A Year after the Velvet Revolution

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The first anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Armenia has triggered a flood of media commentaries and evaluations of the achievements of that salutary event. Although it is too early to expect any major changes in the lives of ordinary citizens, anticipation and hopes are very high and the public mood continues to be positive.

One thing which people have realized is that the revolution has to run its course and yield its rewards. There is no alternative course and no room for hesitation.

Under the previous corrupt regime, people were so depressed that they were loath to perform and move the country toward prosperity. Today, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s rating is still high, people breathe easier and therefore are more amenable to making further sacrifices to take the movement closer to achieving its goals.

There is an intangible air of confidence which may yield tangible results. Except for the first year of independence, popular support for the government has never been as strong as it is today. That is one valuable asset which will help the government to shoulder all the challenges that may come its way.

Armenia is not located on an island on which it can recover and develop its economy unhampered.

In assessing the achievements of the revolution, one has to take into account the restrictive parameters within which the new government has to operate.

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To begin with, there are two potential wars looming on its borders; at any given moment, the trigger-happy US National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo might launch Tomahawk missiles from the warships cruising the Persian Gulf to strategic targets in Iran, which will certainly create terrible fallout over neighboring Armenia. Or else, the patience of a desperate leader in Baku may run out, driving him to commit an act of aggression similar to the one of April 2016. All these are real possibilities that may impact the functioning of the new government in Yerevan. These are external forces that need to be taken into account.

There are also challenges on the domestic front. The Republican Party is severely wounded, but not out of the picture. It has regrouped its forces for a vengeful comeback. Former President Robert Kocharyan, although incarcerated and currently on trial, has vowed to lead a powerful opposition. Kocharyan and the survivors of the former regime are in a frenzy of buying news outlets and inundating social media, realizing belatedly that it was the well-coordinated media blitz that catapulted Pashinyan’s movement to power. Kocharyan himself and Serzh Sargsyan’s son-in-law, Mikael Minasyan, are on their way to become media moguls.

In the meantime, Pashinyan himself and the members of his young team are learning fast from their mistakes to keep the government honest and serve the needs of its citizens. Pashinyan has already realized that hurling caustic slogans at public rallies and running the machinery of a government are two different ball games.

Armenia’s cabinet is expecting 5-percent annual economic growth and in order to reach that it has undertaken some reforms, including changing state regulations and installing anti-corruption measures. Also, they are making plans for expanded regular tax collection, which in the past left the oligarchs untouched and laid the burden of the collection on the ordinary citizens.

Prime Minister Pashinyan held a seven-hour press conference at the State Gallery of Art to present the achievements of his administration. He presented 100 areas where progress had been recorded, boasting that tax collection would be boosted by a whopping 62 billion drams ($129 million). Another area he spoke about was that he and his family have decided to wear only clothing made in Armenia.

Recently, a US-Armenia strategic dialogue session took place in Yerevan. The US will support Armenia to carry out reforms in the judicial and legal arenas and develop the energy, IT and environmental sectors. A pledge of $16 million is already on its way for economic growth and effective governance. In addition, the US Agency for International Development will provide $6 million for democratic reforms. Given the largesse of the US government toward third-world countries, the above amounts seem trivial, particularly in view of Armenia’s immense needs. But, the reason behind this caution seems to be the criticism that the Pashinyan administration is tilting towards the West at the expense of Armenia’s traditional relations with Russia and its regional allies.

During the press conference, the prime minister justified the grants received from  Western agencies to the tune of $200,000 to achieve the revolution. This confession has already met some criticism that his administration is beholden to those agencies.

To run a new government against daunting odds is challenging enough. But the government has also to face some critics, most of them acrimonious, but some offering constructive advice. One such critic seems to be David Arakelian, who believes that the prime minister has thus far failed to surround himself with more capable cadres. Indeed, we have seen the results of that failure in the scandal of conductor Constantine Orbelian, the artistic director of the Armenian National Opera.

The other criticism that goes beyond the above writer is the issue of the role of prime minister. Pashinyan’s predecessor, Serzh Sargsyan, had altered the constitution to allow greater powers for the office of the prime minister. Pashinyan was one of the critics of that change. The Velvet Revolution arrived, denying Sargsyan from wielding that power, which Pashinyan himself inherited. During his press conference, when journalists asked whether he had any intention of trimming some elements of that power, Pashinyan’s answer was that the revolution had already taken care of that issue.

As Armenia steps into the second anniversary of the revolution, many challenges still remain. But Pashinyan’s robust administration has already adapted to calibrate its course in uncharted waters and move Armenia cautiously but surely towards a more promising future.