Mass protests lead to peaceful transition of power


During the recent mass protests (described below), Armenian civil society actively monitored and reported on the widespread protest actions. Civic groups and human rights defenders provided legal support to those who were illegally and arbitrarily detained by police officers, while others sought to ensure that the demonstrations remained peaceful.

In the midst of the protests, on 21st April, 37 Armenian NGOs appealed to the international community and asked for support in what was a "clear confrontation between the existing autocratic corrupt regime and the hope for democracy". Amnesty International, the European Union and others did respond with statements in support of the right to peaceful assembly and called on the government to protect this fundamental freedom. Attention from around the world was indeed drawn to Armenia as hundreds of thousands, especially young people, took to the streets in peaceful mobilisations - dubbed the 'Velvet Revolution' - the events of which are described in more detail below. 

Peaceful Assembly

An overview of Armenia's 'Velvet Revolution'

In April, Armenia experienced some of its largest protests since becoming independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The protests were nationwide, even taking place in cities where Russian military bases are located (for example, Gyumri). The protests erupted in response to the public's frustration with Armenia's sociopolitical trajectory and the high level of corruption at all levels of power. Other grievances included constitutional reform and a change in the electoral system, a deteriorating socio-economic situation, and  former Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan's attempts to hold onto power. Leaders of the Armenian protest movement – Armen Grigoryan, an expert with Transparency International Armenia, and Nikol Pashinyan, a former journalist, deputy and leader of an opposition parliamentary party – were on the streets from the start. The first smaller-scale protest took place in March, right after the presidential elections, but the movement exploded in April 2018, as the National Assembly deliberated over the post of Prime Minister and Sargsyan announced his Republican Party candidacy for Prime Minister.

Protest leaders espoused non-violence and civil disobedience, while police arbitrarily detained protesters. When the National Assembly announced Sargsyan's election as PM, thousands more flooded the streets attempting to bring the capital, in particular, to a standstill so that the authorities would have to pay attention, face protesters and listen to their demands. Protest leaders wanted the focus of the actions to remain on domestic issues and avoid any speculation on foreign policy or geopolitics. This movement was therefore focussed solely on the deliberate monopolisation of power and the need for transparent and fair electoral processes and pluralism in politics. 

On 22nd April, after negotiations between Sargsyan and Pashinyan failed, three political opposition leaders, including Pashinyan, were arrested along with about 200 protesters. Following the arrest of the opposition leaders, the protests took a turn as soldiers from different military units and bases joined the protest. This move by his own military prompted Sargsyan to resign from his new position. During a second round of voting, the National Assembly elected opposition and protest leader Nikol Pashinyan as Prime Minister on 8th May. The new PM promptly dismissed Vladimir Gasparyan as Armenia's Chief of Police and Georgy Kutoyan from National Security Service due to the way they had handled the peaceful demonstrations. Armenian President Armen Sarkissian signed the decrees to dismiss both of them from their positions. 


Concern over decline in media freedom

In March 2018, Armenian lawmakers voted on legal initiatives impacting freedom of expression. As Reporters Without Borders (RSF) noted, on 23rd March, Parliament voted in support of a bill prohibiting government ministers from giving interviews without the PM's permission. In addition, reporters would not be allowed to attend government meetings, including cabinet meetings, which are to be held behind closed doors. The law was adopted without a transparent and open public debate. RSF has expressed concern that this law could curtail media freedom and hinder public access to information.  

Monitoring press freedom during protests

Several media-oriented NGOs from Armenia monitored the state of media freedom during the April protests. The NGOs released a public statement citing cases of abuses and violence used against journalists covering the actions. From 20th - 22nd April, several cases of abuse were documented: journalists were attacked; their cameras were destroyed; and others were taken to police stations.