MOSCOW—Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan was in many respects the very model of a post-Soviet authoritarian. Armenians criticized him for abusing his authority, ordering violent crackdowns on his opposition, and manipulating, or disregarding entirely, objective truths. In recent years, the walls in Armenia’s ancient capital of Yerevan were covered in layers of graffiti and portraits of rebels. By locking up dozens of his critics in jail, Sargsyan turned opposition leaders into national heroes and even sex symbols. He clung to his presidential chair for a decade, missing the moment when it was still possible to step down with some modicum of grace, forgetting that it was the people who delegated power to him, and it was not his to keep forever.
So, what happened to Sargsyan is now an important example for all post-Soviet countries. When the day came and all of Armenia stood up against him, there was nowhere he could turn. Neither his ploy to make himself prime minister (as Vladimir Putin once did) nor ordering mass arrests, nor threatening to ruin the lives of his critics.
Even Moscow, which had always backed Sargsyan’s rule and his lies in the past, remained quiet and neutral as thousands of students, pensioners, priests and finally soldiers chanted for 11 days nonstop: “Reject Serzh!” the slogan originally invented by a charismatic opposition leader and member of parliament, Nikol Pashinian. On Monday, Sargsyan resigned from his post to overwhelming joy of Armenians all over the world.
Random pedestrians kissed, hugged, and danced in the streets to celebrate the end of his rule. “When I joined the first street protest 11 days ago I still could not believe that we would succeed and oust Sargsyan; then I took part in the rally on Saturday and saw that people were rock solid in unity on our main Republic Square, they came to join the Velvet Revolution,” 17-year-old Nane Daniyelyan told The Daily Beast over the phone. “I knew Sargsyan was the wrong leader when I saw homeless people all over my country, when I compared bad roads in Armenia to the great roads in the neighboring country of Georgia.”
Armenian school and university students organized their rallies on Facebook, gathered in groups of hundreds all over the country, and posted videos and photos of their friends being arrested—there are still more than 250 protesters in Armenian jails.
In his last attempt to keep power, Sargsyan accused the opposition of being pro-Western and anti-Russian but people rejected that argument as just one more lie.
“Please understand, this is very important, we wanted to see the change of power most of all, we had a very simple agenda: We rejected Sargsyan, nobody thought of Moscow, our protest was against politics in Armenia, against Sargsyan,” Armenian political analyst Artur Paronyan told The Daily Beast. “Cautious not to miscalculate, like they did in Ukraine, the Kremlin did not get involved, did not disrupt the course of our revolutionary process.”
Normally critical of anti-government protests, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Maria Zakharova complimented the Armenian people’s unity in a difficult situation: “Armenia, Russia is always with you!” Zakharova wrote on Facebook.
But not everybody in Moscow was happy to see the results of this new “Velvet Revolution,” which echoes the liberalization movement in post-Soviet states that the Kremlin has criticized vehemently in the past, dating back to the original “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004 and 2005.
“All ‘colored’ revolutions are staged by American structures: In Ukraine it was CIA and in Armenia it is George Soros—he paid for this state coup, a major violation of democracy,” Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst based in Moscow told The Daily Beast. (The Open Society Foundations of billionaire philanthropist Soros are favorite targets of authoritarian opprobrium in many countries, including Hungary.) “American Facebook is an instrument—today it was used in Armenia, tomorrow it might be used in Belarus, Kazakhstan and then in Russia,” Markov said, noting that official Moscow was shocked by Armenian revolution. “This is a wild news but our state channels air very short and thin reportages from Yerevan, as they simply don’t know how to react,” Markov admitted. But he added, “personally never liked Sargsyan and his usurpation of power. He humiliated and insulted Armenian people.”
Armenians often say: “Sargsyan has blood on his hands.” The first reference is always to the violent clashes between protesters and police in March 2008, when 10 people were killed shortly after Sargsyan’s first election. In August of 2016, during another opposition protest, police threw grenades at a demonstration full of children, wounding and hospitalizing more than 60 people. The Daily Beast interviewed a teenager who had lost his eye in the violent crackdown.
Nearly every spring, the Armenian opposition led people to the streets demanding justice, blaming Sargsyan and his allies for corruption, but authorities remained deaf to the public calls for change.
During the last few days of Sargsyan’s power his few remaining allies continued to perpetrate violence against peaceful demonstrators. An independent observer, Sara Khojoyan, recalled videos of a local oligarch, Samvel Aleksanyan, a Sargsyan supporter, kicking protesters.
A few hours after Sargsyan stepped down, Khojoyan still struggled to believe that it was true. “Sargsyan has shown himself as someone who is able to step down,” she said, “an example for other leaders to step down before it’s too late.”
Sargsyan lost his personal power but his party, the Republican Party of Armenia is still the most powerful in the parliament. “So we should see the next step now: The opposition is calling for new parliamentary elections,” Khojoyan pointed out.
The revolution continues.