Steps Toward Armenia's Awakening
Armenian politics stopped being interesting for me several years ago. It was 2014, the day after President Serzh Sargsyan announced that he was reneging on the Associating Agreement that was just about to be signed with the EU. His ministers and chief of staff were stunned by the decision and tried to spin things, claiming they were in on the decision. It was quite clear that they weren’t, and I waved bye-bye to the political scene altogether. Turns out I didn’t really miss much. The public transportation fee hike protests were in 2013 (150 dram up from 100), which resulted in the authorities rescinding their decision. I missed the Electric Yerevan movement in 2015, since I was in the US at the time. I was also in the US for Sasna Dzer, which in retrospect was a desperate, indeed heartbreaking attempt in reclaiming justice for Armenian citizenry. Then came “My Step.”
Like many people, no one knew what to make of Nikol’s latest gimmick to gain attention for a meaningful cause—who didn’t want Serzh Sargsyan to disappear and take the whole Republican party with him? It seemed foolhardy—he would walk to Yerevan from Gyumri, spread his message along the way in small towns and villages. At the time I thought, OK, good for you, Nikol, have fun with that. I was shocked by the momentum it gained a week or two later.
Footage on YouTube shows him on Vartanants Square on March 31, a sunny, chilly afternoon judging by his black windbreaker zipped up to his chin. He looked as dorky as ever, balder than ever, clean shaven, tidy. And he had that old, indescribable charm about him. I wanted to take him seriously, yet I couldn’t help but smile, too, and give him a bear hug. I’ve had that same feeling about him since I first saw him in 2007. I never walked up to him and introduce myself, perhaps interview him (although I tried to arrange one in 2012). I regret that now.
Back in 2007 he had his Impeachment movement and the editor of the daily Haykakan Zhamanak. His protests started in late afternoon, about every day, raving incoherently into his iconic bullhorn, advocating for the downfall of Robert Kocharian, Serzh, the oligarchy. He sounded like a total nut. Perhaps that was the point—he wanted to reel people in. And it worked. His movement grew and they threw their weight behind Levon Ter-Petrosyan in his unexpected political comeback to retake the presidency in 2008. Nikol paid the price after March 1—he went into hiding for 16 months, then gave himself up and was promptly imprisoned. He emerged a hero, and in 2012 he won a parliamentary seat on the Armenian National Congress (ANC or HAK) ticket. You couldn’t help but applaud the guy.
But he really ticked me off when he went back on his word to protest the outcome of the parliamentary election results, which everyone agreed were fraudulent. Instead he decided to shut up about it (I was there when he and the other ANC people announced the decision) and get to work in the National Assembly. We all forgave him. Since then he’s tried to take the spotlight in opportune moments, like during the Electric Yerevan and Sasna Dzer movements (he was mocked and sent home during the latter).
I was skeptical about “My Step” and its transformation in mid-April in Yerevan. The acts of civil disobedience—blocking intersections and occupying squares—seemed endearing to me at first. Then the riot police started showing their face, which really began to concern me. I’ve been braver in the past when riot police came out in prior mass protests. But in Yerevan they symbolize trouble and confrontation, especially after the Sasna Dzer ordeal. And now, as a dad of two young boys, I want to keep my distance from harm’s way. I don’t want to be in the thick of it anymore. Perhaps that fear hindered me from taking the “My Step” movement very seriously at the time.
Then early morning on April 17, the day of Serzh Sargsyan’s election as prime minister, I saw via a live video feed that the Baghramyan-Proshyan intersection was blocked with razor wire and riot police. I fired off an email to all my students that I was calling in sick and they should be vigilant about travelling to AUA. After I completed my work from home, I roamed the city. What I witnessed blew me away. Not only were protesters blocking intersections, they told off irate motorists driving fancy SUVs who were arguing with them. Even a few provocatively dressed women in stiletto heels told off a driver trying to get through. Then, they just turned their cars around and sped away. People were essentially submitting to this movement. And I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.
Wherever I went that afternoon I saw more of the same. Half of Sayat Nova street was closed, including Place de France, where things were about to wind down within minutes after my arrival, I would come to find out. Two kids sharing the seat of what looked like a Huffy dirt bike from the mid-80s rode in announced, “People, we’re moving to Republic Square. Nikol’s meeting us there,” and sped off to another checkpoint. People of all ages were strolling about, walking up to a coil of razor wire pulled across Baghramyan Ave at the Isahakyan intersection. All of them, like me, were trying to absorb what was going on, and what it would lead to.
When I saw that Republic Square had been closed just before rush hour I knew we were at a point of no return. I was standing near the middle of the square, in broad daylight. The police were nowhere to be found, except for a row of about 50 cadets in front of the Government Building. They simply couldn’t keep up since the protests were so decentralized. A lot of them were distracted by Nikol’s parades around town. It was a game changer moment.
The evening of April 23, the day of Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation, was a time of immense, harmonious celebration. Strangers were congratulating one another. Vuvuzelas were blaring everywhere, and song and dance broke out in the middle of the Yerevan’s main thoroughfares. I roamed the streets until just past midnight, observing mesmerized with I had been seeing. Never before had I seen Armenian citizens so unified in purpose, ecstatic in the bliss of empowerment and accomplishment. It was all quite moving. Upon my arrival in Republic Square I saw some young protesters light small fires within orange paper lamps and watched them float into the starry sky. I turned to the wide fountain pool overflowing into the long drain and reflected on the evening, on the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets for freedom and justice, and similar movements I had personal witnessed over the years that had great promise but ultimately failed. And in that private moment I wept.
It’s anyone’s guess what will happen on May 8. The Republicans have pledged that they would vote for the candidate for prime minster, without explicitly stating Nikol’s name. They royally screwed up on May 1 by failing to elect him—the paralyzing nationwide protests on May 2 were stark proof of that.
I think it’s too soon to call the “My Step” movement a velvet revolution, despite Nikol’s convictions. The word “revolution” implies a change in the system of governance of a country, along with regime change and political/cultural/social ideology. This movement is unfolding in front of our eyes, and our emotional reactions are leading us to believe that we are experiencing cultural and political upheaval. What we have seen, essentially, was the resignation of the prime minister and former president under intense pressure from countless thousands of citizens participating in public civil disobedience, marches, and strikes nationwide. We are seeing a new generation of millenials—17-25 year olds—who are just being kids, but without inhibitions and the albatross of shame worn around their necks. Instead, they are employing their youthful exuberance to demand the application of their rights to democracy, equality, and justice. We have yet to see a new prime minister, a new interim or permanent government formed in accordance with Armenia’s constitution, freer elections unmarred by fraud, and an amended electoral code. We may see a change in the type of democratic system—perhaps a social democracy—that may replace the virtually unregulated free-market, oppressive system in place. But we still have a long way to go. Perhaps in a year, after having analyzed what exactly transpired during the course of three to six months (we’re only five weeks into this movement) we can appropriately define this as a period of revolution.
But regardless of the label given to “My Step,” this is a momentous, unprecedented time in Armenian history that the entire world is witnessing, and this movement will certainly be an impetus for change in countries worldwide where stark social and economic inequalities have pushed the masses to ineluctably expired patience. The Russians are already using the Armenian model in anti-Putin protests.
For me the real indication of a revolution having taken place will be the imminent passage of legislation that increases the minimum wage to a level commensurate with the current basic standard of living and ever-creeping inflation. Efforts have failed in the past for unproven reasons—the latest promise to increase the minimum wage was made in December 2017. Although the minimum wage is 55,000 dram, or $114, some people, like municipal street cleaners who sweep the streets late at night using what seem like homemade brooms, are purportedly earning much less than that. It is impossible for a family to survive on such a wage. It may have been somewhat adequate 15 or 20 years ago, when the prices of basic foodstuffs like dairy products and bread were much lower than they are now.
Homelessness also needs to be eradicated. The government should confiscate partially constructed apartment buildings financed with stolen money and provide modern, low-income housing to the poor. Corporate greed and high-interest bank loans have disenfranchised too many Armenian citizens, and it needs to stop.
We’re living in extraordinary times. Never before have I seen so much hope in people’s eyes, so much compassion shared for others. Optimism has finally eclipsed fatalism. Here’s hoping that this sense of empowerment that Armenians, especially the youth, are now feeling is sustainable.