Mass Protests in Armenia – interview with Gayaneh Melkom Melkomian

Gayaneh Melkom Melkomian is a practicing lawyer in Armenia. She holds LLM degrees from the French University in Armenia (Université Jean Moulin (Lyon III)) and McGill University. In 2010, together with a group of like-minded individuals, she founded the civic initiative “This City Belongs to Us” and has been actively involved in various civil movements ever since. She is a founding editorial board member of Political Discourse and a translator of articles on political economy and political science.

Political Discourse – an online journal – was founded in 2013 in Yerevan. It was created as a platform for political thought against the background of extreme centralization of political power and economic resources in Armenia, where media outlets were also monopolized.

Political Discourse commits to the principles of independence from political parties, business interests and religious institutions. It is searching for social, economic and political alternatives outside the established systems and mainstream thought in Armenia. In 2017 Political Discourse published the book Political Economy – a first of its kind compilation in Armenian of articles and writings on political economy.

1/ Could you explain us the context in which the Prime Minister resigned? What is your understanding of those events and of the National Assembly’s vote on May 1st ?

The ex-Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan had been Armenia’s president for 10 years. Prior to that, he had occupied top state positions for many years as Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, and others. He began his time in office as President after highly disputed elections in 2008 which were followed by mass protests that ended in clashes, leaving 10 people dead, many injured, and hundreds arrested and sentenced to time in jail.

While he was still serving as President, in 2015 the Constitution of Armenia was modified in a referendum which rendered the country a parliamentary state as opposed to the previous semi-presidential system. This enabled Serzh Sargsyan to run for the office of Prime Minister in 2018 (before these changes, the same person could not run for President for a third term), with the Prime Minister now having new extensive powers exceeding those of the President in the previous system.

With high levels of emigration, corruption and many social and economic problems in the country, running for another term for the country’s highest political position was a step that evoked a lot of anger. It was seen as one man’s undemocratic rule over the country, and met with the resistance of civic groups and the opposition party, Civil Contract. Together they organized a number of protest acts, under the slogan – Take a Step, Reject Serzh! – that eventually led to mass demonstrations against what would have effectively become Serzh Sargsyan’s third term in office.

Despite the protest, Parliament elected him Prime Minister. This created even more resistance and a sudden increase in civil disobedience – marches, blockings of streets, rallies. The now-widespread non-violent civil disobedience eventually pressured him into resigning on April the 23rd, after unsuccessful attempts to ease the situation.

After these events, the movement swiftly began rejecting the Republican Party, which has been in power for the past 20 years, altogether. This left no chance for the second likely candidate for the post – the acting Deputy Prime Minister, Karen Karapetyan, to be nominated and elected.

With the non-violent civil disobedience growing ever larger, the movement now chose the opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan, who had been the main figure and leader in the resistance movement, as the people’s candidate for the position of Prime Minister. His candidacy was officially submitted to Parliament by his party’s opposition coalition Yelk.

Seeing that no Republican candidate stood a chance with the people on the streets, the Republican Party announced that they would not nominate any candidate. This gave the impression that Nikol Pashinyan would be elected into office, as a matter of course. However, the Republican Party, which holds the majority of seats in Parliament, rejected his candidacy after hours of meticulous questioning in Parliament.

This was met with great disappointment. Nikol Pashinyan called for nationwide peaceful disobedience on the following day. The disobedience was so widespread and effective that it basically locked down the country for an entire day – with virtually all of the streets and main roads in the country (and even the airport for a few hours) blocked, and mass strikes in offices, schools and universities.

2/ In your opinion, was the handling of the four-day war with Azerbaijan a factor in the downfall of Serzh Sarkissian?

The handling of the four-day war was a factor for some people, however I wouldn’t say it was the main factor in the general discontent with him and his political party. His time in office both prior to, and after, the war was unpopular, with high numbers of emigration, concentration of political power, economic and social inequality, etc.

3/ Considering the amount of people protesting in the streets of Armenia and the extent of electoral fraud during last election, is the credibility of parliament a central issue in the opposition? What is Nikol Pashinyan’s political background?

The credibility of Parliament is a central issue for a lot of opposition actors and a large number of people. However, Nikol Pashinyan’s political party and its opposition coalition initially declared that the current Parliament mostly reflected the overall voting results, by which they basically declared it legitimate. This position is also very popular with a lot of politicians and people who consider that a vote conditioned by kinship structures or election bribes is still a valid expression of will, and they do not see these factors as significantly affecting the legitimacy of the party or person voted into office.

I do not agree with this point of view. These practices have been silently permitted, if not encouraged, for years. Those in power have not educated the people in what free and fair elections really mean, and have deliberately created and benefited from a system where people do not realize that their vote counts and do not see the correlation between their vote and the political and socio-economic situation in the country.

I would say that the latest developments and the actual number of people on the streets (and of those supporting them) do demonstrate that there is a serious lack of legitimacy of the acting Parliament.

4/ What is the plan/strategy of the opposition for the next vote for the Prime minister at the National Assembly?

They have announced that they will actively boycott the parliamentary elections if Nikol Pashinyan is not elected into office (in which case the Parliament will be automatically dissolved, and new elections will be held within 30-45 days). On the other hand, the Republican Party which itself has enough seats to elect or reject him, has indirectly announced that a necessary number of their Members of Parliament will be voting for Pashinyan (they have said that Armenia will have a new Prime Minister on May 8th).

5/ In former Soviet Union countries, left-wing opposition is virtually non-existent. How do you explain this state of affairs and what is the situation of the left in Armenia?

First of all, after the fall of the Soviet Union and formation of the new national state, an unspoken rejection of any left-oriented ideology and anything even remotely associated with the former state of things began. Secondly, we have to acknowledge the global devaluation of ideologies, per se.

A large number of people and politicians argue that they are not following any specific ideology. A good example of this and the neglect of everything that is political is the question raised by a right-wing MP to Nikol Pashinyan during the latest Parliamentary hearing, who indirectly blamed Pashinyan of western liberalism – which is, as he said, an encouragement of sexual minorities, vulgar feminism, etc.

Pashinyan, in his turn, stated that the era of –isms has passed. Political terms are being deprived of their political essence, and have turned into tools of propaganda. Even so, in recent years we witness a rise of left-oriented political thought in Armenia, which, I suppose, is a reaction to the spread of capitalism and lack of alternative political thought in the country.

6/ What is your view on Russia’s influence on internal and regional policy? Do you think it has an appeasing role, or do you think it is prone to make the situation worse?

I would say it acts as any major world power – it tries to make the most out of any situation or conflict where its interests in the region are affected. Therefore, it is impossible to say that Russia is always appeasing, just as it is impossible to say that it always makes the situation worse. Every situation is unique and should be analysed as such.

In this particular case, the matter was purely internal. Nikol Pashinyan himself publicly announced this many times, assuring that there would be no major shifts in Armenia’s external relations, and that Russia would remain Armenia’s strategic partner. Considering this, Russia seems to have preferred to remain more or less neutral, as its interests in the country and region were not under threat. Since the movement is virtually nationwide and truly popular, any overt interference in favour of the Republican Party or any specific candidate could have backfired.

Interview conducted in English with Mrs Gayaneh Melkom Melkomian for Europe Insoumise