Armenia’s Velvet Revolution and What It Means for Its Legal System

By Sona Movsisyan

Armenia is a small landlocked, post-Soviet country.[1] It is considered one of the oldest countries in the world,[2] yet it only became a sovereign nation in 1991.[3] Armenia was previously occupied by the Ottoman Empire and then by the Soviet Union, causing it to experience tragedy and instability.[4] However, with its independence came other struggles- poverty, government corruption, and economic domination by the oligarchs.[5] Armenia’s history set the stage for the Velvet Revolution.

Armenia first adopted a Constitution in 1995, which set up a semi-presidential system, giving the President considerable powers.[6] For two decades, the president of Armenia was the most powerful man, however, that is no longer the case. Serzh Sarksyan, the third president of Armenia, reached his two-term limit serving from 2008 to 2018.[7] During Sarksyan’s presidency, a constitutional referendum was held in 2015.[8] The referendum shifted power to the Prime Minister, who would be elected by the Parliament and the president’s role would become largely ceremonial.[9] President Sarksyan “had promised in 2014 that he would ‘not aspire’ to be prime minister if Armenia switched from a presidential to a parliamentary system as a result of the referendum.[10] However, just eight days after resigning as president, the ruling Republican party nominated Serzh Sarksyan as its candidate for Prime Minister.[11] Many opponents accused Sarksyan of “engineering a power grab” by changing the nation’s political system to ensure he can remain in power.[12] Thousands of Armenians hit the streets on April 17 to protest the newly elected Prime Minister.[13] This was not the first time Armenians protested against the government. Previous protests ended violently, including in March 2008, June 2015, and July 2016, when police officers used excessive force to break up largely peaceful demonstrations.[14]

Surprisingly, the April 2018 protests were peaceful and successful, catching international attention.[15] The “public grievances run deep in Armenia,” causing many Armenians to say, ‘enough is enough’ and demand a change for their country.[16] Armenians were angry about election manipulations, including vote buying and falsified results, as well as the widespread government corruption and the major class disparities.[17] Additionally, “there [was] the lack of accountability for abuses committed by law enforcement, lack of judicial independence, and other human rights issues.[18] The Armenian people protested for 11 days, journalists estimated a turnout of roughly 50,000 people just at the capital, Yerevan.[19] Demonstrators barricaded the roads, skipped work and school, danced and sang, demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister, Serzh Sarksyan.[20] Soldiers, religious leaders, and other political opponents joined the citizens of Armenia, collectively taking a stand against the government. Leading the demonstrators was Nikol Pashinyan, a former newspaper editor and political prisoner.[21] Due to the resilience of the Armenian people and their unwavering commitment for change, Prime Minister Sarksyan resigned.[22] This was a monumental moment for Armenia.[23] The people not only toppled the government of Armenia, but they also elected a man of the people, Nikol Pashinyan, to be the new Prime Minister.[24]

Sarksyan, after meeting with Pashinyan, gave a brief resignation statement saying, “I was wrong. There are a few solutions to the current situation, but I am not one of them. . . . The movement in the streets is against my leadership, and so I am fulfilling your demand.”[25] Protests turned to celebrations in Yerevan, as crowds of people waved the Armenian flag and cheered for their victory.[26] Pashinyan addressed the people stating, “Your victory is not that I was elected as prime minister of Armenia; your victory is that you decided who should be prime minister.”[27] This overnight transformation was a “culmination of a journey that began some 20 years ago,” stated Pashinyan.[28]

The government transition that resulted from the people’s revolution has significantly impacted Armenia’s legal system, because justice reform is the Prime Minister’s focus and will be one of Armenia’s biggest challenges going forward. The newly elected Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that he was going to “fight against corruption, abuses and the shadow economy.”[29] Therefore, within just a few months of being in office, “the anti-corruption drive has led to criminal charges or investigations into figures in Sarkisyan’s formerly ruling Republican Party, including ex-army generals, customs officers and several other senior officials.”[30] For instance, former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan was arrested on charges of “overthrowing the constitutional order” during events that occurred in the March 2008 protests.[31] Kocharyan served as President of Armenia from 1998 to 2008.[32] At the end of his term, Kocharyan was accused of rigging the 2008 presidential polls in favor of his supporter Serzh Sarkisyan.[33] In February and March 2008, protestors who supported the opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian, hit the streets demanding validation of the election results.[34] During the protests, eight protesters and two police officers were killed, and Kocharyan is being charged with the mishandling of the deadly breakup.[35] A Yerevan district court ruled to keep Kocharyan under arrest pending the investigation.[36] Kocharian rejected the accusations as “politically motivated and ‘fabricated’” and “defended the legality of his decision to declare a state of emergency and order Armenian army units into central Yerevan.”[37] Separately, former Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Khachaturov, who was in charge during the post-election developments, was also charged with “usurping the constitutional order.”[38] However, Khachaturov was released on bail by the district court.[39] Furthermore, Prime Minister Pashinyan has named a new head of the Special Investigative Service to ensure that the criminal investigations into these incidents is conducted accurately and honestly.[40]

            Many Armenians are hopeful that with a new Prime Minister things will change for the better. However, skepticism exists about the transformation of Armenia’s legal system. Only time will tell whether Prime Minister Pashinyan will be able to end the government corruption, reintroduce law and order, and eliminate impunity for criminals of status.


[1] Rayhan Demytrie, Why Armenia ‘Velvet Revolution’ won without a bullet fired, BBC News (May 1, 2018),

[2] The History of Armenia, Little Armenia, (last visited Aug. 21, 2018).

[3] The Republic of Armenia declared its independence on the 21st of September, 1991, 100 Years 100 Facts, (last visited Aug. 21, 2018). 

[4] The History of Armenia, supra note 2.

[5] Giorgi Gogia, Armenia’s Prime Minister Steps Down Amid Protests, Human Rights Watch (Apr. 23, 2018),

[6] Serob Abrahamian, A History of the Armenian Constitution, Armenian Weekly (Apr. 1, 2017),  

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Tens of Thousadns Protest in Yerevan, Other Armenian Cities Against Sarkisian As Now Prime Minister, RFE/RL Armenian Service (Apr. 17, 2018),

[11] Armenian ruling party nominates former president Sarksyan for PM’s job, Reuters (Apr. 14, 2018),

[12] Id.

[13] Gogia, supra note 5.

[14] Id.

[15] Tens of Thousadns Protest in Yerevan, Other Armenian Cities Against Sarkisian As Now Prime Minister, supra note 10.

[16] Gogia, supra note 5.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Suyin Haynes, Armenia’s Prime Minister Has Resigned After Days of Protests. Here’s What to Know About the Country’s ‘Peaceful Revolution’, TIME (Apr. 24, 2018),

[20] Gianluca Mezzofiore, Protesters blocked roads in Armenia’s capital. This little boy used his toy cars, CNN (May 2, 2018),

[21] Neil MacFarqsuhar, He Was a Protester a Month Ago. Now, Nikol Pashinyan Leads Armenia, NY Times (May 8, 2018),

[22] Neil MacFarqsuhar & Richard Perez-Pena, ‘I Was Wrong’: Armenian Leader Quits Amid Protests, NY Times (Apr. 23, 2018),

[23] Id.

[24] MacFarqsuhar, supra note 21.

[25] Serge Sarkisian’s Statement of Resignation, Armenian Weekly (Apr. 23, 2018),

[26] MacFarqsuhar & Perez-Pena, supra note 22.

[27] MacFarqsuhar, supra note 21.

[28] Id.

[29] Emil Danielyan, Government Details First Results of Crackdown on Tax Fraud, Azatutyun (July 10, 2018),, explaining that the Armenian government has already uncovered $42 million of unpaid taxes in just two months, mostly involving individuals involved with former President Serzh Sarkisyan, including Sarkisyan’s chief bodyguard and brother.

[30] Ex-Armenian President Robert Kocharian arrested, DW (July 28, 2018),

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Sisak Gabrielian, Former Armenian President Arrested, Azatutyun (July 28, 2018),

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] Ex-Armenian President Robert Kocharian arrested, supra note 30.

[39] Id.

[40] Gabrielian, supra note 35.