SEATTLE – May 8 was a landmark day for Armenia, a small landlocked country in the southern Caucasus, which saw one of the country’s most momentous events since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Former newspaper editor, political prisoner and one of the few opposition members within Armenia’s Parliament, Nikol Pashinyan, was elected interim prime minister of Armenia — marking the end of the decade-long regime of Serzh Sargsyan and generating optimism in ameliorating the significant government corruption and widespread poverty in Armenia that has plagued the country for years.
Under Sargsyan, more than 10 percent of the country’s population of three million left Armenia, and in total, 900,000 people who were born in Armenia currently live abroad. This diaspora can be explained in part by the stifling amount of poverty in Armenia. Of those who remained, nearly 12 percent live in dire poverty on less than $3.20 a day and the country has an unemployment rate of 16 percent.
Corruption and Political Manipulation a Long-Running Issue in Armenia
Many Armenians blame the perpetuation of these despondent economic conditions on Sargsyan and his ruling Republican Party that dominates the Armenian Parliament. The power of elite is substantial in Armenia and much of the Parliament consists of representatives from the oligarchy and big business that dictate political and economic life and exclude civic input in legislative processes and policy formation. This hegemony impedes economic development and perpetuates poverty in Armenia by creating a closed market dictated by monopolies that restrict free trade and market competition. For the average Armenian, this means a disproportionately high cost for goods and services and few jobs to pay for them.
Despite series of widespread protests in opposition to Sargsyan taking office from throughout his presidency, and pledging not to run for re-election after this term, Sargsyan was appointed prime minister of Armenia on April 17, 2018, after stepping down from the presidency. This coincided with a constitutional referendum in December 2016 giving the prime minister of Armenia more power than the president through shifting the structure of the government from semi-presidentialism to a parliamentary republic. This move is illustrative of Armenia’s endemic corruption.
According to a 2018 BTI report on Armenia, “…the [2016 referendum] was dominated by numerous manipulations of the electoral roll, violations during voting and counting ballots, numerous falsifications of results by electoral commissions, as well as threats against Armenian journalists covering the referendum.” This common practice of manipulation of electoral procedures has largely contributed to the widespread political apathy within Armenia and distrust of its institutions.
Protests Lead to Appointment of New Prime Minister of Armenia
This latest move by Sargsyan to hold onto power finally triggered a turning point, sparking protests by more than 100,000 people in the capital of Yerevan. Nikol Pashinyan spearheaded these non-violent protests by walking 120 miles across Armenia from Gyumri to the capital Yerevan, in the spirit of Gandhi’s walk across India in the 1930s to protest British taxation. Under this immense pressure, Sargsyan finally stepped down on April 23. Despite Parliament initially rejecting Pashinyan’s bid to become the interim prime minister of Armenia, continued collective pressure and a nationwide strike caused Parliament to relent and elect Pashinyan to the position.
Pashinyan’s leadership is an encouraging step in finally breaking this cycle of stifling corruption and poverty in Armenia. While the long-term impact of Pashinyan remains to be seen, he has vowed to prioritize organizing fair parliamentary elections, break up the stronghold of oligarchic monopolies and reinvigorate the economy. Pashinyan’s longstanding loud opposition to Armenia’s political machine, both in his work as a newspaper editor and in Parliament, lends credibility to these promises. At least as a positive initial indication, much of Armenia’s economy remained stable throughout the transition period and some economists are positive that this change will lead to political and economic improvements in the country.
Armenians Worldwide Optimistic About the Country’s Future
The international community has welcomed this change as well. The director of the large grassroots organization the Armenian National Committee of America praised the election of Pashinyan on May 8. The president of the Council of Europe, a multinational organization with the goal of maintaining democracy, human rights and rule of law in Europe, issued a statement on May 11 echoing similar sentiments.
What is incredible about this event is that the collective Armenian population, through united support and action, elevated a fringe lawmaker to prime minister in a matter of weeks against immense odds. The hope that this has given Armenians for the future of the country is more than palpable, at least in empowering the many who are part of Armenia’s diaspora to return. This includes Rebecca Topakian, a young woman from an Armenian diaspora community established in France in the early 20th century, who told The Washington Post: “I thought well, I’m coming to a country everyone leaves…and now the fact that things are changing makes me want to take part in a country building its politics and independence.” In building this new chapter, hopefully, corruption and poverty in Armenia will be ameliorated for all.
– Emily Bender