Armenia’s protest leader Nikol Pashinyan attends a rally of his supporters in downtown Yerevan on April 26. (Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty Images)
Columnist

This post has been updated, 7:15 p.m.

Armenia appears at last to be breaking with its post-Soviet malaise and embracing democratic change, thanks to a grass-roots movement that has found a way, for now, to straddle Russia and the West.

Tens of thousands of people thronged Yerevan’s central square Wednesday night, chanting “Victory! Victory!” in what one Armenian reform supporter in the United States told me was “a celebration of the country as much as a protest.” The movement’s mass street demonstrations over the past month have deposed the prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan, and this week appeared ready to topple his long-entrenched ruling party.

Videos circulating on social media Wednesday captured a country embracing the reform movement headed by Nikol Pashinyan, who is seeking to replace Sargsyan. Responding to Pashinyan’s call to shut down the capital, conservatory students played classical music at one intersection; protesters did a line dance at another; a small boy blocked a street with a lineup of toy cars, in a photo circulated by CNN.

Pashinyan made what sounded almost like a victory statement Wednesday, when he told the crowd, “Now, we will stop our actions for a while and rest.” On Tuesday, the Armenian parliament, controlled by Sargsyan’s party, had narrowly defeated Pashinyan’s bid to form a new government. But another vote is scheduled for May 8, and the ruling Republican Party signaled it won’t oppose the reformer.

If Pashinyan succeeds in establishing a new government, it will be in large part because the police and army refused to open fire on the protesters who turned out in huge numbers to support him. This refusal to kill fellow citizens is often the fulcrum of social change; it’s especially powerful in Armenia, which last month commemorated the anniversary of the 1915 genocide by Ottoman Turks that left more than a million Armenians dead.

Armenia’s basic political dilemma over the past 25 years has been how to reconcile its pro-Western political sympathies with its military dependence on Russia. This impasse helped foster a circle of pro-Moscow oligarchs around Sargsyan, who siphoned much of the country’s wealth. For all the entrepreneurial spirit of its people, a corrupt and authoritarian Armenia never achieved the capitalist takeoff of some other former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact countries following the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991.

Reformers asked why Armenia ranked below many other former Soviet-bloc countries in measures of political freedom, rule of law and economic growth. The Policy Forum Armenia, an activist group based in Washington, has compiled a series of well-documented reports on corruption, human rights and legal-reform issues.

The popular uprising has been tolerated, so far, by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He seems to have decided that it was better to sacrifice his ally, Sargsyan, than to risk losing Armenia itself. “He wanted to avoid another Ukraine,” a reform leader told me Wednesday. Because of the long kinship between Russia and Armenia, the images of protest in Yerevan may have a galvanizing effect in Russia, too.

Pashinyan broke through the post-Soviet morass for several reasons, his reform movement colleagues argue. First, his movement has been nonviolent and broadly based, from young people to grandmothers; “Arms up,” symbolizing civil disobedience, became a slogan of the protesters who joined Pashinyan’s march on Yerevan last month that culminated in Sargsyan’s resignation. Second, Pashinyan avoided taking sides between Russia and the West. He has walked a narrow line in what one reform leader told me was an “Armenia-centric” approach. He has reassured Moscow by saying that he doesn’t intend to withdraw from military and trade pacts with Russia if he becomes prime minister. At the same time, his pro-democracy movement has roused sympathy in Europe and the United States, offering the prospect of wider friendships for the small, embattled nation.

The Armenian reform movement has been building for the past two years, ever since armed protesters seized a police station in Yerevan in July 2016 and held it for two weeks, to protest what rebels claimed was the government’s political repression, corruption and vacillation on the emotional issue of Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave seized from Azerbaijan in a bloody war in 1994.

“We refuse to become a region of Russia,” proclaimed one of the rebels allied with Jirair Sefilian, a Lebanese-born former Armenian military leader who was one of the organizers of the 2016 protest, which took the name “Founding Parliament.” Sefilian would be a candidate for defense minister if Pashinyan succeeds in forming a new government, though his strong pro-Western sympathies might antagonize Moscow.

Pashinyan’s movement promises change, but as is often the case with grass-roots uprisings, the details are fuzzy. His group is called “Civil Contract,” built on a pledge that a new government will deliver specific reform commitments to the people. Even his movement’s supporters admit they aren’t sure yet what that agenda might include. But in the excitement of Wednesday’s mass protest, the details could wait.