Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

My Step Aside from Sasna Tsrer: The Dynamics of Protest Coalitions in Armenia, 2016 and 2018

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

My Step Aside from Sasna Tsrer: The Dynamics of Protest Coalitions in Armenia, 2016 and 2018

Article excerpt

In recent years, Armenia has experienced a series of mass political and social protests. (1) In the Million Mask March of 2013, large numbers of anti-government protesters rallied in the streets of Yerevan and clashed with police. In 2015, the Armenian capital saw mass protests that were triggered by an increase in the price of electricity. The following year, protesters took to the streets to express their support of the Sasna Tsrer armed group, which had seized a police station in Yerevan.

Sasna Tsrer's action was violent and, in the eyes of many observers in Armenia and abroad, was considered a mutiny or even an act of terror, in contrast to previous protests, which had been performed in a civic, non-violent, and legal way. Nevertheless, the seizure of the police regiment garnered massive support among politicians, civil activists, shapers of public opinion, and the general public. Unlike previous mass protests, it not only reflected public discontent with some of the authorities' malpractices, but also challenged the legitimacy of the political system. In terms of political change, Sasna Tsrer's action was probably the most effective of the protests that took place between 2013 and 2016, as it led to a political crisis that resulted in government change--in September 2016, Karen Karapetyan was appointed prime minister, while Serzh Sargsyan retained his position as president.

Intriguingly, however, massive approval of Sasna Tsrer did not translate into significant results at the polls: the following year, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, headed by President Serzh Sargsyan, once again won the parliamentary elections. Yet in April 2018, Sargsyan's attempt to retain power by moving to the position of prime minister sparked a massive protest, the My Step movement, under the leadership of opposition parliamentarian Nikol Pashinyan. In contrast to previous demonstrations, the My Step protest was a success. Sargsyan resigned, and Pashinyan became the head of the government and the head of state under the new constitution, which came into force in 2018.

Most studies of contemporary Armenian politics devoted to the mass manifestations of recent years tend to focus on the issues that served as triggers for the protests. For example, commentators discuss the April 2016 war in Nagorno-Karabakh; (2) social-economic issues (such as pension privatization and tariff and transport fare hikes); the lack of democracy, justice (3) and leaders' accountability; (4) environmental problems; (5) deteriorating living conditions; (6) dysfunctional channels for popular input into the political process; (7) and other factors. This article seeks to explore the same trends and events, but from a different perspective, considering not the immediate drivers of the protests, but fundamental features of public discourse that structure the political polemic in Armenia regardless of which particular issues are on the agenda at any particular moment.

Our study is an attempt to explain protest dynamics in Armenia by examining discourses of Armenian nationalism. In previous studies, (8) we have shown the insights that this approach can provide into the controversy regarding Sasna Tsrer and the failure of its supporters' protest actions. In this paper, we assess how nationalism manifested itself in the revolution of April-May 2018.

Our task is to compare the composition of the coalition of public figures who approved of the actions of Sasna Tsrer in 2016 with the Pashinyan coalition that gained power after the 2018 revolution. Through a detailed study of these coalitions, we will try to explain the divergent outcomes of these two waves of mass mobilization. Our analysis of the coalition of Sasna Tsrer supporters is based on our earlier research on Armenian media discourse, (9) while to study the 2018 coalition we analyze a set of key executive figures in the new government that was formed after the revolution. …

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