Photo: Opposition protesters demonstrate in Yerevan on April 17. RFE/RL.
Fueled by fear, hope, and anger, more than ten thousand Armenians have come out in protest to oppose the appointment of Serzh Sarkisian as prime minister. The leader of the demonstration has called for nonviolence, but past instances of excessive force by police against peaceful protesters bode poorly for those out on the streets. As the situation rapidly develops, and democracy slips from the people’s hands, their measured responses will be critical for charting the course of this conflict.
Sarkisian has been in power for the past decade in Armenia, serving two terms as president, the maximum limit, and having finally stepped down on April 9 at the inauguration of his successor. At the time he was elected, and throughout his terms, the presidency was the most powerful single position of leadership in Armenia. In 2015, however, a change to the structure of the government was approved. This made the president into more of a national figurehead, transferring most of his legislative authority to the parliament and prime minister. In 2014, with the campaign for these policy changes underway, Sarkisian had announced that he would “not aspire” to become prime minister if they took effect. Now, this comment is infuriating and driving many members of the opposition who accuse him of breaking that pledge.
Protest leader Nikol Pashinian has been rallying protesters since April 13. A few days before, opposition lawmakers set of smoke bombs in parliament to call for demonstrations. So now for days, people have gathered in Yerevan, blocking government buildings, bringing transportation to a standstill, confronting significant government-linked individuals, and resisting attempts to be contained. Moreover, similar demonstrations are being held in almost every city in the country while the parliament moves to formally appoint Sarkisian as prime minister. With the movement escalating and the shows of solidarity at their height, Pashinian has just declared the start of a nonviolent people’s revolution in Armenia.
The government and police are working actively to disperse the protesters and quell the movement. They have fought paths through the blocked streets, often shoving people to the ground on the sidewalk to make way. The Armenian police in fact have a history of using excessive force against peaceful demonstrations, firing stun grenades and aggressively beating both protesters and journalists. In light of this current wave of demonstrations, Human Rights Watch has again called on the police to respect peaceful assembly.
The movement is, however, predominantly the responsibility of the people: the individuals on the ground, the source of the people power. Pashinian has called for nonviolence, but it is their responsibility to maintain that discipline as the movement accelerates. Strategies are critical. Civil resistance works. If this revolution is going to not only happen, but be successful and endure, these principles will be paramount.