To say that recent events in Armenia have caught observers – including yours truly - by surprise would an understatement. Its hybrid, semi-authoritarian regime, while highly unpopular, appeared relatively well-entrenched: all major challenges to its hold on power – usually following one of the country’s perennially flawed elections – had been successfully seen off in recent decades. The population had seemingly been cowed into apathy through a deft combination of repression (with the killing of opposition demonstrators in March 2008 as a particular low point), electoral bribes, administrative resources, ‘political technologies’, and the ever-present safety valve of emigration, to which the country had lost hundreds of thousands of its best and brightest – and possibly most rebellious – since independence.
The ongoing ‘velvet revolution’, as its protagonists call it, has put most of these certainties in doubt: a new generation of activists, most of whom are too young to remember the collapse of the Soviet Union, has taken over the streets of Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. The trigger was an attempted sleight of hand typical of the post-Soviet regimes that perennially hover between fully-fledged authoritarianism and pretend democracy: the ruling Republican Party had ensured a transition from a presidential to a parliamentary constitution in recent years, only to hand the now powerful Prime Ministership to the former President, Serzh Sargsyan, in a bid to allow him to maintain power beyond his two-term, ten-year limit, turning what appeared to be a welcome piece of democratic reform into a legislative hoax.