Last night was one of the most memorable I have ever experienced.
For 11 days, the people of Armenia protested against their hugely unpopular Prime Minister and former President, Serzh Sargsyan, when he broke his promise to stand down after 10 years of Presidency (after a constitutional change handed power from his old post to his new one, as well as meaning that he would no longer be subject to the 2-term limit that came with the role of President).
The protests were resolutely non-violent, and took place in the form of civil disobedience – one of the first things achieved by the protesters was the blocking of main roads in the city centre. At first they numbered a few thousand but this gradually grew, reaching a peak in the last few days as over a hundred thousand people took to the streets. There were a few clashes with the police, but protesters refused to be provoked by this and remained calm, disciplined and non-violent. A few people from back home seemed slightly concerned about my safety, but while on the marches I felt absolutely safe. The atmosphere was such that I knew if anything were to happen, people would help each other out in any way possible. There were people living in 6th floor flats passing bottles of water down using improvised pulley systems; people buying food in bulk to hand out to hungry protesters who may not have eaten for a long time and a general sense of camaraderie, optimism and determination.
It’s difficult to identify the moment at which victory seemed likely. The rally in the central square on Saturday 21st was markedly bigger than those that had preceded it, though it was the following day that the mood really shifted. A seemingly new tactic from one branch of the police force (I saw balaklava-clad officers running around in groups to disperse crowds, assaulting one defence-less man to the point where he was left unconscious and requiring hospital treatment) led to fears that violence would be used throughout the day in an attempt to end the protests. But it was what happened in the early afternoon that really galvanised the people: the arrest of Nikol Pashinian, an opposition party leader who had been at the forefront of the campaign against Serzh. Before his arrest (an act that was illegal under Armenian law), Nikol was a largely popular figurehead for what he described as the ‘Velvet Revolution’, but his arrest turned him into a hero: his release became an important focal point. We marched for several kilometres to the police station where he was believed to be held (this was later found not to be true), and ‘Nikol! Nikol! Nikol!’ could now be heard among the other popular chants from the previous few days (‘Free, independent Armenia’ and ‘Take a step. Reject Serzh’ were commonly used).
I wondered if the weekend would mark the high point of the protests, but on Monday, many people refused to go to work (as well as students going on strike) in favour of joining. Having not busked much in a few days, I felt that I needed a bit more money, but after one song on the main pedestrian avenue in the city centre, a group of a few dozen students from the conservatoire, including one member of the band that I have joined here, marched past chanting ‘Join us! Join us!’. So I quickly packed up my guitar and marched with them, which received a large cheer when my friend explained who I was. For me, this was another wonderful feature of the protests: I was unsure as to whether foreigners with relatively little understanding of the country’s politics would be welcomed, but I shouldn’t have been. This is Armenia, and hospitality is in their blood. Indeed, I was told by one friend who had seen me on the marches that it was very important for them to have support from people of other nationalities.
The atmosphere in the streets on Monday was utterly joyous – the marches were not necessarily co-ordinated, but when two groups happened across each other, they would join forces and numbers grew swiftly throughout the day. This was also the day when hundreds of members of the military decided to join, which felt like a huge turning point. Make no mistake, this was not a victory driven by the military: the sheer weight of passion from civilians were the triggers behind these soldiers joining the cause. But the bravery of those soldiers who risked severe disciplinary action cannot be ignored.
I decided to go back to my hostel to have a bite to eat and drop off my guitar before heading out again at about 3:30. When I stepped out of the hostel, there was an excitable crowd going past. Nothing unusual about that, but there seemed to be a lot of attention on one person in particular. I got a little closer and there was no mistaking him: Nikol was here on the march! Word spread quickly and everyone convened in Republic Square. The tide of public opinion seemed unstoppable at this point and, sure enough, at around 4:30 news started to filter through that Serzh had resigned.
I have never seen so much joy in one place. People were crying on the streets, hugging strangers, singing together and dancing. The only thing I have witnessed that came anywhere close is when I was in Germany when they won the World Cup, but this was on another level. Everyone flooded into the square in anticipation of speeches from Nikol and other protest leaders that were due at 6:30. Though I couldn’t understand the speeches other than the odd word here and there, it was impossible to get bored over the five hours or so that I spent in the square. The sense of utter jubilation was infectious.
The down side was that there were a number of people collapsing and requiring medical attention – the space was very crowded and in the heat of a warm spring day, there were bound to be problems. But whenever someone required a doctor, the crowds near them would alert the speaker on stage, who would then stop mid-flow and ensure that one of the doctors or medical students who had volunteered their services for the day were able to get to them.
When the speeches finished, the music and fireworks began in earnest and everyone turned into party mode. The car horns that had been used in the week previously to show support for the uprising started blaring again, and wherever you went you could hear the refrain of ‘Kayl ara merzhir Serzhin!’ (a chant so popular there is already a dance remix recorded) or ‘Haghtanak’ (‘Victory’). I went for a drink with 3 friends: one Iranian who has been living here for a year or so, one Irish man and one American and after a couple of beers in a quiet bar just outside the main centre, we went in search of somewhere a bit more lively. The first two places we tried were closed, presumably because the staff didn’t fancy working on this historic and momentous day, so we were about to head back to the hostel when I mentioned that there was a place not too far away that I’d played a gig at a couple of weeks ago that was usually a good place to go for a drink. I wasn’t sure if it would be open: aside from the fact that other places were closed, it was one o’clock in the morning on a Monday night. Fortunately they were indeed open and, remarkably, they informed me that drinks were all free to mark the occassion. The party went on until nearly 5 in the morning, I had a lot of Armenian cognac (which I can hugely recommend) and we hugged, toasted and chatted with everyone present, in a combination of English and very broken Armenian.
It was a night that will stay in my mind for a long time. And what a remarkable achievement it is for the Armenian people: to bring down a government in 11 days with no bloodshed is something that everyone is justifiably proud of. There are many questions to be answered in the days ahead about what will follow – but regardless of what happens and whoever replaces Sargsyan will be under no illusions: any attempt to subvert democracy and take for granted the rights of the people will be resisted.
I have been surprised and frustrated by the lack of coverage of these events in the British/European/American media – this is a hugely significant and historic event. The way in which the protesters went about achieving their goals could (and should) act as a useful template for future uprisings in other countries. Civil disobedience can be a powerful tool, and we should congratulate the hundreds of thousands of people who have written the 23rd April 2018 into the history books for generations to come.