Critical days for Armenia

In the past two weeks, Armenia has seen massive street protests that forced long-time president Serzh Sargsyan from power. Now, the opposition is rallying in hopes of getting its leader elected as interim prime minister. We talked to Lara Aharonian from our partner organisation Women’s Resource Center of Armenia, who is an active participant in the protests.

Lara Aharonian and the WRCA used creative civil disobedience strategies during the protests. Here they are peacefully blocking street after street to distract the police. Photo: Lara Aharonian
Lara Aharonian and the WRCA used creative civil disobedience strategies during the protests. Here they are peacefully blocking street after street to distract the police. Photo: Lara Aharonian

What is happening?

For more than ten years, Serzh Sargsyan was president of Armenia. Human rights defenders across the nation criticised him and his political party for being corrupt, oligarchic and undemocratic. His party recently arranged a referendum to grant more power to the prime minister. After solidifying those changes, Sargsyan himself was conveniently nominated as the next prime minister last month…

In response, Armenians took to the streets in anger. An opposition movement – made up of politicians, civil society, journalists and students – organised massive protests. Night after night, the numbers grew: from a few thousand gathering in the middle of the capital city Yerevan, to over 160 000 protesters a few days later.

Lara Aharonian explains Armenians’ anger: “People are fed up. The regime has been very corrupt: selling off public institutions to foreign powers, handing out illegal mining permits and entirely neglecting the way ordinary Armenians have been struggling. Poverty has increased a lot…”

Creative civil disobedience

A first success of the protest movement was getting Sargsyan to resign. His political party, however, is still very much in power. So Armenians are taking their civil disobedience to the next level.

“Our goal is to distract the police in as many ways as possible, so they won’t be able to stop the protests,” says Lara. ”Together with other feminists and queer groups, we peacefully block all traffic on one street. As soon as the police arrives, we move to another street and block that instead. So we keep them busy and stop them from throwing teargas or setting up barbed wire in the main protest square!”

Something new for Armenia

According to Lara, the current movement is unlike anything Armenians have seen before.

“We used to feel very disillusioned, like nothing would ever change. But this movement is different. It’s non-violent and inclusive, uniting people from all kinds of different backgrounds. And it’s very transparent: the leaders broadcast everything that is happening live and allow observers to be present at all negotiations. They have nothing to hide.”

The movement also seems open to demands for social justice, equality and human rights:

“The ruling party never listened to recommendations by women’s groups. We tried to work with them on domestic violence, but it was very difficult,” remembers Lara.

“Today, the opposition makes more efforts to include women in the decision-making process. They don’t spread hate speech, and when we complained about the fact that there were too few women on stage at the protests, they were very responsive. I’m not saying things are perfect. But finally, we are talking with people who give us hope.”

Critical next few days

The next few days will be critical for the future of Armenia.

On 1 May, parliament was set to elect a temporary prime minister. The obvious choice might have been Nikol Pashinyan, the leader of the opposition who enjoys the support of the thousands of protesters on Yerevan’s streets. However, the ruling party refused to back Pashinyan’s bid. This resulted in another wave of protests and civil disobedience that practically brought the country to a standstill.

Next week, parliament will convene again on 8 May. The latest word from the ruling party is a promise that they “will back any candidate who gets over one third of the vote.” So far, the party has not nominated a candidate themselves, making Pashinyan the sole nominee. If members of parliament fail to agree a second time, parliament itself will be dissolved and general elections will be called.

Lara is carefully optimistic: “For the first time in a long time, I feel hopeful. The situation is tense and could still go either way. But this is the will of the people. Finally, we get to express our views in a democratic way.”

Kvinna till Kvinna is not politically, religiously, ethnically or linguistically affiliated to any group or movement.

4 May 2018