Here are several reasons why the ongoing protests in Armenia should not be seen as another Maidan.
An Armenian protester shouts anti-government slogans during a protest rally against a hike in electricity prices in Yerevan, Armenia, Wednesday, June 24, 2015. Photo: AP
The recent mass protests in Armenia have focused the attention of both Russian and Western politicians and experts on this country.In the post-Soviet period Armenia was one of Moscow’s most loyal allies, not only in the South Caucasus, but across the entire post-Soviet space.
Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). In this regard, the outburst of civil activism under the banner of the “No Robbery” movement against the government’s social policy is considered by many as nothing short of a challenge to Russia’s presence in Armenia and the Transcaucasia region as a whole.
After all, it was the current Armenian leader Serzh Sargsyan who, in September 2013, led his country first into the Customs Union and then the Eurasian integration project. The mass rallies in the center of the capital Yerevan have drawn comparisons with Ukraine’s Maidan movement.
The June protests have already been dubbed «Electromaidan», since they were provoked by a hike in electricity tariffs.
Some of the outward signs do present the picture of events as a possible descriptive model. However, a closer look reveals flaws that need to be addressed. It is necessary to unpick a few of the myths about the week-old Armenian protest.
The first myth is that the Yerevan rallies are a carbon-copy of Ukraine’s Maidan. Let’s start with the fact that in the past quarter century Armenian history is second to none in terms of protest movements. In 1988-1991 the country was shaken by rallies in support of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. Virtually no presidential election has ever been held in Armenia without “street legitimation.” So it was in 1996, 2003 and 2008.
Take the events of the last year as a case study. In January Yerevan saw two rallies by opponents of the new pension reforms, one of which gathered together no fewer than 10,000 people. Similar events also took place in May.
Then in late December Armenians held mass demonstrations against price hikes on goods and the depreciation of the national currency. The protesters demanded a boycott of supermarkets and retail chains belonging to big businessmen with government connections. But they were civil protests.
On top of that, there were opposition marches. On October 24, 2014, for instance, four opposition parties held a rally demanding the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan.
Dissatisfaction with the authorities was still lingering at the outset of the June events. It was unrelated to geopolitics, and focused instead on domestic issues. As for “Electromaidan,” the Russian thread was linked to Inter RAO UES, a Russian energy giant, which requested its Armenian subsidiary Electric Networks of Armenia to raise its tariffs.
However, this does not mean that the protest is first and foremost against Moscow. That is perhaps the case only for a narrow group of journalists, non-governmental activists and experts known for being critical of Russian policy. As in the past three years, they lack the political weight to shape the mood of the protest.
The ideology of Ukraine’s Maidan was diffuse, combining a mishmash of anti-corruption, liberal and nationalist slogans. However, the main thrust of the movement was towards Europeanization as the fundamental basis for solving Ukraine’s problems. The “flight from Russia” ethos was seen as a means of achieving that cherished goal.
June 2015 in Yerevan was not about searching for geopolitical alternatives. The EU flags caught on camera were, the participants say, an unfortunate coincidence. Interviewees with various media were at pains to dissociate themselves from any pro-Western ideological and political tendency.
In the words of the protesters, it is primarily about improving the quality of governance in the country. Criticism of Russia in that regard is somewhat oblique. The protesters are merely indignant about Moscow’s unilateral support for the current government, as well as Russian companies’ failure to exercise adequate control over their subsidiaries in Armenia.
The second myth is that all the protest actions are well organized and prepared. It bears repeating that social protest in Armenia has its own traditions. Rallies in Yerevan are not news. And a gathering of several thousand is not difficult to arrange even without the help of the Kremlin or the State Department.
But attention should be paid to the fact that the protest was not led by any of the four opposition parties of Armenia. It sprang from the “No Robbery” civil movement with no deliberate tactics. Some activists were inclined to politicize the protest, while others were generally uninterested in wringing changes in the corridors of power.
The same applies to the talks with the authorities, and the future direction of the protests. At present, the movement has no broad vision of what needs to be done in the social sphere and the economy. In the words of 19th-century Russian writer and essayist Alexander Herzen, activists operate on the principle of “we are not doctors, we are pain.”
Looking ahead, much will depend on the authorities. The ball is now in their half of the court. Despite clashing with police on June 23, the protesters have not gone away. On the contrary, their ranks have been bolstered by new recruits.
But it is also true that they did not feed the offensive against the government. And while there are no new clashes, the conflict can still be “routinized,” i.e. regulated through negotiations and agreements — and perhaps an adjustment of social policy.
The hope remains that the authorities and street protesters alike understand the potential consequences of a conflagration. Armenia is already involved in the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and any escalation of violence in Armenian society could be exploited by opponents of Yerevan to weaken it.
During the June protests in the Armenian capital many words have sounded about independence and autonomy. Overcoming the current impasse will be a test of Armenia’s claim to being a mature independent state in which strategic thinking is more important than short-term tactical gain.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.