And so, it is taking off. Or is it? Since last Monday’s elections, and following his surprisingly strong showing at the presidential polls, opposition candidate Raffi Hovhanissian has been holding a series of rallies that have, over time, morphed into something called the ‘Barevolution’, an amalgam between ‘barev’ - Armenian for ‘hello’ - and Revolution. What are this movement’s chances of success? Will the ‘barevolution’ really be able to topple Armenia’s current political system, based as it is on deeply entrenched patterns of patronage and clientelism, with a regular dose of authoritarianism on the side? Unfortunately, in the short term, the odds are stacked massively against this movement sweeping away Armenia’s oligarchic elite; over the longer term, however, what is happening on streets and town squares throughout the country might form the basis of something entirely new in Armenian political culture.
At the risk of sounding defeatist: the impediments to the barevolution’s success are, to put it mildly, formidable. ‘Raffi’, as he is known to his supporters, will have to mobilise a population that, since the violent suppression of anti-government demonstrations in 2008, has displayed extreme levels of political apathy and alienation. So far, attendance at the ‘barevolution’ rallies has been haphazard at best, with the largest attracting crowds of around 10,000 people, well below what most would consider the ‘critical mass’ required to affect fundamental change.
This issue is especially pressing as, over the past week, it has become apparent that Hovanissian will employ peaceful, ‘constitutional’ methods on the road to fundamental change; but one cannot use Gandhi-like methods with the active support of only a tiny proportion of the population. Even if Hovanissian continues his tour around the country on a daily basis into next year, unless the regime does something stupidly provocative, he will, in all likelihood, not be able to keep up the momentum emerging from citizens’ indignation at yet another fraudulent election. And this is not even considering the fact that the regime would probably grow less tolerant of such civic activism if and when it made a real impact on its chances of survival.
This is compounded by the absence of a tangible set of demands on the part of the barevolutionaries. What do they want? Is it the immediate recognition of Hovanissian as president-elect? An election rerun? New parliamentary elections? Or just the prosecution and punishment of those engaged in election fraud? One has to guess – in this case from various speeches and the demands made by Hovanissian during his meeting with Sargsyan – as to what is on the table here. The ‘barevolution’ has not yet emerged with a clear manifesto behind which people would be able to mobilise, a concrete set of goals against which success (or failure) could be measured. The longer these questions are left unanswered, the higher the probability of this movement petering out.
Cobbling together any alliance between such natural ideological adversaries would be a thankless task. In fact, Armenia is not only plagued by incompetent government; it is also saddled with a largely ineffective opposition, illustrated by the fact that several of its largest parties failed to either field or endorse any candidates during these elections, in a major abrogation of responsibility. Based either on over-towering personalities or fossilised ideologies, they have been utterly ineffectual in uniting to, at the very least, protect and safeguard Armenians basic civic and political rights over the past few decades (quite apart from having within them a few personalities who themselves rigged an election or two when they were in power).
And this leads me to my final point, and the prospects for future success: if Armenia is to change fundamentally, its population will have to be abandon established political forces – first of all inside the government, but in the opposition too – that have failed to represent their interests with sufficient political maturity and statesmanship. This will require thinking outside the box, something most members of the established political class seem to be incapable of doing. The core elements of such an alternative approach can already be found in today’s Armenia. Firstly, in Hovanissian’s refreshing civility, his emphasis on peaceful but determined struggle, which in itself is an invaluable contribution to the country's political culture. Secondly, in the various single-issue civil society groups that have sprung up over the past few years, groups that could form the backbone of a broader alternative movement but that have, so far, operated mostly on the sidelines of the political process. This is where Armenia’s future lies, not in the endless regurgitations of the various parties that have populated the political landscape since 1988; its hope emerges from this possible combination of peaceful struggle, with the civic consciousness of those engaged in civil society today.
Such a movement for change would set an agenda, and then invite the established parties to accept or reject, to follow where it leads, or otherwise fall into irrelevance. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In neighbouring Georgia, the 2003 Rose Revolution brought about radical generational change virtually from nought, doing away with the once-powerful political dinosaurs of the old order in one fell sweep. In Armenia, the process of political transformation would culminate in a bottom-up renegotiation of the now-flawed constitutional compact that was foisted upon Armenians during the 1990s, and distorted in subsequent years through constitutional coups, rigged elections, the violent repression of opposition demonstrations, a distorted media landscape, and the cartelisation of an already small economic pie. A fresh start is what is needed in Yerevan, not some tinkering at the edges by the same old faces people have been seeing over the past twenty years.