Babken Tunyan can remember the exact moment he realised that his country was on the verge of a momentous shift. One morning in April, the economist-turned-respected journalist was on his way to his office in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. For days, hundreds of thousands of political protestors had blocked the city’s streets and once again Tunyan was stuck in traffic. Yet as he sat in his car, he noticed something curious about the faces of the drivers trapped in gridlock all around him. “Everybody was late for work – but everybody was smiling,” says Tunyan. “They knew that something was changing.”
A tiny landlocked nation in the southern Caucasus, Armenia has a population of just three million but a global diaspora of more than twice that. Repatriated or visiting diasporans from around the world give Yerevan an international air. Many of the capital’s most impressive schools, monuments and churches (Armenia is a Christian country) were built with diasporan funds. And for many impoverished Armenians, remittances sent by relatives abroad have been vital. Though the former Soviet country is full of potential – the younger generation is particularly technology savvy and the IT sector is flourishing – widespread corruption and oligarch-controlled monopolies have taken their toll. Last year saw 7.5 per cent gdp growth, though few felt better off; 43.5 per cent of Armenians live in poverty according to the World Bank.
So when the Armenian parliament, known as the National Assembly, named president Serzh Sargsyan as prime minister in April, people revolted. It was apparent that after 10 years in power Sargsyan, who was instrumental in changing Armenia’s constitution to give almost all power to the prime minister’s office, was making a Putin-esque move in order to rule indefinitely. Armenians flooded the streets, demonstrating en masse against the government. As more and more people joined in, filling Yerevan’s normally tranquil boulevards and squares with protesters, it was as if years of pent-up anger and resentment had been released. “We had a point where people felt their power,” says Tunyan.
Power indeed: after nearly two weeks of vociferous but non-violent protests, Sargsyan resigned as prime minister. Because no blood was shed, it was hailed as a “velvet revolution” around the world. On 8 May, parliament named Nikol Pashinyan, a 42-year-old former journalist turned opposition politician, and the leader of the revolution, as Armenia’s new prime minister.
Months later, optimism still permeates the country. “You just see it on people’s faces,” says Babken Ter-Grigoryan, the government’s new deputy minister of diaspora, sitting in his downtown office, sunshine flooding through the windows. “You see a completely different country. Cab drivers don’t complain any more. Everyone is filled with hope. The important thing is that the average Armenian needs to feel that tomorrow will be better than today.”
Ter-Grigoryan is well suited to his new post. Born in Paris, raised in Los Angeles and educated in London, he has gone from being part of the diaspora to part of the new Armenia. He wants to capitalise on the revolution and “harness” the success, wealth and knowledge of the Armenian diaspora in a way that goes beyond remittances and tourism. “We’re in the middle of cleaning up the trash of the previous administration and will be building up our own sort of strategy, and our vision for the ministry,” he says. He’d like to see more people repatriate. “I want to serve as an example for the next generation of diasporan Armenians that you can come here and become a policymaker, be part of building the country.”
Building the country isn’t just about the economy: Armenia is an isolated nation. It counts among its nearest neighbours friends – such as Georgia and Iran – and foes. Turkey, to the west, refuses to acknowledge the 1915 genocide that saw Ottoman forces kill some 1.5 million Armenians. Azerbaijan, to the east of Armenia, has a longstanding dispute with the country over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh (see issue 94). Both Turkey and Azerbaijan have closed their borders to Armenia, which has further hindered trade.
Ruben Rubinyan, one of the most prominent activists leading the protests and now a deputy minister of foreign affairs, says that the country’s revolution has bolstered its position internationally. “I went to Sochi in Russia and I saw that people recognised me – it was clear that they had been following the demonstrations,” he says, his voice low and proud. Yet he’s quick to maintain that though the world was watching with interest, the country’s upheaval happened without foreign influence. “During the revolution we always said that this was a purely Armenian revolution,” he says. “ The driving force of the revolution was internal.”
Armenian politicians on both sides of the spectrum are generally pro-Russian, though many favour a closer relationship with the west as well. And as the new government sloughs off the problems caused by the previous regime, Rubinyan is certain that the world will look at Armenia through a fresh lens. “I think this region has been forgotten for a very long time. But this is a new context.”
It seems that everyone you speak to in Yerevan, whether it be a shopkeeper, technology entrepreneur or politician, talks with the same buoyant hope about the “new Armenia”. Many speak that way about its new leader, too. Pashinyan made a name for himself with his critical columns about the government. He helped organise protests in 2008 that resulted in the death of 10 people, after which he went into hiding for a little more than a year. When he re-emerged, he was jailed for “organising mass disorders”. After he was released he went into politics and, until earlier this year, had been a vocal thorn of opposition in the government’s side.
When I’m told told that the prime minister has agreed to meet me and a small group of foreign journalists at his sprawling ministerial residence late at night, I’m eager to hear his vision for the new Armenia. “To be prime minister isn’t just a joke for me, it’s a mission,” he says, stirring his coffee. “And I’m intending to fulfill my mission – that is, to bring real democracy.” That means no corruption, no monopolies, no untouchable elites.
Yet, puzzlingly, Pashinyan believes that through his victory the country has already achieved that. “I eradicated corruption from Armenia. Not within one month – I did that in one hour, in one minute. Because all Armenians and all corrupted people know that I’m not [corrupt],” he says, leaning over the table. He bats away questions about plans to tighten laws to root out bad actors or reform entrenched habits – it’s unnecessary, apparently. “The only thing we needed is the presence of political will,” he says, his voice rising, his speech that of an impassioned orator. Now “we have no corruption. We have no inequality. All the people in Armenia are equal before the law. Yes, maybe it’s a miracle but we did that within one hour.”
Pashinyan has promised to hold parliamentary elections within a year (Sargsyan’s Republican party still holds many seats in the National Assembly). Other than that, he shares few concrete plans for the future. He prefers, it seems, to discuss the revolution. “All our people, in Armenia and in the diaspora, were involved in this revolution. You know that is a very big difference: not the majority but all the people, all the people in Armenia – even the Republican majority – were involved in this process, because they elected me as prime minister.” (In fact, Pashinyan was selected as prime minister by the National Assembly in a 59 to 42 vote.)
But how can he keep up this momentum? Does he have any plans to boost the role of young people or women – two of the most prominent groups in the revolution’s demonstrations – in political life? “I don’t think government should do anything to boost any role, especially now,” says a dismissive Pashinyan. “I think that the role of women is already boosted.” (Pashinyan only appointed two women to his cabinet, a move that angered feminist campaigners.) There is then some talk about breaking up monopolies but it’s unclear just how this will happen.
Walking out of the prime minister’s residence with the clock nearing midnight, it’s hard to reconcile the sky-high hopes of the country to the political reality. As events such as the Arab Spring have shown, revolution is the easy part: it’s governing that is tricky. What if Pashinyan doesn’t bring about the change that Armenians expect?
This question is put to Tunyan, the economist-turned-journalist, a few days later. “I don’t think our new prime minster, after all of this, would like to repeat the mistakes of previous authorities,” he says. He pauses. Then, confidently, he says, “People will not allow any authority to go down the wrong path. They’ll replace the wrong authorities as they did before.”