Ignatius: ‘Velvet revolution’ makes Armenia a nation of smiles

It’s tossed its authoritarian leader but faces challenges from Russia and a history of corruption.

By David Ignatius

YEREVAN, Armenia — If you’re looking for some good news from a faraway land, here’s a tale of Armenia’s “velvet revolution,” which just deposed a corrupt, authoritarian government and installed a team of eager young reformers to govern a tiny nation perilously bordering Russia.

Maybe it’s the start of a counter-trend, in a world where so many indicators of freedom and good governance have been pointing downward. But it must be said, time is not on the revolutionaries’ side. The squeeze on Armenia, from its neighbors and domestic power brokers, could undo the gains of the bottom-up protest movement that toppled the long-entrenched, pro-Moscow government of Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan.

For now, there’s something of a festival atmosphere here, as Armenians enjoy the aftermath of what the new prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, described to me as a “revolution of love and solidarity.” Bands play in the streets, people spontaneously cheer Pashinyan in public, and the post-Soviet haze seems, for now, to have cleared.

Pashinyan spoke with me for an hour last Friday at his grand office on Republic Square, in the center of the capital. He looked slightly uncomfortable in a dark business suit. The popular image of him is of a guy in a baseball cap who led a march on the capital that grew so large it paralyzed the government. Barricading the streets were jazz musicians atop a piano, a chamber quartet and a young boy halting traffic with a line of toy trucks.

The protests became so widespread that Sargsyan faced a choice of using force on fellow citizens or stepping down. In a nation whose political identity is tied to its tragic history, Sargsyan wisely chose the latter: On April 23, the day before the annual commemoration of the 1915 Ottoman genocide that killed more than a million Armenians, Sargsyan resigned.

The miracle of this revolution is that it happened at all. Russia had long supported Sargsyan and his oligarch cronies. But in May, after Sargsyan’s fall, the Kremlin didn’t block Pashinyan’s accession to prime minister. That’s partly because Pashinyan declared, as he told me, that his movement had “no geopolitical agenda.”

President Vladimir Putin could still make life very difficult for the new Armenia. In Yerevan last weekend, I heard reports from diplomats that if Moscow doesn’t receive new pledges of fealty, it might halt arms sales, on which Armenia depends to counter neighboring Azerbaijan in the disputed area known as Nagorno Karabakh. Russia’s tolerance for political liberalization may come at a price.

What’s next for the velvet revolution? Pashinyan outlined his program, but it was long on democratic idealism and thin on specifics.

Pashinyan’s first priority is to stop the corruption that has been leaching away the creative and entrepreneurial spirit for which Armenians are often known. “Unfortunately, Armenia was a very corrupt country in the last 25 years,” Pashinyan told me, with cronies close to the leadership taking what amounted to a private tax on the economy. “People were fed up with that situation,” he said.

Linked to Pashinyan’s anti-graft campaign is a commitment to break up the monopolies that dominate key sectors of the economy. Armen Grigoryan, the new national security adviser, worked previously for Transparency International, an anti-corruption group. He explained in an interview that the Armenian economy can grow if the new government can shed more sunlight on its operations and “decrease interaction between the state and the citizen.”

The new government will need to put teeth into this anti-corruption push, by holding some of the bribe-takers accountable. “I’m not going to give orders to judges,” Pashinyan insists, but he warns: “We will try to identify and bring to responsibility the most corrupt people.” To combat monopolies, he’ll need to capitalize new, smaller companies, perhaps through a national investment bank.

Breaking free of the gravitational field of the past will take all of Pashinyan’s idealism and energy — and also some raw political power. He told me it’s “very likely” he’ll hold a snap election for a new parliament by October or November, well before the April deadline. And the courts are already releasing some prominent political prisoners.

Armenia is a subject on which I’m hardly neutral, as my father’s family has Armenian roots. During my visit here, I helped host the Aurora Humanitarian Awards, created by a group of prominent Armenians to honor human-rights champions from other countries. Armenia has experienced more than its share of bad news, historically and in the recent, post-Soviet past. So it was encouraging to see Yerevan as a city of smiles after its dramatic moment of change.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter @IgnatiusPost.

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