Lene Vetteland in Republic Square in Yerevan during rally on April 25, 2018. Photo by Grigory Shvedov for the Caucasian Knot.

25 April 2018, 11:12

Lene Wetteland: Pashinyan is Armenian Navalny, who succeeded

Lene Wetteland, an adviser of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, who has been working in Armenia since March 2008, told in her interview to the "Caucasian Knot" why Armenian citizens managed to achieve Serzh Sargsyan's resignation; how Nikol Pashinyan's position is estimated now; and what should be expected from the "Republicans".

"Caucasian Knot" (CK): Lene, do you continue monitoring the situation in Armenia? What were the main changes in civil engagement in the country since your last report?

Lene Wetteland (LW): Observers' focus will be on the fate of activists, on the criminal cases initiated or planned against them. We will closely monitor the actions of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), how it will behave and what its future will be."

I was in Armenia in 2008, 2015 and 2016. The 2018 protests differ from the previous ones in that young people are widely involved in the present protest actions. Of course, the process began back with the 'Yerevan Electric', when people protested against the rise in electricity tariffs; however, current protests are notable for more activeness and creativity.

Among my fellow observers, there were also those who took part in the marches, helped activists, and advised them how to act in this or that situation. People knew that they could turn to us for help.

After Nikol Pashinyan's detention, it was expected that the movement would gain wider scale. Not only civil activists have shown themselves, but people in general have become more active as an organized civil society.

Ms Wetteland's report on the restriction of civil activism in Armenia was published by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in 2014 and contains the outcomes of the monitoring of the events in the country, starting with the riots during the presidential elections in 2008, which resulted in the death of ten people, and up to the demonstrations against Armenia's accession to the Customs Union (later the Eurasian Economic Union). The report concluded that the reaction of the Armenian authorities to the civil society's participation in the life of the country contributed to the growing restrictions of civil activism.

CK: What most notable manifestations of civil activism can you note for the period since 2014 and up to the April protests that resulted in Prime Minister's resignation?

LW: In the Armenian society, it has always been customary to influence the youth's decisions to go out into the streets. But in recent years, and especially now, young people themselves have understood the importance of their participation in street actions. A great role in young people's thinking belongs to social networks, in particular, the Facebook. They see that real life is very different from what the TV shows them. They see the flow of people emigrating from the country; they faces employment, problems in the army, etc.

There were many protests in Armenia, but they lacked something, there was no hope for success. Only now, when Nikol Pashinyan, as the leader of the protest movement, managed to consolidate people around himself, all the factors of success became clearly visible. It can be compared with Alexei Navalny in Russia, who is not universally supported, but who managed to unite masses around his ideas.

CK: The transition from the presidential to the parliamentary republic was rather calm. Why? Was the mass protest campaign that led to Sargsyan's resignation unexpected for you?

LW: The smooth transition from the presidential republic to the parliamentary one had to do with two factors. On the one hand, at the past parliamentary elections many didn't clearly understand the process they were involved in, despite the discussions held. And on the other hand, people had some disappointment; they were sure that their protests against those amendments would be fruitless. When it became clear that the result of those constitutional amendments was the continuation of Serzh Sargsyan's power as Prime Minister, then people realized what had happened and began protesting.

At first, I was afraid that either the protests would fade out themselves, or the authorities would use force and disperse them before April 24. I'm glad I was wrong. After noon on April 23, I was already sure that everything would be fine.

But Sargsyan's departure is not the end. The Republican Party has gone nowhere; and we must continue watching it.

CK: Can Serzh Sargsyan's decision to resign be regarded as a real opposition's victory, or is it a tactical move, where Sargsyan is just a sacrifice (like in chess)? Do you think that this will be followed by a complete change of power, or have ruling circles just sacrificed Sargsyan in order to calm the unrests and not to aggravate the situation?

LW: Many people say that Sargsyan, allegedly, didn't want to stay in power; and that was the desire of the elite that wanted to preserve the status quo. I talked a lot with people and came to the conclusion that the protests and the hatred were not against the RPA, but specifically against Serzh Sargsyan. It's difficult to predict what will happen next. Republicans are now afraid for their status after the next elections. It's unknown what may be the target of further protests, after Sargsyan's resignation has been achieved, despite the fact that the RPA has huge administrative resources in all spheres.

The early parliamentary elections will surely be interesting, since, on the one hand, we have the RPA with its administrative resources, and, on the other hand, the 'Tsarukyan' bloc, which has money. At the moment, Nikol Pashinyan already has some resources; however, it's difficult to predict the situation after negotiations.

CK: The previous mass demonstrations in summer of 2016 had a violent nature, when the "Sasna Tsrer" detachment captured a police building, which was followed by opposition protests, mass clashes and initiation of a number of criminal cases. How do you assess the consequences of those actions – did such violent methods of struggle help the opposition, increased the ranks thereof, or, on the contrary, did they throw the opposition back?

LW: In fact, the actions of 'Sasna Tsrer' split both the opposition and the civil society. Some people were in solidarity with the detachment, believing that elections and peaceful protests were useless for achieving changes in the country; and, therefore, the guys took up arms. They gathered people, but, most likely, not in support of 'Sasna Tsrer', but against the authorities and the police. Others were against the use of force and armed methods of struggle, since they are very dangerous for achieving the goal.

CK: During the April protests, in most cases, policemen and activists managed to avoid force confrontation. At the same time, there were mass detentions, reports about provocateurs; and attacks of unidentified masked persons on protesters were recorded. If the provocateurs were organized by the authorities, like in 2008, why did they stop, rather than intensify provocations in the form of pogroms?

LW: Today, people were better prepared; they followed Pashinyan's appeal not to start confrontations. Pashinyan has kept stating that those who use violence and launch confrontations are not members of his movement. People agreed with him and revealed provocateurs themselves. There were, of course, some provocations, but not at that scale; and, perhaps, the authorities understood themselves that it wasn't worth using provocateurs. For example, in Bagramyan Avenue, when activists were face-to-face with the police cordon, the latter tried to behave politely, perhaps because of the attention of the international community. I was afraid that the authorities could use their practice with provocateurs, so that to provoke activists to make the first step. Or, for example, in Republic Square, on April 22, some activists urged policemen to join them, saying different things to them. But other protesters called not to argue with policemen, since they are also part of the same society; and people listened to such arguments. After what happened in Bagramyan Avenue, there were fewer provocative situations.

CK: In case of parliamentary elections, which parties will take part in them? What is your forecast about the outcomes; who will take the majority in the parliament?

LW: I think the same parties that are currently there will take part in the upcoming parliamentary elections: the RPA, the "Elk" and the "Tsarukyan" blocs, the ARF "Dashnaktsutyun" and the "Heritage" Party."

Nikol Pashinyan wants the elections to be held in the near future in order to take advantage of the atmosphere that is now in the country. He is now a hero, but in case of a long election campaign, when complex problems will be discussed, there is a chance for the Republican Party to use its administrative resources. Given this scenario, the RPA and the 'Tsarukyan' may succeed at elections. But I hope that it will be a free campaign, and people will elect those whom they really want to see as their MPs. It will be interesting to observe the process.

CK: Does Nikol Pashinyan claim to be the country's Prime Minister, or will the opposition have another candidate, if they win the parliamentary elections?

LW: Nobody has ever had the status Pashinyan has now. Probably, there will be some internal discussion among those parties, which have supported his movement. In any case, Pashinyan's role is important, regardless of whether he becomes Prime Minister or not. He's promised a lot; many associate hopes with him; and now if people would like him to become Prime Minister, then, he should do it. If not, another candidate can be nominated, but he should stand side by side. I hope this issue will be settled by open discussions.

CK: What changes in the Electoral Code can the opposition make before the early parliamentary elections to make them transparent?

LW: I don't think that now it's reasonable to hastily make any changes. The Electoral Code has problematic provisions; however, the major problem is not the Code, but the use of administrative resources. If they manage to do without them, follow the law and campaign openly, then, they may have fair elections. Reforms can be undertaken later, with involvement of the whole civil society. This is not an easy process; it takes quite some time. And now, the elections are the priority.

CK: Will there be a complete change of power? If so, does the opposition have their own people enough to replace Republicans?

LW: The problem is that the Republicans have long been in the top positions in the country. Many capable oppositionists have just left the country. Republicans are much more experienced, because they covered all the spheres, preventing activists of other parties and blocs from getting through and advancing. On the other hand, some of those who had planned to emigrate for this reason can now change their mind and help building the Armenia they have dreamed about.

I think that the RPA will want to preserve what it has; they have their own methods for this. But if people really want changes, they won't vote for the RPA. People now differ from those before the April 2018 protests.

Interviewed by Armine Martirosyan, "Caucasian Knot" correspondent.

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