After the euphoria, challenges and cautious optimism in a new Armenia
What transpired in Armenia over the past month was astonishing, sometimes bewildering, often inspiring, and in all events historical. The people in Armenia and the Armenians in diaspora communities throughout the world were on tenterhooks as they followed the fast pace of developments in the country. They have a right to feel pride in a political movement that galvanised Armenian society in an unprecedented manner, lending a voice and a sense of empowerment to many who had long felt marginalised and alienated. They can breathe a sigh of relief as the leadership of the popular opposition movement takes office.
But the real work begins now. Aside from a number of general principles of policy such as clamping down on corruption and boosting the rule of law, opposition leader and now prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has declared a few specific points on his agenda: reforms of the electoral code and the law on political parties, followed by extraordinary elections within a reasonable timeframe. A new parliament for a new Armenia must be as legitimate as possible, based on free and fair elections, truly reflecting the popular will.
Unfortunately, past parliaments have been marred by electoral fraud. Pashinyan himself entered parliament for the second time last year based on voting perceived as improper. He does not question his own legitimacy, but he questions the majority held by the former-ruling Republican Party – although he was forced to appeal to the regulations in place in order to receive his mandate as prime minister from that very same party in that very same parliament. His reform agenda must also conform to those regulations, which means that he has to be able to negotiate with the Republican Party in the very near future. While grudgingly providing a sufficient number of votes to make Pashinyan prime minister – for the sake of stability in the country – the Republican Party has made it clear that they are not supporters of Pashinyan. He will face an uphill battle with them no matter what legislation he proposes.
The other two factions in parliament that have come around to supporting Pashinyan offer challenges of their own. The second-biggest bloc is the Tsarukyan Alliance, led by one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country. What will be the dynamic between relying on this grouping for substantial parliamentary votes and dealing with the role of so-called oligarchs in the struggle to cement the separation of business and politics in the country?
As for the remaining faction, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation or Dashnaktsoutiun, this political party was the junior coalition partner in power until the winds turned in Pashinyan’s favour. The Dashnaktsoutiun had promised one year ago to stand by the Republican Party and take full responsibility for all governmental decisions. How will they maintain credible support for Pashinyan in the weeks and months to come?
The political culture of Armenia has not been known for its consistency or openness. No one is expecting anything to change overnight on that front. The expectations for the longer term are not low, but they need to be tempered with some caution and care.
At the same time, the inspiration and joy of the preceding month have managed to sustain an optimism usually absent in the discourse of Armenia. The achievements so far have been remarkable. The near-absence of violence over the course of the movement hopefully marks a permanent shift in the way things are done in the country. Meanwhile, Pashinyan’s regular Facebook posts have displayed a different kind of political face to the public – one more transparent and approachable, sharing, for example, what the prime ministerial offices look like from the inside and the view from the cabin of the official helicopter.
If there is to be a more inclusive, more accountable political culture in Armenia, that would take the work of numerous segments of society across a generation, if not more. The name Nikol or Nicholas in fact means, roughly, “victory of the people” in Greek – something that seems too convenient in retrospect, while also signalling the scale of efforts yet to be made.
Nareg Seferian is an author, freelance journalist and independent researcher. His published writings are available at naregseferian.com.
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