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How to Stage a Successful Revolution

One year on from its stunning democratic coup, Armenia seems to be the new model.

Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images

A few months ago, the world lost two long-serving autocrats in quick succession: Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who resigned on April 2, and Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir, who was deposed on April 11. In both cases, the end to their tenure came as a direct result of popular uprising, when scattered opposition movements coalesced to force out corrupt, dictatorial, and repressive leaders. In Algiers, those celebrating Bouteflika’s removal sang in the streets until dawn. In Khartoum, the evening of April 11, strangers broke the fast for Ramadan together in the city’s central boulevard.

International celebration of these instances of liberal democratic values winning out—in a world marked by growing international illiberalism—have to be tempered by an awareness of historical precedent, however. For in the twenty-first century, revolutionary movements have consistently floundered. The Arab Spring of 2011, for example, has almost totally seen the return of the very same illiberal governance it sought to do away with. The same may also be said for the Color Revolutions, which took place in several countries across the former Soviet Union in the first decade of this century. The promise and optimism that the removal of authoritarian rulers in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan brought have since soured through gradual backsliding in the years that followed.

Already, there are signs of trouble. In Sudan, efforts to install a true civilian government have been met with violence; in Algeria, the interim military government dawdles in announcing presidential elections. In the context of growing illiberalism in Western countries as well, the news has been gloomy. Freedom House, a political research NGO, in 2018 deemed democracy to be in “crisis.” In an interview ahead of the G20 summit this week, Vladimir Putin told the Financial Times that “the liberal idea” had “outlived its purpose.”

And yet, last month, former Soviet republic Armenia celebrated the first anniversary of its democratic revolution: eleven days of sustained peaceful protest in 2018 that brought about the resignation of a leader seeking to extend his rule indefinitely through constitutional fiddling. Charismatic former journalist Nikol Pashinyan led a general strike that saw 100,000 ordinary citizens blockade the streets of the capitol, Yerevan. On April 23, 2018, President Serzh Sargsyan stepped down with the words, “I was wrong and Nikol Pashinyan was right.”

Since dubbed the Velvet Revolution, the Armenian uprising represents one of the few genuine examples of a popular and peaceful transition of power that this century has seen. Amid multiple overhauls of bad governments in the past two decades, few have expressed the discontent and will of the people as exactly or as articulately as Armenia’s mass demonstrations.

Armenia’s revolutionary moment grew from true grassroots momentum, exemplified and embodied by its almost biblical origin story, when Pashinyan began walking from the town of Gyumri in the north down towards Yerevan, arriving in the capital 17 days later with a cast of thousands who had joined him along the way. Only a year on, it might still be jumping the gun to pronounce it a success, but the relative calm in the country, along with the subsequent free and fair elections in December 2018 (a noteworthy feat in itself for a country long dogged by electoral manipulation) bode well. “One can be reasonably sanguine,” lifelong revolution-watcher John Dunn, professor of political theory at the University of Cambridge, told me. “It’s too early to tell if it has been a success, but equally, time enough has passed to know that it won’t be abject failure. I would be much more optimistic about Armenia than any other revolution of recent times.”

If this continues, Armenia—a nation of three million, squeezed and suppressed by its neighbors during a bloody past half-millennium—may soon count itself among the very few countries of this century to produce an effective and lasting bid for democracy, succeeding where many others have failed. And as the dust begins to settle on the Velvet Revolution, it seems helpful to ask why that might be—particularly in an era increasingly defined by would-be dictators.

In some ways, Armenia had a lot going for it to begin with. Unlike the states of North Africa, the Middle East, and eastern Europe, the sparsely populated and craggy Caucasian nation turned out in this particular instance to be of little geopolitical interest to anyone else. Where Libya quickly found itself under a hail of American, French, and British bombs, and Ukraine’s eastern border was soon invaded by unmarked Russian vehicles, the Armenian revolt was largely left to its own devices. Added to that, when it comes to collective agitation, Armenia is a nation with pedigree, and a long tradition of cultural and political bohemianism. Since the 1980s, Armenians have consistently shown themselves willing to take to the streets of the capital and protest, at first on issues of self-determination under Soviet rule, and later in response to renewed authoritarianism seeping back into the system once the Soviet Union had collapsed. The most significant of these came in 2008 when the machinations of then-president, Robert Koncharian, to shoehorn his ally Serzh Sargsyan into power led to mass marches and, later, the death of eight protestors. It was a national tragedy, but one that galvanized a generation of agitators, not least Pashinyan, who was jailed for his role in “organizing mass disorders.” According to Tigran Mkrtchyan, former head of press under Sargsyan and now ambassador to the Baltic states, it gave the people the “legal literacy and political maturity” that would prove so useful a decade later.

But the triumph of Armenia’s revolution also, and perhaps primarily, came down to decisions taken on the ground during those eleven days of protest in 2018 and in the first few weeks following Sargsyan’s resignation. For a start, Pashinyan—the figurehead and coordinator—avoided escalation from peaceful to violent protest at all costs. Organizers deliberately did not create a central locus for the protests, which prevented the authorities from being able to directly grapple head-on with the movement, as protestors milled around the small city in constant and fluid procession. The tent city at Maidan in Kiev, by contrast (ultimately effective, but not without costs in human life and limb) enabled violent police crackdowns, in the same way as the protest camp in Khartoum is currently the site of mass-killing at the hands of the security services.

The total absence of violence or even confrontation was critical in smoothing the transition of power that followed once Sargsyan had admitted defeat. Violent overthrows rarely augur well, Dunn told me, creating as they do “too many structured hatreds, too many deep and volatile grievances.” Instead, in Armenia, the revolution had the air of a protracted feast day to which everyone was welcome. Students set up street parties, commuters honked their horns and grandmothers clattered their pots and pans. Once Sargsyan had stepped down on April 23, the transition of power from the protested to the protestors followed in a similarly peaceable manner and Pashinyan, who became acting prime minister shortly after, proved a far defter politician than his baseball-cap-and-megaphone-toting image might have suggested. Instead of manipulating the country’s constitution, as his predecessor had attempted with such disastrous consequences, Pashinyan stuck fast to it, ensuring legitimacy for his eventual control of parliament.

The orderliness of the Armenian Revolution doesn’t fit the berets-and-blunderbusses image of what a revolution is supposed to look like. You might even question whether it was a revolution at all. “The strict adherence to institutional norms and aversion to rule-breaking is what differentiates it from the Color Revolutions,” Simon Hollenbauer, a Eurasian expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told me.

Its very orderliness, unrevolutionary nature seems to have won the Velvet Revolution a solid chance of sustaining its success and building a fortress of democracy in a region dominated by antidemocratic regimes. But with 30 percent of Armenians living in poverty, the new government will have to earn its stripes. Usefully, Pashinyan is sitting on a reservoir of good will among the populace. On a visit I made to the country during the revolution’s first anniversary, there wasn’t a single person I met who had a bad word to say about him, from the cab drivers who praised his man-of-the-people earthiness, to the business owners who applauded his stand against corruption. Varuzh Nazarian, a 46-year-old financial analyst from Yerevan, summed it up, saying, “There are not that many tangible things you can point to and say, that has changed, or that has improved. It’s much more about mind set, because for the first time in a long time, Armenians feel as though they have a voice. And that makes us optimistic.”

It may not be a model that can be replicated everywhere, but at the very least Armenia’s revolution shows that democracy is not a spent force. Even in places where democratic expression seems so distant as to be unattainable, Armenia demonstrates that it can spring forth both unexpectedly and confidently. Facing the prevailing antidemocratic winds of the present moment, that alone is cause for optimism.