REVERSAL? Armenia’s ‘Color’ situation just became a lot more interesting
When the tactic of declaring victory prematurely is leveraged against an actual victory
This Armenia situation is becoming much more interesting, with each passing hour. What appeared at first as the near completion of the color tactic for regime change, wasn’t so. It looks like the ruling Republican Party, led by Sargsyan, set up another layer of defense, a ‘fire wall’ between themselves and the opposition, and this makes very difficult any simple ‘transfer of power’. This piece will break down the dimensions of this dynamic process as it pertains to the case of Armenia.
Superficially this is going to boil down, in the nuts and bolts sense, to how the Armenian constitutional court interprets an ‘untested’ major change to the constitution set up back in 2015 – where some Presidential powers were transferred over to the Prime Minister, and what this means in terms of ‘who’ actually holds certain powers in Armenia. Recall that Sargsyan was President for some years before just becoming PM earlier in April, just recently.
In short, one possibility is that the focus on Sargsyan this whole time was something similar to a ruse, getting the opposition to ‘bark up the wrong tree’. Sarkissian may be in fact the one with the power now. Sarkissian isn’t just also a Republican and part of Sargsyan’s inner circle, they are in fact in the same family. We won’t get into the details of the drama of the Sargsyans and the Sarkissians in Armenia’s troubled history since the 1990’s, the plots and assassinations of which all Armenians are familiar with during those darkest of days (which may be returning). But Sarkissian is in there as President, with Karapetyan acting as PM – all connected tightly to the Sargsyan run Republican Party and the Sargsyan clan themselves.
Sargsyan is a polarizing name in Armenian society, as these are polarizing times. But what’s interesting here is how in the process of the Color tactic, what’s common is that an individual single ‘dictator’ is widely demonized, and all social energies of opposition are drawn to condemning and opposing whatever cult of personality exists around this ‘dictator’, leading the ‘regime’.
This means that Sargsyan stepping down on the one hand of course gives the opposition a ‘victory’, the lone despot is done for – but it’s unlike other victories in the process of the tactic, as we’ll explain below. At the same time it deflates popular opposition support, as their focus was on Sargsyan the man. Intellectually, anyone in Armenia could tell you that of course this is a whole family network. But psychologically it apparently works out quite differently. You may recall during the early years of the Syrian invasion, that some informally floated Atlanticist proposals included Ba’ath Party rule, or co-rule, but with a new head of state other than Assad the man. For these reasons and more, we may expect all sorts of Atlanticist pressure to fall on Karapetyan.
Essentially, Sargsyan has stepped down – the opposition was quick to declare ‘victory’. I want to state clearly, in no uncertain terms, that the declaration of victory – prematurely – is a major dimension of the Color Revolution tactic in all iterations, historically. The mechanism is fairly banal, mundane. If victory is declared, and believed, it wraps up (even skips) the final steps in acquiring a transfer of power. It’s a border-line bluff, one that only becomes true if you believe it, after-the-fact. One thing to remember is that in this tactic, timing is everything. The order of events is everything. The timing and order of events will determine whether the tactic succeeds or fails. The abstract psychological and organizing methods of the tactic are critical, but problems of timing and order of events throws everything sideways.
This is critical, however. Undermining, co-opting, creating dual-power structures, and infiltrating bureaucracies is a critical dimension of the Color tactic. Bureaucracies, whether civil, military, or intelligence, have an internal logic. People live and work their lives everyday in certain structures. They engage every day in double-think: they carry on their duties and obligations even while having suspicions – whether sneaking or even outright proof – that those above them don’t quite have their facts straight and are operating on bad information. People whisper by the water cooler. Everyone who has ever worked for a living and had managers above them, understands this process.
Thus, if the opposition declares victory, the president apparently steps down, the water cooler talk becomes more serious. Even though the ‘old regime’ still has institutional power, if the secondary and tertiary employees of the bureaucracy simply believe that power has transferred, then power will effectively transfer because employees will stop following managers directives, which leads to a break-down in the command chain, order, and basic functionality as one would imagine.
That means that even while bureaucracy managers (civil, military, intelligence) may know that the old regime still has institutional power, their ability to effectively convince or otherwise influence their subordinates dissipates when these bureaucracy rank and file workers no longer believe that the ruling bodies still have power. They are likely to leak critical information to the opposition, resign, even join the opposition for perhaps simply quality-of-life/opportunistic/pragmatic reasons.
But the final declaration of victory is also the final moment of catharsis, and so it actually takes the steam out of the rolling protest movement. Therefore, the victory declaration is a double-edged sword.
So this time it looks like perhaps a trap was set. Sargsyan steps down for what is in reality, his own ‘tactical’ reason. The opposition declares this as a victory of their own, thus increasing their own profile and power perception tremendously.
It is likely, if this is true then, that Sargsyan’s resignation was a major surprise to the opposition and it was not timed or planned in terms of the opposition’s power-transfer strategy overall. They are thrown off guard, Sargsyan steps down but as this was not the result of a final ultimatum based upon an actual ‘passing of power to the people’ as the opposition typically claims – this means that Sargsyan has much more room to maneuver and determine for himself the terms and details of his resignation, and what comes into its place afterwards. Neither the military nor the courts forced Sargsyan to resign.
In other words, his resignation did not come with the realization of new snap elections. EU or ‘international’ mediators have not been brought in, as is the case with EU countries or countries ‘trying’ to enter the EU as full members, like Macedonia. In that sense, Armenia has a few notches more sovereignty than Macedonia or any EU candidate or member-state.
Rather, the already institutionalized line of presidential succession was observed. Power passed from Sargsyan not to opposition leader Pashinyan, but to Karapetyan – Sargsyan’s hand picked no 2 man. So far, this ‘thwarting’ of the color tactic then is successful, and this stage of the counter-tactic was also successfully used in Macedonia when power transfered from Gruevski not to the opposition’s Zaev, but to Dmitriev, who was able to hold things together for another year and a half until May of 2017, when finally Zaev slithers in. As we know, in the end, for the Russians involved in helping Macedonia thwart the color tactic, the candle was ultimately not worth the game, and the Atlanticist structure led by Zaev was allowed to mostly assume power last year in May.
The opposition would then look for some way that Karapetyan can be broken off from Sargsyan and Sarkissian.
The Republican Party, of Sargsyan, is still in power. Those soldiers you saw marching with the protesters? Evidence emerged they were ‘encouraged’ by wealthy individuals the pro-American Armenian diaspora to the tune of thousands per head. The military will be charging them for violating the expected or obvious rules in play surrounding soldiers participating while on duty and in uniform in legally questionable or opposition activities.
So as Pashinyan today ‘restarts’ the protests, he faces a problem. He was able to capitalize and generate opposition to the cult of Sargsyan. With Sargsyan ‘gone’, and with Pashinyan still not satisfied, a section of the rank-and-file opposition goes over to the idea that this is about Pashinyan (and not Sargsyan). So, the opposition loses support. This is exactly the rut that Macedonia’s Zaev found himself in, until the breakthrough in May of last year.
So we have two layers of confusion, several possible traps – that are ‘wrong doors’ to push through or some ‘wrong trees’ to be barking up. Who has the power? Again, the 2015 constitutional changes have been ‘untested’ in court. Perhaps Sargsyan is a false target – the (also) Republican Sarkissian may be holding the keys, or maybe its Karepetyan. One can see instantly how this meandering maze of structures and interests can confuse not only external actors like the US, but even those operating very intimately within Armenian power structures.
There is a science to the Color Revolution, and likewise but lesser known, a science to countering these. While Gene Sharp wrote authoritatively on these subjects, he is better known for his work on the ‘revolution’ part, than the ‘counter-coup’ against it.
This is a subject which I have devoted no small amount of time to writing about, in detail, in the past. In particular, on the situation in Armenia going back to the 2015 ‘Electric Yerevan’ situation. In my piece on the Electric Yerevan from 2015, I explore the tactical, social-psychological, and sociological (class) dimensions. From the feedback from readers and peers in my field, the piece seems to be considered a great primer or summary of the tactic broadly applied. It can be read here: Electric Yerevan and Lessons on the Color-Spring Tactic
Some of our readers may not know that my background before the Center for Syncretic Studies and its Fort Russ project here in the Balkans, I was – in Los Angeles – a professional labor and community organizer, strategist, and negotiator for a local in one the US’s two major trade union federations, SEIU.
The tools we used were in large part pioneered by many unknown labor organizers from a century ago, often ‘bolshevik’ or ‘anarchist’ agitators who (in fact quite honestly) fought against the robber barons of the Gilded Age. Many of the ‘truisms’ and ‘insights’ were distilled into a few accessible books, like ‘Rules for Radicals’ by Saul Alinsky.
I subsequently took this experience, and have consulted both Macedonians and Russians – activists, officials, experts, and journalists (including some readers may know) – and shared these in order to help stop the Color-Spring tactic from finding success.
What’s clear is that the last three and four years, the Russians have clearly been working on the science of the ‘counter-coup’ – how to cancel, stop, redirect, or mitigate the color revolution tactic. They found some success in Macedonia at first, but ultimately arrived at what appears as a loss or set-back. However, it did delay the process significantly, by about two years, and allowed other facts on the ground to emerge in the interim.
We saw this used first in Libya, and then in Syria. These entailed mass mobilizations for government support. I wrote in 2015 in ‘Electric Yerevan’:
“What the government of Armenia can do is utilize the same science of organizing, and work the protests in reverse. They should not, under most conditions, use the state gendarmes to evict the encampments. Rather, they must cut the head and take control of the body.”
In conclusion, what we are witnessing right now is tremendously fascinating, and outside of the practical and immediate questions posed, gives us tremendous insights into how power actually functions and operates in countries which only have 3rd or 4th tier levels of sovereignty.