By Maxim Edwards
Agents from Armenia’s National Security Service raiding a property outside the town of Etchmiadzin on June 16 were astonished by what they discovered. Alongside rifles and a vintage car collection was canned food earmarked for Armenian soldiers serving on the front line in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Agents alleged that the property owner had been using these military rations and food donated to troops by schoolchildren to feed animals in his private zoo.
For war-weary Armenians, 30 percent of whom live beneath the poverty line, the scene was enraging. The owner of that property was Manvel Grigoryan, an influential former military commander and lawmaker from the Republican Party of Armenia, which dominated the country’s politics since 1999. Even the party, which governed Armenia until protests this April, had to admit it was disgusted. Grigoryan was charged with embezzlement and illegal possession of ammunition. Armenia’s Velvet Revolution saw thousands take to streets and squares across the country under the slogan “Take a step, reject Serzh.” They were protesting longtime ruler Serzh Sargsyan’s attempt to pivot from the presidency into the prime minister’s office, which was newly empowered thanks to a controversial referendum in 2015. After 11 days of protests, among the largest in the nation’s post-Soviet history, Sargsyan resigned. Nikol Pashinyan, a former journalist turned firebrand opposition politician who leads the Civil Contract party, was swept into power, becoming prime minister in May. He has been the face of Armenia’s revolution ever since. His slogan “dukhov” (with courage) appears on baseball caps and T-shirts, sold in downtown Yerevan as readily as tourist trinkets.
Pashinyan’s other watchword is “anti-corruption.” With the help of new ministers and advisors, many of them from civil society, the first 100 days of his rule saw high-profile arrests at a dizzying pace, including those of Sargsyan’s brother and bodyguard. Controversially, a criminal case has been brought against former president Robert Kocharyan for the events of March 1, 2008, when Armenian police violently attacked civilians protesting the rigged presidential election by which Sargsyan came to power. Eight protesters and two police officers were killed.
Pashinyan has done more than rock the boat; he’s vowed to redraw the entire social and political structure of corruption-ridden Armenia. The question now is whether the country’s ancien régime will leave without a fight.
It now seems the old guard is playing hardball. At the start of this month, more protests broke out in Yerevan after Armenia’s Republican Party-dominated legislature passed a bill that would hinder attempts to hold snap parliamentary elections. An early vote, which Pashinyan and his allies are widely expected to win by a landslide, could well worry Republican Party politicians, who stand to lose control over a key institution. For now, it seems like a compromise has been found. Last week, Pashinyan announced that he will resign in the coming days with a view to fresh parliamentary elections in December—current Armenian law permits parliament to dissolve only if its deputies fail twice to elect a new prime minister.
It’s quite a gambit; the risk remains that Republican Party deputies could instead elect another, less confrontational prime minister, forestalling elections. Some parliamentary groups such as Prosperous Armenia, which supported the controversial bill from earlier this month, have since reaffirmed their support for Pashinyan’s plan for early elections.
Gen. Grigoryan’s head was one of the first to roll after the revolution: He and his family had unquestioned authority over Etchmiadzin, where his son Karen was mayor. This small city, about 12 miles from Yerevan, is Armenia’s spiritual capital and the seat of the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church. During the revolution, local lawyer Diana Gasparyan was among those protesting in the city, where she stood with a banner reading “We support the anti-corruption agenda!” When Grigoryan’s son finally resigned in June, Pashinyan appointed Gasparyan interim mayor of the city—the first female mayor in Armenia’s modern history. “It was the most important day in my life,” she recalled.
“When I became mayor, we analyzed tenders given out by the local government,” Gasparyan said in her spacious new office in the town’s Soviet-era mayoral building. “We found that for years, only companies linked to Grigoryan’s family had won tenders: for construction work or even for serving food in kindergartens. That dynasty ruled in all spheres.”
The anti-corruption spotlight turned to Taron Margaryan, Yerevan’s mayor since 2011, who resigned in July after weeks of protests outside City Hall and the embarrassment of aerial photographs of his mansions appearing online. (Aren Mkrtchyan, the creator of a viral video detailing Margaryan’s alleged embezzlement, is Pashinyan’s advisor on corruption.) In mayoral elections held late last month, a candidate from Im Qayle (“My Step”), a loose alliance of pro-Pashinyan civic activists, won 81 percent of the vote, a bellwether for the mass support the revolutionary agenda still enjoys.
When it came to elections, Armenia’s journalists were used to covering ballot stuffing and tough guys dressed in black loitering around the polling stations—brazen forms of manipulation that were absent in the municipal vote. Some even called the election “boring.” But for Christine Barseghyan, the manager of anti-corruption projects at Hetq, Armenia’s leading investigative journalism outlet, it was anything but. “We’ve worked as investigative journalists for 17 years but often felt that our investigations ran up against walls,” Barseghyan said. “We had small victories, but systemic victories were rare—these days, we sense a real interest toward our work, and officials fighting corruption come to us not just for help, but for advice.” A recent poll of Armenian public opinion by the International Republican Institute reveals the extent of that mass support: 82 percent of respondents see the change in government positively, and 81 percent believe the handling of corruption has improved in the last six months.