Is 2018 the New 1988? Some Thoughts on the Karabakh Movement and the “Velvet Revolution”

The Second Armenian Revolution?

There is a famous saying attributed to Chinese Communist Chzhou Enlai, that it is too early to judge the results of the French Revolution. Unfortunately, in reality this famous quote is a result of a misunderstanding: Enlai was referring to the French protests of 1968, but the conversation was taking place in 1972; indeed, it was too early to tell. In any case, it is obviously too early to judge the “Velvet Revolution.” First of all, it is far from over. Regardless of who becomes interim prime minister and whoever wins the elections, the revolution cannot be considered accomplished until the corrupt system, which I would call  “feudal-oligarchic,” is dismantled. However, already one of the most commonly discussed topics in Armenia is the comparison between the events of the recent weeks and another great movement that took place in Armenia exactly 30 years ago – the Karabakh Movement (I am using the term “Karabakh Movement” rather than “Artsakh Movement,” as this was the commonly used term at the time; the historical term “Artsakh” was rediscovered later, during the course of the movement.)
It makes sense to start discussing the similarities and differences between the two movements from the terms we use to refer to them. Probably, the most interesting thing about the current movement is that the protesters dubbed it a “revolution” from quite an early stage. Protesters in Armenia had usually avoided this term, even when their actions could often be described as an attempted revolution (probably, with the exception of “Barevolution” or “Revolution of Hellos” movement after the 2013 presidential elections). It is even more interesting that the Karabakh Movement was very rarely represented as a revolution, both during the events and their aftermath. As anthropologist Harutyun Marutyan has shown in his work, the events that took place in 1988-1991 in Armenia correspond to a formal academic definition of a revolution. Moreover, Marutyan argues, and in my opinion rightly so, that the events of 1988-1991 should be classified and remembered as part of a wave of “velvet revolutions” that shook the Socialist camp at the end of the 1980s.       
Yet, very few people in Armenia use the term, and very few people outside Armenia know about the events in Armenia and their link to the wave of revolutions in Eastern Europe - of former Soviet Republics, it is usually the Baltics and Georgia that are mentioned in this context, even though the movement in Armenia was at least as wide, and Armenia was one of the first places where thousands took to the streets. For various reasons, it seems that the Armenian revolution of 1988-1991 never received recognition not just as a revolution, but also as one of the first in the wave of “velvet revolutions” that changed the face of Europe and the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In a way, we could say that the “Velvet Revolution” of 2018 corrected this injustice. It is hard to say how the events of 2018 will be remembered in a decade or two, but I expect that one day Armenian history textbooks will call it the “Second Armenian Revolution,” while the events of 1988-1991 will be considered the “First Armenian Revolution.”  

The Carnival of Revolutions
Probably, the biggest similarity between the first and the second Armenian revolutions is the festive spirit that animated the protests. Today, given the fact that the Karabakh Movement led to the Karabakh conflict, it may be hard to imagine that, at least during the first months; the movement was not just peaceful, but that the first rallies created a carnival-like atmosphere. Armenian anthropologist Levon Abrahamyan, who at the time had recently defended his dissertation on the topic of “primitive festival,” was perfectly placed to recognize that the events of 1988 were more than a political movement, but also a unique sort of festival or carnival. The words “festival” or “carnival” in this context are actually more than just analogies, they signify an important cultural phenomenon. The “festival” is an act which temporarily removes all barriers of age, class, social standing, creates a feeling of unity, and ultimately leaves the society transformed. Interestingly, while Abrahamyan described the Karabakh Movement in terms of a festival, American historian Padraic Kenney, who happened to be in Poland in the 1980s, wrote a book called “Carnival of Revolutions,” in which he described the movements in Poland and other Eastern European countries that led to the revolutions of 1989.
Anybody who has been out in the streets in Yerevan these days will immediately relate to this phrase: “carnival of revolutions” is exactly what was happening in the streets of Yerevan and other Armenian cities and villages this April. I am not only talking about the popular celebrations that engulfed the country on April 23 after Serzh Sargsyan announced his resignation - probably the biggest celebration this generation of Armenians has seen so far. This celebratory mood was there on the streets even before Sargsyan’s Resignation, at a time when the fate of the movement was unclear, when the police used violence and detention. This spirit did temporarily disappear when the government used violence on April 16 as police fired stun grenades injuring some protesters (and policemen as well), or when the leaders of the protests were arrested on April 22. However, it almost immediately returned when every such act only brought out new waves of protesters.
The protests of 2018 brought together people of every age, social class or lifestyle, even though the youth was certainly over-represented. People who could hardly imagine being in the same room with each other only a week ago, came together during the protests. Probably, when the revolution is over they will hardly find themselves in the same room again, but I am sure that these days have left a mark on everybody.  This feeling of unity and inspiration is exactly what amazed me many times when I listened to the stories of people who had been in the Karabakh Movement. In the past weeks, I had the chance to experience exactly this feeling on the streets of Yerevan. The protesters of 2018, however, had one important advantage compared to their parents’ generation: the Internet. This was probably one of the key elements that contributed to the success of the protests. With the live feeds, memes and Telegram channels, the protesters of 2018 had completely new tools that the protesters of 1988 could not even dream about. Hopefully, it will make the work of researchers easier. Anthropologists like Marutyan and Abrahamyan spent years collecting stories, jokes, posters and other artifacts from the 1988 Movement (they did not have the word “memes” then) in order to analyze them. Now, it is all on Facebook in groups like this one, collected by Facebook users themselves. 
Beyond 1988: 2018 as a step forward
With all its similarities, the 2018 movement also had important differences. In my view, the value of 2018 is partly the very fact that it was able to move beyond the model of 1988, which had dominated Armenian political thinking for thirty years. The events of 1988 and the subsequent years, including the achievement of independence in 1991 and the war in Artsakh, became a sort of a “foundation myth” for the Third Republic of Armenia. The word “myth” in this context does not imply any sense of “falsehood:” I am talking about the symbolic significance of these events as the ideological basis of modern Armenian statehood. The Third Republic of Armenia took its legitimacy from the events of 1988-1994, the period that started with the inception of the Karabakh Movement and victoriously ended with the Karabakh War. Obviously, there were various versions of this core “myth,” which sometimes corresponded to different political orientations. Thus, for opposition movements the key component of this narrative was the popular mobilization in Liberty Square in 1988, while for the governments of Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharyan the emphasis was on the Karabakh War. But in any case, these years were seen as kind of a “heroic age” that led to the establishment of Armenian independent statehood. The “myth of 1988” gave legitimacy to the Armenian state, Armenian political elite and counter-elite.
There were, however, two problems with the “Myth of 88.” First, every myth wears out soon or later: it becomes banal and loses its emotional appeal. For somebody born in the early 1990s the emotional appeal of the events of 1988 is not as strong as for someone who was a young adult or teenager at the time. Year by year, the events of 1988 are sliding into history, becoming another “legendary” episode which Armenians like to boast about, like the battle of Sardarabad or maybe even “Avarayr.” The movement of 2008 can be considered a kind of “New 88” for some young Armenians, but since society was bitterly divided in 2008, its appeal was limited only to opposition supporters. Besides, the protest movement of 2008 ended in the tragic events of March 1, 2008. Hence, to many Armenians it became a traumatic memory rather than a source of inspiration.
The second problem with the “Myth of 88”  is more significant. As much as 1988 was a source of inspiration to many Armenians, it was also a source of bitter disappointment. It is common to hear from middle-aged and older Armenians that the 1988 movement was a mistake and it made the lives of Armenians worse than before. Many Armenians, especially those who experienced 1988 as adults are today skeptical about the “Velvet Revolution” precisely because they saw what followed the movement of 1988 and the victory of 1994: social-economic decay, followed by the creation of a corrupt authoritarian regime.         
It is easy to blame common “Soviet nostalgia,” or, to use a witty term coined by Paruyr Hayrikyan in the late 1990s, “ershikapashtutyun” (the cult of sausages”) for this attitude toward 1988. But in fact, this feeling of disappointment goes much deeper than the memories of cheap sausages, supposedly available to everyone in Soviet times. The ultimate cause of this disappointment was the reneged promise of a better and fairer country, which the leaders of Armenia had not been able to deliver on over the last three decades. The Armenia that had been built as a result of 1988 was not the Armenia that people in Liberty Square in 1988 had dreamt about. True, the protesters of 1988 probably had a very vague idea of exactly what kind of Armenia they wished for. However, certainly very few of them had imagined that their struggle would lead to the creation of a corrupt, authoritarian oligarchic system.
Worst of all, this corrupt, authoritarian oligarchic system tried to legitimize itself by appealing to the legacy of 1988 and 1994. Opposition movements were repressed, freedom of Armenians limited, and their pockets emptied by the government under the pretext of “defending the security of Karabakh.” The suffering of ordinary Armenians was justified as a “sacrifice” for the “liberty and security of Artsakh,” even though they could clearly see that the same “sacrifice” was not required of the members of the corrupt and omnipotent elite. Armenia’s corrupt and autocratic elites used, or rather misused, the “Myth of 1988” to its limit.
Obviously, this meant that the “Myth of 1988,” which was the symbolic engine that kept Armenian statehood alive, was running out of steam. As Leonard Cohen would have said, “Let’s sing another song, boys, this one’s grown old and bitter,” And this is where the “Velvet Revolution” came in. The paradox of this movement is that it succeeded in recreating the spirit of 1988, while not trying to imitate the “Myth of 1988.” Unlike some of the previous protest movements, the protesters of 2018 were not trying to repeat 1988. They simply came to the streets to demand a better future. Paradoxically, it was this desire to find a new path that made the movement of 2018 so similar to the movement of 1988, if not in form, then at least in essence.
A symbol of this desire to find a new path was the fact that the largest rallies took place at Republic Square, rather than in Liberty Square. When it was announced that the rally would take place in Republic Square, many protesters, especially the more experienced ones, had their doubts. For three decades, it was Liberty Square that served as the symbolic center of protests and rallies in Yerevan. In the symbolic geography of Yerevan Liberty Square was “the people’s square,” while Republic Square symbolized power and statehood. Moving the protests to Republic Square was a symbol of the people’s victory: “the people” took “the state”-  which had been alienated for so long - under their control. I doubt that the protest leaders had these considerations in mind: whether Republic Square was chosen for pragmatic reasons, or it was the political instinct that helped the protest leaders make this decision, it proved to be the right choice. Apart from “conquering” the symbolic space, which until that had been reserved for the state, it also helped to break the apathetic attitude that many Armenians had due to the failure of previous protests. The choice of Republic Square as the place for rallies sent a clear signal: this time it is different, this time we shall win. And people believed it.

I realize that this piece may come off as overly optimistic, not to say euphoric. Like many others, I fear that in several years, or even months, we shall experience the feeling of disappointment that many in our parents’ generation experienced after 1988. I truly hope that the fears that some of our compatriots have today are exaggerated and that Armenian society can learn from its mistakes. Still, I realize that the truly difficult times start now. Obviously, Armenia will not become Switzerland in a day or in a year (and I hope the “Singapore” option is already a thing of the past). The unresolved Karabakh conflict and the issue of Armenian-Turkish relations will continue to act as a handicap on Armenia’s development. Moreover, additional difficulties may now arise in the Karabakh peace process, due to the fear of Azerbaijan’s rulers that the revolution can be “contagious.” The carnival of revolutions will soon be over and the time will come to work on reforming the state and society, work that will not just be difficult and excruciating, but also boring and debilitating.  In short, there is a lot of work ahead. And yet, I believe that whatever happens, the positive impulse which Armenia has received in the last weeks is strong enough to be compared with the impulse that 1988 gave Armenia as a society and as a people.

"EVN Report," April 30, 2018 (www.evnreport.com/politics/is-2018-the-new-1988)

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