ARMENIA’S VELVET REVOLUTION THROUGH A COMPARATIVE LENS: How do revolutions succeed, and when do they fail? Does democracy always follow?

By Goryoun Koyounian

2018 is halfway through and scholars of political history may already have reason to look back on this year as an interesting period of democratic revival, albeit limited. Sure, it can hardly be characterized as the dawn of a “fourth wave of democratization”: in Turkey, President Erdogan is increasingly seeking to consolidate his power by undermining any remnant of checks and balances; in Hungary and Poland on the eastern front of the European continent, political leaders are systematically attacking the independent judiciary and the free press; even the United States, the supposed “leader of the free world”, is currently undergoing unprecedented stress in terms of the resilience of its democratic institutions in the face of constant assaults by the administration in power. In the wake of all these developments, it is easy to overlook signs of democracy gaining ground in parts of the world long thought of as unmistakably bound to authoritarian structures.

As a matter of fact, 2018, interestingly, began not with a story of authoritarian consolidation but with one of a democratic uprising: starting on 28 December 2017 going into the first months of 2018, tens of thousands of Iranians organized a series of public protests primarily focused on economic grievances but which expanded to involve political opposition to the theocratic regime in power and perceived government corruption. In April, in Armenia, a country firmly within Russia’s sphere of influence, hundreds of thousands of Armenian citizens forced the resignation of long-time ruler and newly-appointed prime minister Serzh Sargsyan, replacing him instead with protest leader and former journalist Nikol Pashinyan, who has indicated his willingness to stamp out public corruption and reform civil institutions. More recently, in neighboring Georgia, a wave of anti-government rallies that grew in opposition to judicial corruption led first to the resignation of the country’s prosecutor-general and, a couple weeks later, of the prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. The last two examples, though clearly distinct in their nature, appear to fit the mold of the “color revolutions” that swept through Eurasia and particularly the post-Soviet states in the 2000s, going into the next decade. Prominent cases that come to mind include Serbia’s “Bulldozer Revolution” in 2000, Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” in 2003, Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” of 2004 and the “Maidan” uprising of 2014, among others. Some enjoyed partial success, though several failed, most notably in the case of Armenia which twice managed to resist “people power”, first in 2003-04, and then in 2008. This evident disparity begs the question: when do revolutions succeed, and why do they fail?

As recently as a few centuries ago, this question would’ve seemed absurd to your everyday interlocutor. Originally, the term “revolution” didn’t even have a political connotation; rather, it was an astrological phenomenon whose Latin meaning designated “the regular, lawfully revolving motion of the stars which … was known to be beyond the influence of man”. It subsequently gained a political connotation that was much distant from its contemporary meaning. A political revolution thus indicated a revolving back to a preordained order. As Hannah Arendt explains, however, the French and American revolutions led to a significant linguistic transformation, wherein “revolution” came to be understood as a new beginning, as history beginning anew. Far from an uncontrollable cycle of nature or a reversal to some previous order, revolution thus became an irresistible movement of historical necessity, a push towards novelty.

The modern academic understanding of the concept generally refers to the drastic and forced removal of a group in charge of governing a territorial political entity and their replacement by a group of change-oriented individuals. In his 1938 account of modern revolutions, renowned American historian Crane Brinton paints a very illuminating picture of the causes behind such phenomenon. Among the most important signs of an impending revolution, according to this study, are brewing and insoluble financial problems for the government, a sense among segments of society of having been wronged by the government, the desertion of intellectuals, and salient class divisions and antagonisms. The author cites France as an illustrative example: in 1789, the country was rich but had an impoverished government which failed to distribute the wealth evenly. As a result, a significant portion of the population felt as if prevailing conditions limited or hindered their economic agency. Towards the end of the 18th century, France also experienced a substantial growth in the so-called “sociétés de pensée”, groups of intellectuals which originally discussed Enlightenment ideas but which increasingly began to ponder the idea of changing the regime in power in favor of one that better aligned with their ideals. The desertion of much of the intellectual class and the elite precipitated the downfall of the monarchic regime of Louis XVI.


The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the independence of the states that were once a part of the bloc, though, contrary to Western hopes, did not lead to mass democratization. At the turn of the millennia, much of the post-Soviet-Eurasian world remained under the grip of hybrid autocratic regimes. This is the context in which so-called “color revolutions” began to emerge in various countries of the region, starting with Serbia in 2000. Curiously, though, Serbia’s revolution wasn’t named after a color, but rather after a type of vehicle.

In 2000, Serbia was not yet formally independent: instead, it formed a part of the post-Soviet Federal Republic of Yugoslavia alongside Montenegro. Since 1989, the country had been ruled by Serbian politician Slobodan Milosevic. Described in The Guardian as a “ruthless manipulator of Serbian nationalism” and “the most dangerous man in Europe” following his death in 2006, Milosevic had held his power for more than a decade by changing constitutions and switching offices through elections, in the process presiding over the mass murder of the Bosnian Muslim population. The opposition, typically divided among several candidates with salient ideological and personal differences, finally managed to unite under one “untouchable” candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, when early presidential elections were announced for September 24, 2000. His uncontroversial nature, combined with the mobilization of an activist youth movement, meant that, despite being deprived of vital air time and TV coverage, Kostunica was leading in the polls. When both Milosevic and his main challenger declared victory, the Federal Election Commission instead called for a second ballot, arguing that neither had won an outright majority. This decision prompted mass protests that quickly spread nation-wide. By October 5, approximately 500 000 people (a tenth of the country’s total population) had gathered in front of government buildings, calling for the resignation of the President. In arguably the most memorable episode of the protests, Ljubisav Dokic, an unemployed bulldozer operator, stormed the building of the state media Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) with his vehicle, inspiring a symbolic nickname for these events: the Bulldozer Revolution. On October 6, Milosevic met with opposition leader Kostunica and publicly declared his resignation.

A slightly resembling narrative unfolded 3 years later in Georgia. Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgian president since 1992, had been re-elected in 2000, and his party now faced pivotal parliamentary elections on November 2, 2003. The main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), was led by a pro-Western politician named Mikhail Saakashvili who found allies among former rivals including the Georgian Greens. On the day of the elections, the International Election Observation Mission concluded that a number of OSCE and international commitments and standards for democratic elections had been entirely neglected, triggering a wave of mass demonstrations that culminated in Shevardnadze’s resignation on November 23, following his failure to open the new parliamentary session. These events were labeled the “Rose Revolution” in reference to the protesters giving roses to police and security forces as a symbolic expression of non-violence. Saakashvili, once elected president on January 4, 2004, embarked on a decidedly pro-Western foreign policy, placing the country on a collision course with Russia.

Not all self-styled color revolutions were successful, however. In 2005, parliamentary elections were due to be held in Azerbaijan, which had already experienced violence around its 2003 presidential elections which saw power effectively transferred from longtime ruler Heidar Aliyev, to his son, Ilham Aliyev. In the wake of the November 6 parliamentary elections, which were deemed fraudulent by domestic election monitoring organizations, the opposition, emboldened by the peaceful revolutions in Georgia and elsewhere, organized rallies alongside civic and youth groups numbering at most 15 000 people. On November 26, however, the police attacked a peaceful demonstration in the capital, Baku, effectively breaking up the election protests. As has been the norm throughout his tenure, Ilham Aliyev successfully resisted political liberalization.

Similarly, Armenia has generally been successful at resisting political change, at least until recently. In 2008, presidential elections were scheduled for February 19, with high-profile official of the ruling Republican Party Serzh Sargsyan the favorite to win, blessed with the backing of incumbent president Robert Kocharyan. Part of the opposition united under former president and controversial figure Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who assailed Sargsyan as a member of a criminal regime presiding over widespread corruption throughout the country. The election, largely commended by the OSCE which nevertheless noted irregularities including heavy media bias in favor of Sargsyan, was disputed by the opposition which organized continuous protests and daily marches. After more than a week of peaceful demonstrations, the authorities moved to violently suppress the protests on March 1st, and Ter-Petrosyan was placed under house arrest: regime change was aborted.

A decade later, though, the tables would turn decisively. Armenia had recently moved to abandon its semi-presidential system in favor of a parliamentary one in which the prime minister would hold considerably more power than the president. Nearing the end of his second and final term in office, President Serzh Sargsyan had promised he would not follow in Vladimir Putin’s footsteps and use the changing constitution as an opportunity to prolong his tenure by becoming prime minister. Contrary to such assurances, however, the Republican Party agreed to present Sargsyan as a candidate for prime minister, sparking off a new wave of popular discontent. Headed by Nikol Pashinyan, one of the leaders of the 2008 protests, activists mobilized with a simple goal in mind: force the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan. As demonstrations grew in size and strength, the authorities increasingly felt the urgency to act quickly, or not at all. On April 22, they attempted to demoralize the movement by arresting Pashinyan and other protest leaders; the move backfired, getting nearly 200 000 people out on the streets. Devoid of options, and with the 103rd anniversary of the Armenian genocide looming the next day, Serzh Sargsyan finally announced his resignation as Prime Minister on April 23, 2018, writing in an official statement: “I was wrong. Nikol Pashinyan was right.” Far from calling it a victory, though, demonstrators now demanded that the Parliament elect the “people’s candidate”, Nikol Pashinyan, as prime minister of the Republic. Found between a rock and a hard place, the Republican Party, after initially dragging its feet, finally agreed, albeit grudgingly, to elect Pashinyan as PM. The reformers, demonstrating on the streets a couple months ago, now control the state. This monumental change has been dubbed Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution”, referring to the non-violent transition of power in Czechoslovakia in 1989, as the Soviet Union began crumbling.

What accounts for these differences? And perhaps more importantly, do these revolutions always lead to a consolidation of democracy?

In a comparative piece on color revolutions, Prof. Julia Gerlach highlights some of the key factors that led to successful regime change in places like Serbia and Georgia. In 2000, Serbia suffered from severe political and socioeconomic problems: deteriorating infrastructure, high unemployment rate, hyperinflation, inability of the state to provide basic public services. Many of these same issues were also present in Georgia. If that wasn’t enough, both incumbents were politically weak, with the elite defecting at an increasing rate. This gave a tremendous boost to the opposition, which was remarkably unified in Serbia (with 18 parties forging a coalition to support one candidate) and moderately so in Georgia under Mikhail Saakashvili. According to Gerlach, the primarily significant factors behind these successful revolutions are: a weakening incumbent, a strengthened opposition, and eroding state capacity.

The Georgian case also had another peculiarity: the Shevardnadze regime was strikingly divided as to how to respond to the credible allegations of election fraud during the 2003 parliamentary elections. Rather than standing firmly united and insisting on their victory, some regime officials even suggested holding a new election entirely. In contrast, in 2008, the incumbent president of Armenia had essentially designated Serzh Sargsyan as his clear successor, and once the latter was elected, the regime maintained utmost cohesion in the face of opposition, showing itself willing to use force if necessary, as a means of increasing the costs of defection. The Republican Party apparatus was well-institutionalized and thus unlikely to be overthrown in such circumstances. A similar dynamic was at play in Azerbaijan in 2005, where the political security of Ilham Aliyev’s position, combined with an evident readiness of the state to utilize violence as a tool for quelling protests, led to a lackluster mobilization. Moreover, Azerbaijan’s opposition suffered both from its lack of a charismatic leader and from its inability to present itself as a viable alternative to the regime in power. It is also worth noting that in the early 1990s, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over a majority-Armenian enclave called Nagorno-Karabakh, officially a part of Azerbaijan. This experience of war, according to scholars, contributes to a hardening of the military and security apparatus, which in turn helps autocrats stay in power. Summarizing the roadblocks to revolution, Gerlach points to the relative strength of the incumbent, the weakness of the opposition (disunity and lack of charismatic leadership), in contrast to the resilient regime’s state capacity, as the key factors.

The 2018 Armenian “Velvet Revolution” did not fall to such obstacles. Serzh Sargsyan’s legitimacy and support was already declining gradually throughout his term, and it took a considerable hit from the widespread perception that he was seeking the position of prime minister as a way of maintaining his grip on power. A weakened leader was now faced with a formidable opposition of unprecedented effectiveness. Led by the charismatic Nikol Pashinyan, demonstrators engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience, conducting spontaneous roadblocks at various locations within Yerevan, and, as the demonstrations went from strength to strength, throughout the entire country. Pashinyan and the protest leaders explicitly refused to engage any ideological or geopolitical issues that could divide the country and instead focused exclusively on corruption and justice, on which everyone was united. The option of violence by authorities was now effectively discarded as a ludicrous prospect, the potential backlash too great to bear. Sensing the shifting winds, ARF and Prosperous Armenia officials threw their support behind the movement. By the time Parliament had to vote on the new prime minister, the Republican Party had effectively no other choice but to give Pashinyan the votes he needed. Since the formation of the new government, defections have continued apace, with the Republican Party losing its parliamentary majority (it now holds 52 out of a 105 seats). Even the National Security Service, once derided as a coercive agency holding water for the Sargsyan regime, has now placed itself firmly at the center of an unprecedented anti-corruption effort by the Pashinyan administration.

Armenia may well turn out to be the luckiest of all the cases laid out so far. Revolution, strictly understood as the forced and drastic overthrow of an established regime, has rarely paved the way for democratization and the uprooting of autocratic institutions. The resignation of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia was a tremendous success. However, the momentum from that achievement hasn’t been enough for democratization prospects; instead, political differences were gradually amplified, as pro-Western and right-wing parties disagreed over the direction of the country. Efforts to transition towards a more free-market economy have been tainted by recurrent corruption allegations implicating officials of various political stripes. As a result of such high-profile fraudulence, combined with widespread disregard for press freedom and fundamental political rights, Serbia remains a long way off from joining the ranks of true liberal democracies. In a similar fashion, Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, culminating in the resignation of long-time ruler Eduard Shevardnadze, only further highlighted the monumental challenge of democratic consolidation. In the words of noted political scholar Lincoln A. Mitchell, Georgians traded one kind of semi-democratic system for another. Corruption was reduced, but so were political pluralism and press freedom. Even the new Georgian government, first elected into office in 2012 on promises of sweeping democratic reforms, has found it hard to advance that goal while simultaneously working to consolidate its power.

What can be learned from these examples? The Georgian case perhaps best exposes one of the central obstacles. The 2003 overthrow of Eduard Shevardnadze was followed by a considerable fortification of the central government, much to the detriment of other governmental and nongovernmental institutions. With civil society severely depleted, Georgia, rather than becoming more responsive to the demos, largely preserved its semi-democratic system. If Armenia wishes to put itself firmly on the path towards genuine democracy, it must not only safeguard the newfound power of the reformers in government; it must also work to strengthen and reorganize other government and civil society institutions that are responsible for providing a credible check on executive power. This isn’t, of course, the only variable. War can, at best, stall democratic reforms and, at worst, reverse them. The outbreak of hostilities can bolster age-old security rationales for cracking down on basic political rights. Most crucially, though, there is no unified blueprint for democratization, and methods that succeed in one country have failed in others.

This doesn’t make peaceful revolutions any less important or relevant; that said, the goal of fundamental change can easily lose its weight, particularly when confronted with the logic of power consolidation. Just ask Ukraine’s Maidan protesters: in the words of Paul Quinn-Judge, instead of producing novelty, they “sliced off the top layer of the regime but left most of the structure intact”.

Goryoun Koyounian is a Freelance journalist at Horizon Weekly

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