A landscape exuding hopelessness and catastrophe surrounds the city of Vanadzor in Armenia. As we neared the end of the three-hour drive from Tbilisi last week, my companions and I passed orchards reduced to stubble, farms that could barely be called subsistence, inhabited homes whose roofs had long since caved in, and—bleakest of all—a sprawling wasteland of concrete rubble from the earthquake that devastated this region in 1988. Vanadzor itself, Armenia’s third-largest city, reminded me of Russian provincial cities in the 1990s: depressing, impoverished, grey.
Yerevan, the capital and home to a third of the country’s three million people, shows a façade of modern prosperity. The buildings are grand, gaudy, and intact, though many of the high-end apartments stand empty. But I was told that until a few weeks ago, a common hopelessness seemed to hang over both Yerevan and Vanadzor.
The reasons for the hopelessness were clear. President Serzh Sargsyan presides over a corrupt and sometimes thuggish government. A small number of oligarchs rule the economy and control its markets. Violent repression of protests following Sargsyan’s election in 2008, combined with the devastating impact of the global financial crisis on Armenia, the sporadic war with Azerbaijan, and the failed border talks with Turkey, have steadily deepened cynicism, poverty, and despair, while propelling emigration.
As last month’s presidential elections approached, virtually all observers expected the incumbent Sargsyan to return to power with an overwhelming majority, especially since the main opposition party announced it would not even field a candidate. “We saw the same pattern as in previous elections: the same bribes, the same misuse of the government apparatus,” an election monitor said about the weeks before the election. One relatively obscure former minister, Raffi Hovannisian, chose to challenge the president. The result seemed easily predictable. Estimates of the president’s likely majority at the polls reached as high as 90 percent. “I expected this to be the most boring election of the four I have observed,” the monitor recalls.
Instead, everything changed. The February 18 elections sent shockwaves through the country as unexpected as those of the earthquake a generation earlier… but these were waves of hope. Thousands of the ballots cast were spoiled or blank. With the spoiled ballots put aside in the official tally, Hovannisian won 37 percent of the vote. Even more remarkably, the official tally acknowledged that the president lost in Vanadzor as well as in Gyrmri, the second largest city. People had happily accepted the bribes, but voted against Sargsyan anyway. The president was quickly declared the winner and his election acknowledged by both Putin and Obama. But many Armenians are convinced he was defeated.
The political energy released since then is palpable. Large protests have taken place across the country, and for the first time they have attracted thousands of young people unaffiliated with any political party. Hovannisian, having lost an appeal to the Constitutional Court alleging election fraud, ended a hunger strike on Easter Sunday, but the protests have become a weekly event in Yerevan. Student activism has surged. A grassroots women’s movement seems to be supplying most of the new, young leadership in the protests. Longtime human rights activists are comparing the mood to the days in which the Soviet state lost its legitimacy.
Inauguration Day for the president is April 9. Sargsyan is planning a modest, private ceremony. On the same day, a shadow inauguration is planned in a public square for Hovannisian, whom some call the “truly elected president.” How many people will attend the shadow inaugural? I asked one human rights veteran. “I signed a letter pledging to be in the square that day, and maybe others will come too,” he replied. “Maybe we will have the largest inauguration in history.”
The Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation of Armenia is equally energized. Larisa Minasyan, the veteran executive director, told me that she has never seen the staff so excited. The head of the women’s program exudes enthusiasm in every conversation; others creatively debate how to connect their policy agendas for a more open society to the new energy of the social movements filling the streets.
At lunch with six of the most respected human rights leaders in the country last week, I asked those at the table to consider three possible scenarios. In the first, the enthusiasm of the past few weeks runs its course, the president remains in power, and, in a few months, the status quo reestablishes itself. In the second, the energy of these weeks grows stronger and profound change comes to the Armenian state and society. In the third, the protests grow but are met with a state of emergency and violently repressed. Which is most likely? The table was unanimous in its choice of the second scenario: real transformation. No one thought the first was even a possibility, but they disagreed about the probability of a crackdown.
Far from Armenia, all of this may seem the mild delusions of optimistic activists. Surely the first scenario, a return to the status quo, is the most likely, at least judging by the world’s press. The parliamentary representative from Vanadzor tells me the same thing: The election was a big surprise, but the post-election situation has already returned to the status quo. When I put this question to a lawyer working in Vanadzor, she shook her head, and tried to help me understand. “It wasn’t just election day,” she explained. “In our office in Vanadzor there is a box, and every day people come to the office to deposit letters in it. The letters are to President Sargsyan, and they all say the same thing: ‘I don’t believe you won the election. Please have the political courage to resign.’ We will deliver the letters one day soon, and who knows? Everything has changed. There is hope.”