted on the implementation of the ambitious reforms. The statement also noted that the judges welcome reforms “to strengthen confidence in the judicial authority which would be taken in strict compliance with the law.” According to Yervand Khundkarian, the chairman of Armenia’s Court of Cassation, the judges further called on the government to adhere to the existing laws and commitments to relevant international treaties and conventions, while also condemning any attempts to interfere with “the normal work of courts”.

Way to reforms

Although hailed as Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution,” coming to power of the new Armenian government led by Nikol Pashinyan in April 2018 actually began with a forced resignation.  Armenia’s third president, Serzh Sargsyan, ended his two-terms in power with a fatal, failed attempt to remain in charge of the country by becoming the prime minister, as the head of a new parliamentary form of government. That resignation of an incumbent leader triggered an unexpected series of events that not only ended over a decade of power wielded by an entrenched ruling Republican Party, but also ushered in a new period in Armenian political history.  

And the surprisingly quick and smooth successful demonstration of the potency of popular support and “people power” brought a movement led by Nikol Pashinyan to power as the new Armenian prime minister.  Once installed as premier, however, Pashinyan faced the resistance of the reluctant parliament still dominated by a waning but warring majority Republican Party. As a second obstacle, Pashinyan was able to leverage overwhelming popular support from the streets against the institutional resistance of the parliament and by December 2018, garnered his own overwhelming majority of seats in a new parliament with an extraordinary election that was also unusually free and fair.

Driven by the momentum of those achievements, Prime Minister Pashinyan embarked on a new course of governing the country based on the mandate of both popular personal support and political control of 88 of the 132 seats in the new parliament.  With his “My Step” political bloc easily dominating the new parliament, the only potential challenge was posed by two much smaller parties: the “Prosperous Armenia,” which retained 26 seats, and the “Bright Armenia” party, with 18 seats. And as neither the former ruling Republican Party nor the more marginal parties once aligned in support of the old government were able to win seats, the Armenian parliament genuinely reflected the country’s profoundly new political reality.    

Despite such political power and prowess, however, the early months of the Pashinyan Administration were marked by a set of missteps and mistakes, stemming from the combination of inexperience and lack of coherent or clear strategy. Nevertheless, the government pushed ahead with an ambitious reform programme capped by an anti-corruption drive that most clearly and convincingly demonstrated the serious political will of the new leadership.  And even with a mixed record of consensus and compromise, exacerbated by an early incapacity to better define and defend new policies and legislative initiatives, the premier was able to sustain an impressive degree of popular support.

Assessing the first year

Looking back, a more objective assessment of the first year of the Pashinyan government reveals three significant observations. First, the mistakes of the government were far less serious than they seemed at the time. Mistakes in public policy and political missteps are common for any government. Rather, the real test for the Armenian government is whether the same mistakes are repeated and to what degree the government learns from its mistakes.  From that perspective, the Pashinyan Administration has done fairly well, and has demonstrated the ability to both correct mistakes and contain any resulting damage. This has also been matched by the recognition of the challenge of managing a steep “learning curve”, which was further evident in its “humility in office” that replaced the previous government’s “arrogance of power”. And as inexperience is best offset by enthusiasm and willingness to seek outside counsel and expertise, the Pashinyan Administration remains open to constructive criticism.

The second factor in assessing the first year in office is not as promising, however. More specifically, the political calculus for the victory of the Pashinyan government in 2018 is no longer applied to 2019.  Popular support in the streets is never a source for an institutional mandate to govern. Although this maxim was accepted and determined Pashinyan previous priority of forcing an early election for a new parliament, the temptation to turn back to the street and threaten to call out his supporters undermines both the credibility and competence of the government as an institution.  

Moreover, despite the potent threat of protest by mobilizing supporters, such a move is a serious blow to forging consensus and compromise as essential pillars for democratic governance. In this context, the prime minister needs to do much more to foster the development of a stronger and more assertive parliament, as both a separate institution and a source for broader public policy.  To date, the parliament has yet to fulfill its role as originator of legislative and policy initiatives, as well as a critical oversight body capable of enforcing “checks and balances” within the process of government.

And the prime minister needs to delegate more authority and decision-making power to the parliament. Otherwise, Armenia’s infamous “pyramid” of political power will stifle deeper democratization and institutional development. At the same time, the pyramid model is inherently unsustainable, as the premier will not be able to maintain the same degree of control or micro-management over the political process for long.  

But it is the third observation in the assessment of the Armenian government that is most troubling. More specifically, the “Velvet Revolution” is under threat, and vulnerable to the limitations inherent in the specific trajectory of political change. This vulnerability stems from the reality that the so-called Velvet Revolution was indeed revolutionary, but not quite a revolution by method or model. Starting with the forced resignation of a dismissed individual and moving to replace the institution of the discredited parliament, political change in Armenia was both incomplete and inconclusive. This is most evident in the government’s belated, and somewhat diluted, call for an “economic revolution”, announced much later than politically practical or prudent.  

But it was the failure to tackle and take on the challenge of a tainted judiciary sooner that is now seen as a serious mistake. It is, after all, the judiciary that not only holds institutional power as a branch of government in its own right, but is also essential as the legal and constitutional foundation for reforms and the rule of law. Thus, the benign neglect of legal and judicial reform during the early period of the Pashinyan Administration led to a serious loss of momentum that also deprived the government of the critical legal basis for combating corruption and other crucial reforms.  

The obvious lack of an independent or even reform-minded judiciary should have been a much higher priority for the government, especially given the belated launch of an effort of “transitional justice” that was never clearly articulated and poorly planned. The concept of transitional justice was also weakened by the government’s premature shift away from a priority focus on economic crimes of corruption to the overtly political transgressions of the previous government, as evident in the charges against former President Robert Kocharian and other former officials for their culpability in the post-election fatalities in March 2008.  

Thus, the failure to deal with the judiciary sooner offered an opportunity for all government opponents to regroup around a “citadel of resistance,” with an assault driven by efforts to galvanize remnants of support not for the ousted former president, Sargsyan, but for the more dangerous president that preceded him, Kocharian.      

The revolution continues

In recent weeks, the battle between the reformist government and the resistant judiciary erupted, with an escalation sparked by the case of former President Robert Kocharian. The escalation started on May 18 with a controversial decision by a Yerevan district court judge to release the former president from pre-trial detention. Although that decision was soundly criticized by the government, from the legal perspective alone, it was fairly straightforward and sound as a matter of the rule of law and criminal procedure.  

The backlash to his release was largely an emotional and political reaction, as legally the decision was determined more by the failure of the prosecutors to meet the higher burden of proof in convincing the court of the danger of flight risk or obstruction of justice to justify the former president’s custody pending his trial. But the reaction was also more than simply an emotional response and was also due to the longstanding abuse of pre-trial detention, most often as an unnecessary and legally unwarranted form of coercion of defendants beyond legal norms. Sadly, the government’s response was also somewhat disappointing, as the same abuse of pre-trial detentions was long used as a method to repress and intimidate the opposition in the past.

This move was further misunderstood by many, who incorrectly misinterpreted the release as undermining or weakening the criminal charges against Kocharian for attempting to “overthrow the constitutional order” during the fatal clashes in the post-election violence in February-March 2008.  Although the release could raise concerns over a possible attempt to obstruct justice, or witness tampering by Kocharian, the prosecutors could have sought monitored “house arrest” or pursued other methods to deter such a scenario, just as the surrendering of Kocharian’s passport eased fear of his flight risk.

But largely reflecting the emotional outrage over the March 2008 fatalities and the deep dislike for Kocharian, the release was sharply rebuked by Prime Minister Pashinyan, who criticized many judges for their lack of independence and alleging links to Armenia’s “corrupt” former leaders. Although the release of the former president from pre-trial custody was not as egregious as it seemed, the situation quickly escalated only days later when the same presiding judge, Davit Grigorian, suspended the Kocharian trial, arguing that a “suspicion of discrepancy” between the charges and the constitution required him to submit the case for legal review by the Constitutional Court. This move offered a freed Kocharian a month before the higher court would be obligated to issue its ruling, allowing him the freedom to coordinate a desperate countermove.      

Ironically similar to the ambition of former President Serzh Sargsyan as a trigger for Pashinyan’s popular movement, the symbolic role of former President Robert Kocharian now serves as the figurehead and rallying point for open opponents and self-declared enemies of the current Armenian government. Another point of ironic similarity is rooted in the fact that both Sargsyan and Kocharian now are significantly weaker and much more discredited than they either seem or realize. In a broader context, efforts to oppose the Pashinyan government are signs of desperation and symptoms of weakness, not strength or confidence.        

The weakness of the Kocharian threat is also evident in his lack of any political vehicle or instrument to challenge the government. And with a notable lack of any serious popular support, his need for a political platform is a major obstacle as it denies him any realistic pathway to power.  Moreover, his credibility is meager, and even his supporters have rallied around him not in unified loyalty but out of a limited shared opposition to the government. This means that without a political vehicle or party, he will be unable to overcome the divisions and differences of a diverse and dysfunctional base of support.  

The situation also demonstrates the relative waning of the power and influence of the former president as well, revealing him as very much more a former president than a current contender.  His loss of support from the Prosperous Armenia party was an especially daunting setback, which would have been his natural political base of support given his help in crafting the party and helping to create its leader, “businessman” Gagik Tsarurkyan, a chosen oligarch who enjoyed special favor and a lucrative share of the corruption network of the Kocharyan government.  But for Tsarukyan such personal loyalty and political allegiance to Kocharyan was abruptly over in the wake of a public clash with then-President Serzh Sargsyan in early 2015, who humiliated the oligarch. The lack of any defense or support from Kocharyan only fed an added degree of betrayal in Tsarukyan’s eyes, thereby moving him closer to cautious support for Pashinyan in 2018. It is this background that explains the failure of Kocharyan to leverage a political platform or party. The sole exception is the marginal, and now largely discredited nationalist party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF-D), whose past allegiance to Kocharyan and Sargsyan seriously tainted their standing.      

The Russia factor

Beyond the lack of a political vehicle, Kocharyan is also weakened by any real hope of Russian backing. Although for Moscow, the Pashinyan government is neither a preferred partner nor a trusted supplicant, Russia’s calculation is driven more by the logic of exercising its power through a reliance on the structural leverage of Armenian dependence than any emotional ties to its former patron. For this reason, despite the public image of Kocharyan being popular in Moscow, Russian policy only takes calculated risks and not blind gambles. Any such moves to back Kocharyan over an established Armenian government with widespread support and electoral legitimacy would present an unpredictable gamble for Moscow, and the one most likely to fail and trigger a serious backlash.


Looking back over one year, the outlook for the next stage of the “Velvet Revolution” remains difficult to predict.  But one important “lesson learned” for looking ahead is the fact that the Armenian Prime Minister was seriously under-estimated at several key turning points over the past several years. And as evident from 2018 onwards, he was able to easily surpass expectations and seriously overcome obstacles each time, confounding critics and even surprising supporters alike. Therefore, it seems more likely that Armenia’s coming phase of revolution will only continue, and its momentum will withstand the challenge from an “old guard.”  And while it may not be as smooth as last year, the lack of any viable alternative and the absence of any credible threat will ensure that Prime Minister Pashinyan will have more opportunities to surpass expectations and only excel at surprising observers for some time to come.