In Armenia, a small nation of three million located just south of Russia, spring has ushered in mass protests. Thousands of people, young and elderly, women and men, have taken to the streets to rally against the ruling regime, newly gussied-up in a revamped parliamentary system.
The movement has been challenging outgoing President Serzh Sargsyan, who took over as prime minister on Tuesday. In his second, and final term as president, Sargsyan led the effort to replace the semi-presidential system with a parliamentary one in order to avoid the term limits set by the constitution.
The move enhanced the powers of the prime minister and relegated the presidency to a ceremonial role. The president and his Republican Party argued that this change was necessary in order to democratise Armenia’s political system, insisting that Sargsyan did not intend to assume the office of prime minister.
On Tuesday, however, he did just that: Amid widespread popular protests and civil disobedience, Sargsyan‘s majority in the new parliament appointed him to the prime ministerial post, effectively granting him a third term as the country’s leader.
With authoritarianism on the rise worldwide, such constitutional engineering has been a favoured instrument by authoritarian leaders who wish to consolidate their power. Sargsyan was successful in usurping power, but with his actions, he also managed to push thousands to the streets of the country.
In Armenia, so confident was the ruling party, that its parliamentary majority granted Sargsyan perpetual ownership of the hitherto publicly owned presidential residence in early April; on Thursday, after public outrage, he announced he was giving up the property.
The protests have been led by opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan, who has deftly built and maintain a well-networked self-organising movement across the country. Removing Sargsyan as prime minister has been the main demand of the protests, but their importance goes beyond that: It is about preserving democratic institutions and resisting budding authoritarianism.
A very potent non-violent movement
This recent wave of mass civil disobedience is only the latest in a long record of peaceful protests over the course of a decade or so. Indeed, tiny Armenia has become a laboratory of peaceful resistance and civil society in an increasingly authoritarian part of the world.
This spring’s movement, however, is different. It is larger in scale and is geographically broad. It is organisationally sophisticated, grassroots-driven, with an extraordinary degree of self-governance.
Both the movement’s leaders and participants have demonstrated a high level of discipline, and have been quite successful in applying non-violent protest strategies. Over the years, these protest efforts have extended both within the country and outside – reaching the dispersed Armenian diaspora across the globe.
The security implications of this movement are immediate. There is convincing academic and empirical evidence that non-violence as an instrument of political action is superior to violence in achieving a movement’s articulated goals. In the case of Armenia, such non-violence on a large scale is particularly potent and consequential, occurring in a post-Soviet region plagued by inter-state conflict and violence.
The organic emergence and consolidation of non-violent civil movements challenges and weakens the political future of warfare as an instrument of foreign policy. It does so by deepening the norms of non-violence and by creating capacities for constructive conflict resolution. Such movements inspire and empower the broader civil society, and endow broader coalitions a voice in otherwise closed decisions of war and peace.
Russia vs the West
It is true that external security concerns often fuel internal democratic declines in nations large and small, democratic and authoritarian. In the specific case of Armenia, large-scale civil disobedience and grassroots democracy movements have the potential to add to the strength of the state by offering the government much-needed leverage in dealing with hegemonic regional powers in their neighbourhoods.
Indeed, Armenia, located in the fractured region of the South Caucasus, has been pulled since its independence in different geopolitical directions; like in many other post-Communist states, the choice is often between Russia and the West. The emergence of indigenous civil societies and grassroots non-violent movements, under the right circumstances, can establish an important new political pillar in the landscape against which these choices are made.
There is one catch: It is far from clear whether governments will choose to embrace the geopolitical leverage offered to them by their civil societies. In fractured regions such as the South Caucasus, ruling elites have historically sought such leverage from myriad external actors, primarily from outside the region.
Governments in fractured regions, struggling with low levels of internal legitimacy, have been willing partners for external regional powers. Smaller states pushing back against larger players remain the exception and not the rule. Non-violent civil action is, contrary to what these governments believe, a political asset for strong statecraft in fractured regions. Suppressing it in Armenia will hurt the very institutional foundation of this very young state.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.