From March 1 to March 1: Five years on, post-election protests look familiar, yet different

From March 1 to March 1: Five years on, post-election protests look familiar, yet different

NAZIK ARMENAKYAN
ArmeniaNow

March 1, 2008 will remain in the history of Armenia as a day when in pursuit of continued power the authorities fired at demonstrators, killing 10 people. This day is also imprinted in the memory of many people as a day of terror and intimidation. One would think that people would be afraid to take to the street again to defend their right to form government, but the current post-election reality shows they aren’t.

While supporters of various opposition factions as well as numerous ordinary citizens converged in the area near the statue of Myasnikyan on Friday to commemorate the victims of the bloody post-election developments of 2008, questions linger as to whether the current opposition and government leaders are wise enough to avoid similar deadly clashes during the ongoing standoff.

Still, February 2013 was different from February 2008 in more ways than one, and in particular, by the fact that people went out to protest what they viewed as a fraudulent vote not only in capital Yerevan, but also in provincial towns and even villages. And this is probably the main difference between the post-election protests now and five years ago. In 2008, the non-stop protests were focused mainly on Liberty Square in Yerevan and it was enough for the authorities to send troops there and arrest the organizers to quell the protest.

In 2013, despite the presence of the opposition challenger, Raffi Hovannisian, who claims victory in the February 18 vote, there are neither clear organizers nor clear pockets of protests in the country as most parts of Armenia have been engulfed in a rising tide of discontent, with rallies and student actions and a general idea of civil disobedience pretty much in the air – something that cannot be concentrated in one place per se and with which it is difficult to deal using administrative and strong-arm methods.

The protest movements of 2008 and 2013 also differ in terms of their platforms. By 2008, i.e. before the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression hit the global economy, Armenia had been making headway in socio-economic terms even if that progress was based solely on a so-called ‘construction bubble’. The living standards of many people in Armenia then were steadily improving. Many had something to lose, and, therefore, a considerable part of the population did not support the protests, considering that a change of government would inevitably lead to reduced welfare.

But the new government that came arguably proved unable to handle the economy in condition of a global storm, which has resulted in a considerable part of the population seeing their living standards falling. With that said, the current protest movement would have been even stronger had an estimated 255,000 people not left the country during the past five years in search of livelihood and better justice abroad.

Indeed, much has changed in the country since 2008. While a decline has been registered in terms of social and economic conditions, then one can still talk about progress in terms of freedom of speech and expression. The development of online social networking, electronic media, even some liberalization of television channels have created a situation in which many people are no longer afraid to speak out. At the same time, Western influence has also increased in Armenia as Yerevan signed a number of binding agreements with the European Union, in particular, committing itself to respect democracy. And now everyone understands that the use of even the slightest force will boomerang against the authorities that already are in a vulnerable situation.

The approach chosen by Hovannisian, the opposition leader who claims victory in last week’s presidential election, also excludes violence. He has declared the start of a “Barevolution”, or a revolution of greetings, in Armenia, that the opposition challenger believes will result in a peaceful “transfer of power” from President Serzh Sargsyan “to the people”. The incumbent, who officially polled nearly 59 percent of the vote as opposed to Hovannisian’s election tally of close to 37 percent, has rejected these claims and demands, with his aides suggesting that Hovannisian should concede defeat and continue his political struggle as an opposition leader to try to win presidency in five years’ time.

Hovannisian, meanwhile, is himself preparing for a long-term struggle. He is not going to storm 26 Baghramyan Street, the official seat of the Armenian president, rather he proposes reforms, and these non-violent methods deprive the government of the possibility of using force. In 2008, the matter concerned the change of persons with the main slogans being “Down with Kocharyan and Sargsyan” (in reference to the then head of state and president-elect). Moreover, the factor of “Karabakh natives being in power in Armenia” was being actively played out back then, fueling people’s antagonism in what would eventually prove to be a bloody standoff.

This time, despite some isolated statements of supporters of the movement (that quickly get denounced by the leaders) no clear distinctions are being made between the government and the opposition based on where there leaders hail from. Moreover, a Karabakh oppositionist spoke at the opposition rally in Yerevan on Thursday to advocate change both in Yerevan and Stepanakert.

The protest movement in 2008, of course, has become a good platform and a lesson for the movement in 2013. The Armenian National Congress, the force that today unites most of those who spearheaded the protests five years ago, has not officially joined Hovannisian’s movement yet, even though its leader Levon Ter-Petrosyan publicly declared Hovannisian to be an elected and legitimate president of Armenia. But today, on March 1, members of the Congress have joined supporters of Hovannisian in commemorating the victims of the March 1, 2008 bloodbath hoping that the nation will never see such a tragic event again.

The rally that Hovannisian plans to hold in Yerevan on Saturday is expected to provide some answers to where the current post-election standoff will go after the March 1 watershed.