Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Armenian Anomaly: Toward an Interdisciplinary Interpretation

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Armenian Anomaly: Toward an Interdisciplinary Interpretation

Article excerpt

In Spring 2018 a vertiginously surging wave of protests brought the regime of post-Soviet restoration in Armenia to a sudden end. (1) The powerful, yet non-violent blow seemed to unite the entire population across the lines of social class, gender, and age in unanimously rejecting the ruling elite in an "us versus them" manner more reminiscent of the 1989 "velvet" revolutions in Central Europe than the much messier and divisive "colored" revolts of the 2000-2010s in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Kyrgyzstan, let alone the repeated failures of isolated oppositions in Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Russia. At the peak of the protests, one could see in the city squares of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, students side by side with elderly peasants, intellectuals and taxi drivers, ethnic Armenians as well as the minority Yezidis and Assyrians, even soldiers in uniform and mothers with babies in strollers. In the face of the incumbents' indecision, which soon turned into retreat and surrender, on April 23 the protesting crowds burst into an exuberant celebration in the streets of Yerevan and other Armenian towns. After a tense fortnight of last-ditch maneuvering by the parliament's official majority amid the renewed pressure of street protests and impressively disciplined stoppages of city traffic, the same parliament elected charismatic protest leader Nikol Pashinyan, until recently a back-bench opposition MP, as the country's new Prime Minister. In a consequential political irony, Pashinyan thus legally inherited the extraordinarily broad executive powers that the ruling Republican Party had destined, in a recent change to the constitution, to then-incumbent Serzh Sargsyan. The once-powerful defense minister and president of two decades had intended to bypass the constitutional two-term limit in this castling move, securing election from the obedient parliament as the new super-premier. As a result of the revolution, the devious scheme spectacularly backfired, giving the same powers to the oppositionist Pashinyan.

All this may look, however, quite surprising given the relative poverty of post-Soviet Armenia, its wholesale dependence on Russia, and the strains of ongoing military confrontation with Azerbaijan over the disputed territories of Karabakh, not to mention Armenia's remote geographic location and its traumatic historical memories. Valerie Bunce once mused that, for all the variety of factors suggested by political scientists to explain the differential rates of success in transitions from communist rule, the most obvious fact of geographic proximity to the borders of the EU could alone robustly predict the prospects of such transitions. (2) The Republic of Armenia borders Turkey and Iran rather than Scandinavia or Austria. Historically, Armenia was long dominated by foreign conquerors: Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans, imperial Russians, and Bolsheviks. Such legacies might be expected to render the pattern of Armenian politics closer to that of the Balkans or

Middle East than Central Europe. (3)

Evidently something besides geography must be at play here--perhaps the same factors that in February 1988 resulted in a completely unexpected mass mobilization of Armenians demanding reunification with their fellow ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Need we be reminded that it was the seemingly peripheral Karabakh conflict that once ignited the chain of events leading the Soviet superpower to its collapse? (4) If you were to ask Armenians to explain it, many, drawing on their own ethno-national discourse, would point to the venerable antiquity of their civilized nation and its own brand of Christianity, officially adopted as early as 301 C.E., before the Roman Empire itself. Others might add that Armenians have long been par excellence sensible traders and hard-working craftsmen, in other words a bourgeois minority nation forged even before capitalism in a far-flung diaspora and despite hostile foreign rule. …

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