The “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia: Cosmetic change or potential for democratic development?

The “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia: Cosmetic change or potential for democratic development?

On the 23rd of April, Armenian Prime Minister and ex-President Serzh Sargsyan unexpectedly resigned his post after almost two weeks of mass protests. People in the streets celebrated the change, but where will Armenia go from here?

Serzh Sargsyan served two terms as a President from 2008 to 2018. In 2014, he started pushing for an amendment of the Armenian constitution, which would transfer the powers of the President to the post of Prime Minister and the Parliament.

As one can only be a President for two terms in Armenia, many in the opposition alleged that Sargsyan sought to grab power for himself. The opposition claimed that after such change, Sargsyan would simply switch functions to become a Prime Minister and stay in power for an unlimited period of time. In  response to these allegations, Sargsyan made a promise not to run for a Prime Minister once his second presidential term was over.

Despite widespread criticism and fraud allegations, the amendment was approved in a referendum in 2015. Armenia was set to adopt a parliamentary system after the end of Sargsyan’s term in 2018 without him as a head of the government. However, on April 17, Sargsyan was elected Prime Minister by the Armenian Parliament. This sparked mass protests in the streets of Yerevan and other Armenian cities which led to the start of a peaceful “Velvet Revolution” and Sargsyan’s resignation on April 23.


The effect of spontaneous actions

A few days before the resignation, the majority of analysts were sceptical  that Sargsyan could step down. Even the protesters themselves did not expect it to happen so quickly. It is difficult to foresee certain events that mainly depend on the human factor.

Sargsyan’s decision to resign was relatively spontaneous and emotional. On the morning of April 22, he met with Nikol Pashinyan — the leader of the demonstrations — but stormed out from the meeting after several minutes once Pashinyan started talking about his resignation. One day later, he proclaimed that he was wrong and decided to step down.

The social movement itself was also spontaneous as it started with Pashinyan and a small group of people protesting Sargsyan’s alleged power-grab. In a matter of several days, it grew enormously including hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors by the time Sargsyan resigned.

The movement has no formal organisation. People just started joining in. When police arrested and detained Pashinyan and other opposition members for a day, the people marched to the Yerevan’s Republic Square without any formal leadership. Although Pashinyan’s opposition party has only a small representation in the Parliament, he became a popular leader of this huge social movement. This demonstrates how people’s preferences can change rapidly in an emotional response to the protest. Pashinyan and his party called “Way Out Alliance” could potentially benefit from this.


A limited cosmetic change?

The main goal of the ruling Republican Party and Armenia’s acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan will now be to assure that the changes will stop with Sargsyan’s resignation. The protests, however, are not going away. Pashinyan proclaimed that this “Velvet Revolution” is not over yet and must continue until the end.

He urges the government to appoint a new acting Prime Minister not affiliated with the ruling party. After that, snap elections should take place. If they do, Pashinyan’s party is very likely to succeed in these elections while the ruling Republican Party will lose seats.



The ruling regime will do its best to avoid early snap elections. If it manages to suppress and dissolve the continuing demonstrations, no significant change apart from Sargsyan’s resignation will happen.

Dissolving these peaceful protests, however, might be difficult. The Prime Minister’s resignation provided the masses with a feeling that their movement is effective and that change is viable. Once the movement becomes viable, it is likely to attract even more people who will want to take part in the revolution as it also provides safety in numbers. The movement also offers a charismatic and increasingly popular leader Nikol Pashinyan as an alternative to the ruling regime. His uncompromising attitude towards the ruling party initiates vast support among the population.

After Sargsyan’s resignation, the situation has come to a point when it is almost impossible to ignore the voice of the Armenian people. It is thus likely that this “Velvet Revolution” will lead to the snap elections where Nikol Pashinyan and his “Way Out Alliance” will be successful. The ruling Republican Party, on the other hand, will face a significant decrease in its popularity.

Although Pashinyan’s stance towards Nagorno-Karabakh does not differ from the position of the current government, he could represent significant changes in Armenian politics. First, he is openly against the widespread corruption in the country and the fact that politics and business in Armenia are merged into one. Many people are even comparing him to the early days of the former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. His election could have positive implications for dealing with corruption. Second, his ideas for Armenian foreign policy also significantly differ from the Russia-leaning ruling Republican Party. He argues for eventual Armenian membership in the European Union, rather than in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. Simultaneously, however, Armenia hosts a big Russian military base in Gyumri, which to a certain extent guarantees its security and Armenian business is closely tied to Russia. A westward integration focus would be a long-term goal, not short-term.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Andre Martirosyan

Andre Martirosyan is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Conflict Studies at London School of Economics and Political Science. In 2017 he worked at Demos, a London-based think-tank, assisting with research. Previously, he has also worked at the European Parliament for Czech MEP, Jaromir Stetina, who was primarily focused on European security and human rights in the post-Soviet space. Moreover, he served as an intern for a political party in the Czech Parliament and has also worked at the Armenian embassy in Prague. Andre obtained his BA in Politics, Sociology, and East European Studies from University College London. He speaks Czech, Russian, English, French, and Western Armenian.