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OPINION: ARMENIA: Same Streets, Same Demands, But Something's Different

On April 17, Serzh Sargsyan was elected Armenia’s prime minister in a parliament session under siege. Armored police officers stood within a few hundred feet of the National Assembly as throngs of protesters headed toward the building, demanding Sargsyan step down.

The ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), together with its coalition partner the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), confirmed Sargsyan with a 77-17 vote.

In 2015, nearing the end of his second presidential term, Sargsyan presided over a contentious constitutional referendum that changed the country’s governing system from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary one. The referendum reduced the presidency to a ceremonial role and increased the prime minister’s powers.

At the time, critics viewed the constitutional changes as an attempt by Sargsyan to consolidate power indefinitely, despite his protestations. But the critics were right.

Any lingering doubts vanished when, on April 2, the government formally privatized the state-owned presidential residence. The house that presidents have and would have continued to occupy will now belong to him and his family in perpetuity — inside the same compound in which, by law, live the country’s top leadership.

The “Reject Serzh” protests that have captivated Yerevan for six days represent the public’s repudiation of a power grab similar to that achieved by Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

A momentous movement

The “Reject Serzh” movement is a defining moment in Armenia’s post-independence history.

In 2008, Sargsyan became president amid violent protests that left 10 people dead. A decade later, he is assuming the premiership from inside a barbed wire-enclosed National Assembly building. While the current demonstrations convey dissatisfaction with the political process, similar to prior protests, they are notable in scale and sophistication.

For parliament member Nikol Pashinyan, head of Armenia’s Civil Contract Party, the “Reject Serzh” movement began hundreds of kilometers outside the capital. The 42-year-old opposition leader completed a walking journey from the city of Gyumri to Yerevan, a symbol of protest that culminated with mass demonstrations.

Since arriving in Yerevan on April 13, Pashinyan has guided people through days of civil disobedience. Peaceful protesters have used benches, trash bins, and their bodies, to shut down the city center. University students have shown a unified front, organizing their own rallies and street closures, and encouraging peers to join them.

Most notably, Pashinyan has relied on crowdsourcing and grassroots organizing to bring scale and breadth to the movement. His tactics include directives — “Tomorrow, let’s encircle government buildings,” or “We must close access to the city’s center,” — and thousands have implemented his calls to action.

The size, atmosphere, and age diversity of the demonstrations send a dual message: for authorities, that it would be difficult to exercise authoritarian rule; and for citizens, that they are not as weak and despairing as they are thoughtful and united.

Opposition calls on diaspora support

Despite the magnitude of the demonstrations, coverage in diaspora media outlets has been noticeably lacking. While active in Armenia’s foreign policy strategies, major diaspora institutions remain visibly distanced from the country’s domestic realities.

In September 2016, notable diasporan figures, including lead singer of System of a Down Serj Tankian, Canadian-Armenian actor Arsinée Khanjian, and director Atom Egoyan launched the “Justice Within Armenia” initiative to highlight Armenia’s internal challenges.

But “Justice Within Armenia” is an exception to the norm. During other periods of political upheaval, including the 2017 parliamentary elections and the 2015 constitutional referendum, the majority of diasporans and diaspora institutions remained disconnected from local activists and organizations.

Diasporans who wish to meaningfully connect with the Republic of Armenia must make an effort to understand local priorities and needs. This can be through following and supporting independent journalism and civil society initiatives. Until the diaspora’s objectives for Armenia align with Armenia’s local concerns, Armenians in Armenia and those in the diaspora will not establish a mutually beneficial relationship.

The Armenian people could not change the vote of the National Assembly but they are in charge of the streets, the city, and the country. Activists continue to increase in numbers and are more creative and resolute than ever. Despite enduring poverty, territorial disputes and declining freedoms, the last few days have shown that citizens will not sit idle as the nation slides toward authoritarianism.


(c) 2018 CivilNet

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