Back to Top

It’s the People, Stupid: Debunking the Myths on Protests in Armenia

hetq.am3 hours ago
  • Email
  • Facebook
  • Twitter

It’s the People, Stupid: Debunking the Myths on Protests in Armenia

By Asbed Kotchikian

Since April 13, 2018 protesters in Armenia’s capital Yerevan have been gathering in public spaces, barricading roads and demonstrating against the apparent continuation of the country’s leadership under former President (and newly minted Prime Minister) Serzh Sargsyan.

Sargsyan’s move to continue his rule came as he supported and spearheaded through his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK in Armenian) constitutional amendments in late 2015, which effectively transformed the Republic from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government.

While Sargsyan initially dismissed the claim that he was seeking the office of PM, in early 2018 representatives of his HHK party as well as his ally, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutyun (ARF-D), started floating the idea that Sargsyan was the only apparent and qualified candidate to continue managing the country as PM.

With a comfortable lead in the parliamentary election of 2017 (which was marred by reports of vote-buying and other electoral irregularities), the HHK and ARF-D formed a ruling coalition controlling almost two-thirds of 105-member National Assembly. This allowed Sargsyan to proceed with his plan to nominate, and confirm Armen Sarkissian, the new President of Armenia (mostly a ceremonial position since the constitutional amendment).

While the recent demonstrations, sit-in protests and acts of civil disobedience are not a new phenomenon in the country, there are many trends that are common to similar outbursts that have occurred in Armenia in the past couple of years. The most notable of these include: the summer 2015 “Electric Yerevan” movement which witnessed mass demonstrations against the hike of electricity prices; and the July 2016 hostage crisis where a handful of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans and others stormed a police station in Yerevan, took hostages and demanded, among other things, the resignation of then President Sargsyan.

The main functional similarities among the recent protests and demonstrations in Armenia, is that they are all manifestations of disenchantment and frustration with the political malaise that has dominated the country in the past decade or so. This political dissatisfaction has been closely associated with Sargsyan’s rule, who has managed to consolidate all the levers of power to guarantee his continued control of the country.

That being said, every time a socio-political issue triggers protests and demonstrations in Armenia, there is almost always the same reaction—or myths—that Armenians or Armenia analysts project and utilize to either describe or discredit those events. This is especially true for government and pro-government circles in Armenia as well as organized diasporan institutions operating on a different plane than that of Armenia. It should be noted that while talking about the Armenian Diaspora, it is counter-intuitive to assume that all of the diasporas are organized, or that the organized institutions represent the majority of the diasporan views when it comes to issues in Armenia.

Myth 1: The protests are isolated cases of a few disgruntled individuals

The ability of any regime or a group to discredit their opponent almost always comes down to the numbers game. To discredit any group or movement, it’s always possible to downplay them as “few reckless individuals” or to deny that the motivation for these gatherings are nothing more than “adventurists” trying to make a name for themselves.

This myth is usually propagated by the regime and its supporters in, what can be described as an “ostrich policy”, where ignoring the socio-political ailments of a society and having a tunnel vision of what is good in the country are a far better strategy than taking responsibility and trying to address those issues.

This myth has been echoed on more than one occasion in Armenia during the past several years (March 2008 events, “Electric Yerevan:, etc.) and took the form of “eyewitness” accounts and news reports that demonstrators were small in number and that the crowds gathered in various public spaces were nothing more than a bunch of young individuals who were just letting off steam. While it is true that most of the demonstrations in Armenia have a large percentage of younger (less than 30 year-old) activists, it is not unusual that this demographic is more active and involved in social movements as it is the generation that was either born or grew up in post-Soviet Armenia. Unhindered by censorship and supported by social media, it is this group that seems to have the ability and flexibility to mobilize and get organized in order to channel not only their own frustration but also the frustration of their parents.

Regardless of the number of protesters, whether they’re in the hundreds or in the thousands, a responsible government should be equipped to address those issues but more important to listen to what is being said rather than dismiss it as “child’s play.”

Myth 2: Protesters are being led by opportunist politicians to further their own goals

One interesting phenomenon that almost all demonstrations, protest or movements in Armenia (and elsewhere) have in common is that rarely do they begin with leaders calling for action. The most common typology of mass movements is that, more often than not, leadership emerges from the movement but doesn’t necessarily initiate it. Protests and revolutions in Ukraine (2004), Georgia (2003), Tunisia (2010), Egypt (2011), Iran (1979) and elsewhere showed over and over again that mass protest and uprisings rarely had a clearly defined and identified leaders; rather the leadership emerged from the ranks or was sometimes hijacked (or handed over by the protesters themselves) by political figures.

The need for politicians to be relevant at times of demonstrations or revolutions is best captured by the words of Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, a French politician “There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.” (While this quote or a variation of it is attributed to Ledru-Rollin, it is more likely apocryphal).

Nikol Pashinyan, the most visible face in the Yerevan demonstrations, has been trying to establish himself as a viable opposition leader at a time when no other political force or party has stood up in support of the protesters. One cannot articulate the true motives of Pashinyan—whether he truly believes in the movement or if it is just an opportunity for him to become more relevant in Armenia’s political scene—but he does have a record of unsuccessfully trying to play a leading role in previous mass demonstrations in Yerevan (especially during the 2015 “Electric Yerevan” movement and 2016 “Sasna Dzrer” hostage crisis).

Regardless of the motives of politicians in attempting to lead demonstrations, the true intention of these demonstrations cannot be simply dismissed as adventurism or opportunism. However, there is always a risk that any politician who manages to take control of a movement might end up abandoning their constituents, thus throwing them into deeper despair and hopelessness (something that occurred in the aftermath of 2013 presidential elections and the ensuing mass protests).

Myth 3: “Hidden hands” are guiding these protests

Perhaps one of the most common defense mechanisms to utilize force against demonstrators, as well as to dismiss the true nature of the discontent they articulate, is through false claims. One such claim and a conspiratorial argument by regimes and their supporters is that “outside forces are encouraging these movements to destabilize our country.” This attitude and argument is not uniquely an Armenian phenomenon; rather one can observe similar attitudes in the larger post-Soviet space, the Middle East and other regions. (The list is long but similar arguments have been used in Chile in 1970 after the election of leftist Salvador Allende, in Egypt in 2011 during the Tahrir Square demonstration, in Ukraine in 2013).

The epitome of this myth was in March 2008 when after the disputed presidential elections in Armenia (which witnessed the rise of Sargsyan to power), there were mass demonstrations in Armenia. The government eventually utilized force to disperse the protesters with the support of various political parties in and outside of the country. The most common explanation given by diasporan organizations, which were criticized of inaction at a time when human rights were being violated in Armenia, was that “the government had provided undisputed proof that the demonstrations were being controlled by outside forces and that it was the prudent thing to close ranks with Sargsyan even if his election was questionable.”

This strategy of “outsiders” threatening the nation has become more prevalent in recent years around the globe and has provided populist leaders with an opportunity to create enemies when there are none. Such cases have occurred in Hungary recently under Viktor Orbán, in the United States under Donald Trump and in Russia under Vladimir Putin.

Observing strategies like this, one cannot but help remember the words of 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

Myth 4: Diaspora to the rescue?

One major misconception that still persists is the level and extent of the potential contribution of Armenian Diaspora ...

Read full story


Temp {{currentData.temp}}℃
Wind {{currentData.wind}}km/h
Humidity {{currentData.humidity}}
  • Yerevan
  • Abovyan
  • Tsaghkadzor
  • Sevan
  • Gyumri
  • Ejmiatsin
  • Dilijan
  • Vanadzor
  • Ashtarak
7 Day Forecast

Exchange rates

Buy Sell
USD 479.5 481.5
EUR 591 597
RUR 7.85 7.98
more rates
Already available
Back to Top