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Hello, Revolution? Post-Election Protests in Armenia Challenge the Official Results of the Presidential Election

By Mikayel Zolyan.

Post-election protests are the rule rather than the exception, when it comes to elections in many post-Soviet countries. However, even for a place as turbulent as post-Soviet Caucasus, when a presidential candidate, who came second (according to official results), starts a hunger strike, this is something unusual. That is exactly what is happening in Armenia these days. Raffi Hovannisian, opposition leader, who received 36.7 % according to the official results of the February 18th elections, is continuing his hunger strike in Yerevan's central Liberty Square. While Hovannisian's result is already quite impressive compared to post-Soviet standards (incumbent Serzh Sargsyan received 58.6 %), opposition supporters claim that the election has been stolen and the real winner is Hovannisian. Hovannisian calls on Sargsyan, whom he refers to as 'former president', to leave the post and vows to fight for justice, whatever the price. Mass rallies in support of Hovannisian's claims started immediately on the day after the presidential elections on February 18 and continue to this day, albeit with less enthusiasm than in the beginning.

About a year ago it seemed that the South Caucasus had to come to a standstill. In Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili's party was expected to keep its leading role as the country was switching from a presidential to parliamentary republic. In Azerbaijan Ilham Aliev's rule seemed as firm as ever. And in Armenia Serzh Sargsyan's Republican Party, which convincingly won the parliamentary vote in May, seemed to be heading for a similar victory at the presidential polls. Today, however, things look different. New government has come to power in Georgia, while a new opposition movement is taking the streets in Azerbaijan. And in Armenia, a movement is emerging, which supporters of Hovannisian are calling 'the revolution of hello' or 'barevolution' , from the Armenian word barev – hello. (The name 'revolution of hellos' is a reference to Hovannisian's campaigning style, when he was walking around the streets of Armenian cities and villages, greeting strangers in the street.)

The post-election developments in Armenia have been both predictable and unexpected. Predictable, as almost every major presidential election in Armenia has lead to similar political crises (in 1996, 2003-2004, 2008): incumbents have been declared winners in disputed elections and mass protests had been quelled by the government with use of force. On the other hand, the post-election developments were unexpected this time, since the last election campaign seemed to be different. While in previous elections the incumbents faced serious competition, this election outcome seemed to be decided even before the campaign began. The two most powerful Armenian political forces after the ruling Republicans, the Armenian National Congress (ANC) and "Prosperous Armenia" Party (PAP) decided not to take part in the election. Thus, most probable contenders, Armenia's first president Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the leader of ANC, and one of Armenia's richest people, former wrestler Gagik Tsarukyan, the leader of PAP, decided not to run in the upcoming elections. As PAP decided not to take part in the elections, another possible contender, former Foreign minister Vartan Oskanian, a PAP member, also was out of the game. With these political forces and leaders out of the picture, many observers believed that the fate of elections was decided.

Moreover, these elections could become the first election, in which the official results would be recognized not only by the designated 'winners' and government controlled courts but also by other political forces, civil society and even opposition supporters. Most previous elections, albeit to various extent, have been marred by accusations of fraud, refusal of the losing sides to accept official results, equivocal assessments of international observers, and criticism of the local civil society. But most of all the legitimacy of the elections suffered because of mass anti-government protests that usually followed the elections and were ultimately suppressed by the government with use of force. In this respect the 2008 protests were probably the most dramatic: the police crackdowns on March 1 lead to clashes between protesters and pro-government forces, which left 10 people dead and dozens wounded. Dozens of opposition activists were arrested or went into hiding, newspapers were suspended, web-sites were blocked, curfew was declared in the capital and the military were stationed on the streets of Yerevan. Armenia was on the brink of civil conflict.

In the five years that followed, the Armenian government, opposition and society managed to step away from the abyss, to which they came so close in 2008. Eventually opposition activists were released, newspapers were allowed to re-open and other restrictions on civil liberties were lifted. The government became more tolerant towards pluralism in the media than before 2008. However, the disputed elections and subsequent tragedy of March 1 meant that Sargsyan's government did not enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of at least a large portion of Armenia's population. The presidential elections of 2013, it seemed, would help to solve this problem. With all major challengers out of the picture, it seemed, the incumbent would receive a comfortable amount of votes, which would bring political legitimacy to the incumbent government both from within and outside of the country. Some analysts even argued that in 2013 the real problem for the incumbent was not to receive too many votes: a high percentage over 80 or 90 %, usually typical for hard-line dictatorial regimes, would expose the authoritarian character of Armenia's political system and be disastrous for Armenia's external image and especially its European aspirations.

However, this kind of idyllic picture was shattered by unexpectedly high results of one of the remaining opposition candidates, Raffi Hovannisian. Hovannisian, successful US-born lawyer, moved to Armenia in 1991, where he became the first minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia, but soon resigned over disagreements with president Ter-Petrosyan. Since then he remained in Armenia, working mostly in a non-governmental sector, however some time later he moved into politics and created the opposition party Heritage, which became part of the National Assembly in 2007. In 2012 Hovannisian's Heritage party did not do that well in the parliamentary elections, and received just a little over 5 %, even in spite the electoral alliance it formed with another party 'Free Democrats'. Moreover, the alliance with the Free Democrats broke up, as the two parties started quarrelling over the few places they actually received in the new parliament. The modest showing of Hovannisian's party at the parliamentary elections was probably one of the reasons why few observers and analysts expected him to present a serious challenge to the incumbent in the presidential poll. Moreover, Hovannisian seemed exactly the kind of challenger that could be comfortable from the government's point of view: someone who could get enough votes to prove the democratic nature of the elections and yet not enough to deprive the incumbent of a victory. However, things did not work out quite that way.

Unexpectedly for most observers Hovannisian was able to consolidate the protest electorate. He ran a successful campaign, conducting a door to door campaign, visiting various regions of Armenia and different districts of the capital Yerevan. Greeting strangers in the street became Hovannisian's trademark, it even became a subject of jokes and Internet memes. Many observers ridiculed Hovannisian's campaign, calling to too American, unsuitable for post-Soviet context and therefore doomed to fail. However, many Armenian voters proved willing to accept Hovannisian's down-to earth style of communication, which strongly contrasted with the paternalist style of most local politicians, whether government or opposition. However, probably the biggest contributor to Hovannisian's success, ironically, was the government itself, which did its best to neutralize possible contenders in the course of political struggle in the run-up to the elections. As a result, disgruntled voters all over Armenia decided to express their protest against the current government by voting for Hovannisian.

It is hard to assess the veracity of the claims of both sides regarding the outcome of the elections. What is clear, however, is that, as it usually happens in countries with authoritarian or semi-authoritarian political systems, the votes, which the government received, are to a large extent a result of a wide use of administrative resources rather than genuine support. Therefore, a protest movement like the one lead by Hovannisian presents a deadly danger for the ruling government: as the examples of 'Colour revolutions' or 'the Arab spring' suggest, the government camp may disintegrate if the protest movement becomes strong enough.

The opposition, however, has its own issues. Hovannisian has so far not been able to create an alliance with the most influential opposition parties. It is also not so clear what effect would rallies have and how long will his supporters be able to sustain the momentum. As the experience of mass protests show, if the government forces exercise restraint and do not resort to violence or other inadequate steps, such protests tend to lose the momentum. The urge to keep the momentum was probably the main motivation behind the hunger strike declared by Hovannisian. Opposition can also use the upcoming municipal elections in the capital Yerevan to advance its demands. Given the importance of Yerevan as the centre of Armenia (about one third of Armenia's population live here) this election may be instrumental as the key to power in the country, especially since the support for the opposition has traditionally been strong in Yerevan. However the success of the opposition in the local election depends on its ability to unite, which at least at this point seems quite a complicated task. Also a lot depends on the success of the so called 'million's march', planned for April 9, the day of inauguration of Serzh Sargsyan.

Also, external support, which can be instrumental for success of similar movements, is missing. EU and US officials have already congratulated Serzh Sargsyan upon his election. As for Russia, given the recent rise of anti-Americanism and the paranoid fear of colour revolution among its political elite, it is extremely unlikely to welcome a pro-democracy protest movement, especially one lead by a US born diaspora Armenian. Even though in the past Putin's government has been displeased with certain moves of Sargsyan, particularly his reluctance to join a customs union with Russia, it will probably see Sargsyan, a former Communist apparatchik, as the lesser evil compared to Hovannisian.

The government, however, also faces a serious challenge. The elections and post-election protests showed that discontent among the population is so high that the ruling government cannot be sure of its future, even if it manages to outplay its main political rivals. Only systemic reforms, aimed at reducing the monopolization of the economy and fighting corruption in the state apparatus can help to raise the standards of living and thus reduce the discontent. However, decisive reforms are not something a government with questionable legitimacy can afford, which means that the government has found itself in a vicious circle. The elections proved a defeat for a small group of younger politicians from the Republican party, who had an image of reformers or technocrats, as they were considered to be behind the election campaign strategy in the parliamentary elections of 2012 and the current presidential campaign. The unofficial leader of this group, Sargsyan's son-in-law Mikayel Minasyan has been appointed Armenia's ambassador to Vatican, which many observers interpret as 'honorary exile', marking the defeat of the reformers' faction within the government. With its legitimacy challenged by opposition, Sargsyan's government will have to rely more and more on the so called oligarchs and the corrupt state bureaucracy.

In any case, however situation develops, it is clear that a new political landscape is emerging in Armenia. Both the government camp and the opposition will emerge of the current post-election period thoroughly transformed. Together with the events in the neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan, the 'barevolution' in Armenia is a sign that South Caucasus has a chance to shake off the image of a provincial Soviet backwater region with corrupt authoritarian regimes. In the late 1980s it was the South Caucasus where the processes that lead to the break-up of the Soviet system started. Who knows, may be the current developments in the South Caucasus are a sign that the times are changing in all of the post-Soviet region.

Mikayel Zolyan is historian and political analyst from Yerevan (Armenia). Currently, he teaches at several universities in Yerevan and works at Yerevan Press Club NGO in Yerevan.