“Let us know if you want help instigating a revolution in any part of the globe,” Artak Zeynalyan says. Armenia’s Minister of Justice is giving an insider account of the protests that swept through the country last year.

On March 31st, opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan started a peaceful march from Gyumri city in northern Armenia all the way to the capital, Yerevan. At the end of this historic march, the incumbent Prime Minister resigned. Free and fair elections were held for the first time in two decades and as a result, Pashinyan was elected the new Prime Minister.

New digital technologies aided the peaceful march with social media playing a critical role. Pashinyan and other opposition leaders would often use Facebook to hold live video broadcasts, call protesters to action, and even discuss policy stances.

Now, as the dust settles, GovInsider caught up with the Minister for Justice to discuss how Armenia ran a revolution and the future of citizen engagement.

The ‘velvet’ revolution

For the last twenty years, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, former PM Serzh Sargsyan’s Republican party had been in power. “We had a series of elections and the same political party was in power,” explains Zeynalyan.

The elections were widely viewed to be unfair with several accounts of ballot stuffing and voter intimidation. “We had a lot of breaches, violations during those elections which were registered, by the international organisations, including OSCE – ODIH [Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe – Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights], including the Armenian constitutional court,” he adds.

Opposition leaders were also often mass arrested or persecuted. “All of those attempts, all of those protests, were killed or kind of buried under mass arrests and political executions. Including against the families of the political activists, not only the politicians themselves, including firing some of the people in the families of political activists from work,” he explains.

When Sargsyan started his third term as Prime Minister, opposition leader Pashinyan began an anti-government protest march through the country last year. Pashinyan had been an outspoken journalist and editor, had evaded arrest and eventually served time for civil disobedience and inciting mass disorders.

Last year Pashinyan’s historic march culminated with intense support from civil society and the public. “This revolutionary energy wasn’t decreasing even when some of the activist leaders were arrested including the current prime minister Nikol Pashinyan himself,” Zeynalyan explains.

Digital engagement tools

Social media played a key role in inciting protests and the ultimate change in regime. Pashinyan and other opposition leaders would often use Facebook to call for protests, and even deliver policy stances. “Of course, social media was engaged a lot and a lot of expectations among the public was raised for change,” he says.

The startling call to action and overwhelming response finally brought about the resignation of then incumbent Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan. Pashinyan was voted in as Prime Minister and snap elections were called due to intense support from the public. “This was done again under the pressure of public influence because any given second, the current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan can just call the people – blocking the streets, so paralysing the transportation and this can be done in like through a Facebook message only,” the Justice Minister adds.

Today, even after the historic elections, tech tools continue to play a central role in citizen engagement, explains Zeynalyan. One of these is a “digital hotline” where citizens can report any issue they encounter, and another a platform for citizens to request information from the government. This is a “way for the citizens to request information from the government and information owned by the government can be provided to citizens through this platform if you request – so it’s a freedom of information tool,” he explains.

The government is also adopting a whistleblower mechanism to curb corruption, Zeynalyan says. “We will be creating another platform and that will make an electronic tool for engaging whistleblowers in the view of fighting corruption,” he adds.

Keeping civil society engaged

Civil society in Armenia, Zeynalyan says, is largely professional and organised. A large number of their advocacy tools helped achieve the change seen today. “This is in a sense due to those changes that the revolution was possible, those platforms were active and civil society has activated some of the public,” he adds.

Globally, Armenia has very strong civil society and non-governmental organisations on the ground advocating for human rights. “The NGO experience in Armenia shows that CSOs can make important contributions to the development of the economy, education, health, and other fields,” notes an ADB report. “For instance, Armenians are one of the leaders globally in the implementation of acts of UNHCR and other global legal bodies because of the efforts of all rights protection organisations and experts,” Zeynalyan points out.

But, the revolution has led to several civil society advocates to become a part of the newly formed government. This includes Zeynalyan himself who previously worked in strategic litigation: “Maybe in terms of actual human resources there is some kind of a bankruptcy in civil society today because many of the critical players at the civil society are now sitting in the government,” he explains.

Zeynalyan hopes that civil engagement with government will continue so that government can have fresh, unique ideas. “Of course we want the civil society to flourish in Armenia as a government now. So that we’ll always have this resource which is bringing the idea and which is bringing the input,” he says.

His outlook is optimal though – recently citizen engagement with government has increased multifold, Zeynalyan says. There is a “considerable increase in the number of complaints which we see as a sign of people trusting the government. Today, for instance the number of complaints directed towards the Minister of Justice has increased five times,” he points out.

In 2018, The Economist labelled Armenia ‘country of the year’ due to its stunning race to civil society driven democracy. The peaceful regime transition driven by digital tools is certainly one that many countries can learn from – and Armenia is willing to help.

Image from Wikimedia Commons