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The People’s Choice

As the new year begins, we look back with a leading human rights lawyer at one of 2018’s biggest moments: the Armenian ‘Velvet Revolution.’

by Jeremy Druker 9 January 2019

In a region that saw much democratic backsliding over the past year, Armenia was a rare bright spot, surprising virtually everyone when outraged citizens peacefully overthrew the old guard within a matter of weeks – though previous attempts over the past decade had failed, sometimes violently.

 

Anti-government protests started when the ruling Republican Party for Armenia nominated outgoing President Serzh Sargsyan as prime minister, a move that would have extended his 10 years in power. In a 2015 referendum, the Armenian constitution was changed to transfer most power from the president to the prime minister, paving the way, critics thought, for such a move.

 

After nearly two weeks of growing demonstrations, Serzh Sargsyan and the leader of the protest movement, opposition parliamentarian Nikol Pashinyan, met. Yet the prime minister cut off the exchange after a brief, ill-tempered conversation, rejecting calls to resign and ominously saying that the opposition had failed to learn from the violence that accompanied his presidential election win in 2008. Soon, however, Sargsyan backtracked, leading to Pashinyan’s appointment in his place and later in the year, a landslide victory for Pashinyan’s party in parliamentary elections.

 

TOL’s editor in chief, Jeremy Druker, sat down this past fall with Haykuhi Harutyunyan – the president of the Protection of Rights Without Borders, a human rights NGO in Armenia – to discuss the steps that led up to the revolution and why protests turned out differently this time.

 

 

At what point did you think something special was happening during the protests?

 

If I look back, also at the work that I was doing during this period of time, it seems we grew really as citizens of the country to take charge of our future as an independent country and as citizens of an independent country. But I believe personally that what was lacking before – during those protests in 2013, ’15, ’16, was that important part of leadership. There was no single person whom people trusted and who demonstrated himself or herself as someone who could be reliable and whom people could trust to follow and to bring this change in the country.

 

Because we had a very bad experience in 2013, when after [presidential] elections the party leader [Raffi Hovannisian], who had received the majority of votes – but then the votes were manipulated by the leading party – organized a demonstration and people followed him.   

 

But at one point, he said, “Now it’s time to go back to our homes,” and that kind of ended the possibility for revolution during that period of the time in Armenia. So there was really this big distrust in society, that there was no one to lead us. But whomever you were talking with, there was really dissatisfaction that we don’t want to live in this country, because we are not satisfied with the economy, with the injustice, and this injustice was not only in the courts, but in the society … Everyone internally was ready, but there was not that point that someone would lead them, someone [who] is trusted enough, and not to leave them in the middle, as had happened previously.

 

And also, for example in 2015, young people started the attempt for change, but then again, as there was not that agenda, there was no message what we are going to do, it ended. There was this struggle between police, they were really courageous enough to stay even for a night there on the street, but then there was not this unifying message or understanding about what we were going to do. Then, somehow in 2016, a group of armed people attacked the police station declaring that they were starting a revolution. But because of the nature of the expression—they used violence and they used arms—people did not trust it much again. So there were demonstrations that lasted more than two weeks, but because of how they used this mechanism [of violence], it didn’t have any positive outcome as well …

 

And then in 2018, right before the president of the country who had already had a second term—like 10 years of presidency—was appointed to the position of prime minister, that was the awakening of protests. So there was this person, Nikol Pashinyan, who was in the political opposition, but he was working individually all the time ... So he announced, “I am going to start a movement to remove this regime from the country and I am taking my step to build the country.” This was the message. And he set a really very strong condition: “If I don’t succeed, I will quit politics. I am not going to work in politics anymore.” And he started the march alone, with a backpack, with two or three supporters. They started to march. They started from Yerevan and went to other cities, informing people about their initiative.

 

Haykuhi Harutyunyan. Image via Stanford CDDLR/Youtube.

 

People liked him—and they had liked him before as well—but there was this lack of trust about whether we were going to succeed. And then right after the election of the prime minister by the parliament, this blockage of the streets in Yerevan started. The main idea was that we are blocking all the streets; we are not allowing people to work. But it was a message for the government that the type of institutions and legislative background you created are really dysfunctional, so why shouldn’t you admit that you are really not doing anything, you are not working? … All the streets were blocked from early in the morning and there was no possibility to reach the workplace. And the main supporters, the driving force for it, were students – young people. Everything started from the universities, they blocked most of the streets around their universities, and in different parts of the city, and then at the end of the day they would gather in one place to plan what the steps were for the following days.

 

It lasted two weeks. And during this period of time there were so many human rights violations. We didn’t speak about it that much because of this positive outcome that we had as a revolution, but there were so many human rights violations. So we created this quick response group with colleagues from different civil society organizations and we were supporting people who were detained there, beaten, and we were trying to prevent any kind of force that could be used against the demonstrators … And then on 23 April, the prime minister and the leader of the protest, Nikol Pashinyan, met face-to-face to discuss the situation in the country. And it was open for media that were doing an online transmission of what was happening inside the room. This is where Pashinyan announced: “You are not in charge and in control of the situation in the country anymore.” This was also some kind of message for the people waiting outside. And it somehow made the prime minister nervous. So he left after five minutes or less, and there was no discussion, and the thing that he used was a very negative message for the people, and that was also the reason why more people congregated there than originally.

 

What was the message? 

 

At the 2008 march, when he [Serzh Sargsyan] became president of the country, there were protests in the country, and because of clashes between police and the people, 10 civilians and three police officers were killed. And the investigation went on for 10 years without any outcome, and the investigation didn’t reveal the person who was gave such an order. And Sargsyan asked “Were you not satisfied with the first march? Are you in a position to have a new march?” … And the way he put it was threatening, and that created a much more negative attitude toward him and his team than was before, right at the beginning of the movement.

 

And then, right after that, when Pashinyan and his team members went where the protest was taking place, they were kidnapped. That was the second really strong message that people received. And they just organized themselves. I was at the police station where these people were taken, and I even have photos from inside the police station of what was happening there. I have never seen that many people on the streets of Armenia as I’ve seen surrounding the building. And right there, there was a line of police forces and then people standing there. But because of the amount of people and really, the spirit felt by everyone there, the police were not able to do anything against the people. They were there for over five hours all day, demanding the release of Pashinyan and of the others detained there.

 

And then at some point they decided that they would continue the protest without the leaders. So they moved to the main place of the demonstration, the Republic Square. They gathered there, and they continued the protest without any leaders. Because the message had already been expressed very clearly, and the people were there to follow the message. They saw and trusted this person [Pashinyan] that he would not be making a political trade with the ruling party, that he personally was not afraid of anything. He’d been detained, kidnapped, and beaten, but he’s there to make change happen in the country. And then it was so powerful that he was released after almost a day with the other members, and then right after that the prime minister [Sargsyan] announced his resignation. That was the first step. So it was really [necessary] to make a step for a change [to happen], and there was already proof that this step had brought about the change. So the prime minister was removed [from office]. But this was not the main goal of the revolution. What was going to happen next?

 

Then, they brought this new point on the agenda that we are going to demand the appointment of the leader of the protests, Pashinyan, to the position of prime minister, and surrounded the parliament building where the voting process was happening. They were there on the streets, and ended with no positive results after the first round of protests. They [parliamentarians] didn’t vote for Pashinyan. The people’s power was there outside, so they were somehow afraid and then in the second round, they voted for him. He was appointed prime minister, then the government was dismissed, and he in turn appointed a new government and new ministers, and this is how we succeeded in making a “velvet” revolution happen in our country.

 

You have said that you knew things were different when people were arrested, beaten, and released, but then would go right back again to the streets?

 

It started in 2008, when there was those clashes and 10 people died. It was a really strong message for people, threatening that every time you go out you will face the same situation. And actually, for almost two years this area where people used to protest was completely closed off. Police were always there and it was closed for people unless you were more than three feet away. And we started somehow, in 2011, some small protests on environmental issues and some local issues – protests started to be used for solving these problems, or at least for pointing out the problems in the country. But every time there were protests, the police were there to disperse them, or to use the force, and it somehow worked – people were really afraid of being detained in a police station and having criminal or administrative charges [pressed against them]. The same thing happened in 2013. I think we had more than 100 cases of administrative charges against people. And there were fines, around 14 euros ($16); it’s not that much, but it’s still something that people were afraid of – and especially the court proceedings. No one wants to have to deal with the courts, with the police.

 

And it was the mechanism that was used, and it worked. The people didn’t want to go out because they didn’t want to be beaten or charged. The same was true in 2015; the water cannon was used against protestors. And then, because of also impunity, they saw that nobody [among the police] would be punished, and people got the message, [thinking] “no, we are not going to dissent” – especially when it didn’t work in 2016 as well. But I think they didn’t realize that they got used to these detentions and beatings, because nothing was happening after that. You get beaten, then that’s all. You get charged, then you forget, and then that’s all. And people got used to it like it was some part of the protest. They were readier to be detained, charged, maybe criminally prosecuted, and it was kind of okay. And at this time also, as I said, as citizens we were effectively organizing this quick response group. We announced when the protests started that we had a hotline so anytime someone was detained, or something was happening … They could call this hotline and there was a group or a person who would go there to argue with the police, at least to create an atmosphere where the rule of law should be applied.

 

How did this work on a practical level? 

 

In 2015, this worked on an individual level – I was not on the streets at the time. But whenever I saw that someone was arrested or detained I would run there. But because of the big numbers, I would also call someone and say: “Can you go the police station or send someone for support?” And at that time there was a rapid response to the situation, but it was not organized. So what we later did was to begin to collect these cases and send them to the European Court of Human Rights as an application, but we had small numbers [of them], because we didn’t initially organize well enough that we could document everything properly. So we were missing important facts, because it was a reaction to the situation. And then in 2016, it was almost the same: a small group of people. We were better prepared but then again, very important aspects were missing because we started later, we didn’t organize our actions and divide responsibilities in a clear way.

 

But in 2018, we sat together and we said, “Okay, we have this experience or that experience, what did we learn from that to improve our work and be there for people in a more organized way?” And then four organizations with their lawyers established this quick response group. There was an office where people sitting at the hotline had all the contacts of available lawyers, and anytime they received a call, they would transfer the call to the particular person, and it was organized online also. So they knew who was busy, how much time she’s already there, and then this information was passed on to the media as well, to the general prosecutor’s office because it was also important to document the violations in an official way … So the coordination [between us] worked very well at that time.

 

Were these organizations already friendly or had they been competitors?

 

I think it was a time of no competition, we just had to do the work … Four of these organizations were coordinating activities, and the main coordination team was in the Transparency International office where we were receiving calls, and people working for the quick response hotline were sitting there, and then the lawyers would return when they weren’t running from one police station to another. But we also managed to have an individual reporting system so when I would go somewhere, I would say “I’m at this police station; there are these many people here.” So we reported back [to each other] what the [situation at the] process was, and we have really good documentation about the violations that happened at the police stations. We documented more than 1,000 cases of detentions only through this hotline. I’m sure there were more, because not everybody reported a detention got assistance, but more than 1,000 were officially reported through the hotline.

 

And the news of your support must have spread very quickly among people on the streets, right?

 

Very quickly, because you have photos, videos made by people [detained at] the police stations. And we were protesting inside the police stations as well. I went to many police stations where there were more than 60 people that would be detained at the same time, and they don’t have that kind of capacity. So it would be like a huge hall where they [the police] … would have to put people all together. And then I shared my contacts, because I knew they [those detained] would participate in the protests right after they were released. And then they also spread the information individually.

 

Did it ever feel dangerous? Were you worried about violence?

 

Yes. There was a point when people were detained before the appointment of Serzh Sargsyan to the position of prime minister, and after that. That’s when I noticed a very important change: before, the behavior of police was less violent. As soon as he was appointed, there was an immediate and negative change in the behavior of the police. They were more aggressive. They were more violent. And they were more in a position to commit violations than before. And that was the point where I immediately contacted two colleagues, [who were] leaders in other organizations, and said, “Okay, this is not working anymore. I cannot be here and not do anything more than being locked in a police station with other people. We need to get the attention of the international community because I feel that they are going to use force.” There was this preparation going on.

 

And then people outside of the police station, my colleagues, started a huge campaign and focused it on the international level. We spread the announcement. We emphasized the peaceful nature of the protests; we said that nothing was happening – it wasn’t Maidan – that was comparable with anything else. Just send messages to the government against using force. And then there was an announcement released by the European Union encouraging the government to respect the right to peaceful assembly. And another one from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

 

It was public, but there were internal discussions with these international community members as well. I know that the European Delegation in Armenia organized a discussion with the government. The government was under a lot of pressure from the international community. Everyone was waiting to see what the government was going to do. And the government had this option of using force but that was very risky, because of they were in the center of the attention of the international community. And it was obvious that the demonstration was peaceful, so how would they solve the problem? It was very, very important that we reacted as a civil society working with the international community as well, and it seemed that they gave a lot of support as well.

 

So, just to summarize, you had a strong personality, a leader, a strong civil society using past experiences, the international factor, and the people?

 

People, yes. I would put people as number one because whatever you do, you just do for the people and with the people … It’s very important to underline the role of people and citizens, and this understanding of citizenship of an independent country, which was delivered through various messages [from the revolution’s leaders] but everyone took it personally and treated him or herself as a citizen of the country.

 

We’re now some months after, what is the feeling these days?

 

It’s very interesting that the excitement is still there. Everyone says that the honeymoon period is over, though, but I personally feel that the excitement is still there. From a professional perspective, I can say that it’s not good, because now it’s time to come back to reality and do the real work. But I also want people to enjoy this feeling because it’s been more than 15 years since I’ve seen this many happy people on the streets of Armenia. I really want people to enjoy this feeling, but with responsibility.

 

If we want to sustain this feeling and we want to have a really democratic country, we need to take responsibility for building the country. It’s very difficult – it’s not an easy message that everyone will get. And especially because of the Soviet-era mentality of people who are used to having everything organized from the top, and not from the local level, it’s a very difficult transformation of mentality and culture for people to take responsibility. What I’m sure of, as Nikol Pashinyan started—we will be able to deliver this first message [of responsibility] and mobilize professionals and good people in the government, and to build the country.

Jeremy Druker is the editor in chief of Transitions.

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