Democracy vs Autocracy: A Fight for the Future

Special for the Armenian Weekly

YEREVAN (A.W.)–A capacity crowd filled the halls of Yerevan’s National Opera and Ballet Theater on Feb. 10 for a performance of the “Anoush” opera. Instead of a classic cultural evening, however, they found themselves in the middle of a contentious social battle gripping the nation.

Thousands gather in Yerevan’s Freedom Square in protest against a reform that would force citizens to make monthly payments to private pension funds.
Thousands gather in Yerevan’s Freedom Square in protest against a reform that would force citizens to make monthly payments to private pension funds.

As the show was set to begin, an opera administrator suddenly appeared before the crowd and announced that the event was being postponed. The performers, he said, were sick.

But the truth of the matter awaited opera-goers outside. As attendees walked out to get their refunds, they were met by scores of staff and artists, flanked by activists, chanting “Menk enk terruh mer yerkrin” (We are the owners of our country) and “Dem enk partadireen” (We are against the mandatory system).

The performers, it seemed, were sick from a controversial pension privatization reform being pushed by the government. The new law requires Armenians younger than 40 to make mandatory contributions of up to 10 percent of their salaries to private pension funds selected by the government.

The U.S.-backed privatized system—an extreme model only adopted in a handful of countries such as Chile, Kazakhstan, and Estonia—was set to take effect in Armenia on Jan. 1. But the Constitutional Court issued a temporary freeze on the law following a challenge filed by four opposition parties represented in parliament. They are set to rule on whether the mandatory pension payments are constitutional on March 28.

Despite the High Court’s freeze, the government has put pressure on employers to move forward with wage deductions foreseen in the reform. Both the Central Bank and State Tax Service issued official statements contradicting the legal suspension and warning employers to pay the deductions now to avoid facing “heavier consequences” in the future.

President Serge Sarkisian himself has publicly campaigned for the measure, hailing it as a “great program” which—although he himself admitted is opposed by 80 percent of the population—will be considered “historic” by future generations.

A young protester holds a civic initiative sign during a Jan. 18 rally against the mandatory privatized pension system.
A young protester holds a civic initiative sign during a Jan. 18 rally against the mandatory privatized pension system.

Meanwhile, the public backlash against the law has been nothing short of unprecedented. At the forefront have been young activists, mostly from the budding IT sector, who have coalesced around a non-partisan civic initiative named “Dem Em” (I Am Against). This young crop of new activists has galvanized a broad cross-section of society through their sophisticated use of online resources (such as their website and campaign techniques against the reform.

Also, for the first time in recent history, the main opposition political parties are working together in unison. This long-desired development (for many) has not been seen since perhaps the rigged presidential elections of 1996.

What’s more, the political parties are, for the first time, taking their cues from a non-partisan civic initiative. There is no question that the frontline of the movement are the professionals and young activists mobilized around

Even traditional, lower wage workers have entered the fray. Labor strikes and threats of stoppages have taken place by railway, metro, and electricity workers in response to the pension reform.

In a country with no labor movement to speak of, such spontaneous actions are truly telling of the state of social discontent. They point to the extent that even unorganized state employees are willing to go—under the threat of pressure, firing, and blacklisting—to express their opposition.

This wave of popular activism and mobilization holds the potential of being an extremely powerful force for social change. As one local newspaper pointed out, “If the interests of an opera singer and ordinary train conductor have started to converge [add on top of this IT professionals, student activists, and opposition political parties], there is nothing stopping them from joining forces and fighting together for the same goal.”

An anti-pension reform sticker adorns the frame of an HSBC teller machine in Yerevan. Financial institutions are to gain thousands of new clients should the private pension reform go through.
An anti-pension reform sticker adorns the frame of an HSBC teller machine in Yerevan. Financial institutions are to gain thousands of new clients should the private pension reform go through.

It is yet to be seen whether the protest movement can be coordinated to the degree needed to defeat the government’s unpopular measure. However, one thing is clear: There are serious changes in political attitudes and behavior taking place in the country.

A growing segment of citizens are shifting their focus to grassroots mobilization and direct action for social change. This is taking shape in the midst of, and in counteraction to, the state’s continued use of autocratic, top-down, and coercive practices for ramming through regressive policies.

In this way, the current battle over the pension system in Armenia is not just for the future of people’s retirement. It is a critical battle for the very future of the country’s democracy.

Serouj Aprahamian

Serouj Aprahamian

Serouj Aprahamian has always been actively involved in the Armenian community. From 2007-2009, he served as the Capital Gateway Program Director for the Armenian National Committee of America in DC, while obtaining a Master's in International Relations from American University. He also served for three years as the Executive Director of the AYF Western Region and has contributed regularly to the Armenian Weekly, Haytoug, and Asbarez. He is currently a correspondent of the Armenian Weekly in Yerevan.


  1. These civic, grass-roots movements should be encouraged and supported by all means as they are the only real cause for hope for the future of Armenia. They are the harbingers of change and not our useless, self-centred political parties who have shown their utter inability to lead our country out of its present woes.

  2. I hate “Democracy vs Autocracy” principle. For the last 100 years it was used to justify the invisible aggression of Great Britain and United States against Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. In Armenia today “Democracy” means influence of the United States, “Autocracy” influence of Russia. If that’s the case I am for “Autocracy”, as American Democracy means Civil Wars like in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya and now Ukraine.

  3. Hold it thre,as Saroyan would have said…
    We need neither of those.We need to copy,adapt rather the Swiss/Finnish and other Scandinavian countries examples..
    We need to have a non-committal country that does not tend to show any desire to copoy the so called Democracy -as you say- nor the Autocracy of the other…
    All officers9not soldiers) that become retired in Ra, ought to carry home agood latest model arm,say a Kalahnikov type.,as id done in CH(Confederacion Helvetiac) Switzerlnad. thus making it clear to axeris andgreat Turkey that the whole country is well armed (indeed besides the regular army ,Air force) and in case of any incursion ,it will be a fight to the death one armen taking care of ten axeris etc.,
    Also our Govt. should follow to the letter the mode employed in Democratically Socialistic.-Mind you I did not say Socialis…system of the aforementioned.
    We need change in RA indeed but through EVOLUTION..not revolution.
    First the Young will take to the street this time over ten fold of what they did last year and make the wrong doers understand they are to be counted with and by anc by dispose of the over-corrupt system.As to other issues such as Health ,Transportation etc., JUST COPY THE SCANDINAVIAN,SEDISH IF YOU LIKE dear Govt. of R.of Armenia…

  4. So these “activists” want the government to hand out pensions without any contribution from the public sector? Denmark has #1 Pension system, which is mandatory. Typical contribution rates are 9% for blue-collar workers, 15% for white-collar workers, and 12% for public-sector employees.

  5. Dear Mariam,
    In Armenia the salaries are very low compared to the Scandinavian countries.Indeed up on top of your `post I have also mentioned about the Syustem there.However,our RA Govt. should first INCREASE the salaries of the people..then apply the mandatory pension system.Latter should be (my viewpoint) some 5%.Fact of the matter is if the Govt. had acted properly,FIRST PROMISING TO RAISE-increase all salaries by ..say, some 7 or 8% then mandated that 5% ought to be deducted from the increased salaries,All would have gone home smoothly…
    Whereas they (Govt.9 thought to impose the Mandatory Pension without an increase of their salaries…
    It is that simple .Our Civil servants there(they would not bear to be called so.i.e,Քաղաքացիական Ծառայ-No siree, they are all University grads and ex soviet mentality Apartchiks,who only GOvERN RULE…even worse, I wish they would use the last words, they USE AS A ORDINARILY…ISHKHANUTYUN, ISHKHANS THEY ARE…P R I N C E S.AND THUS OUR FARMERS AND WORKERS ARE APT TO THINK OF THESE AS iSHKHANS PRINCES OF YESTERYEAR…
    sO MUCH CAN BE SOLVED AND RESOLVED IF THE gOV.T OIN RA ALLOW AND ACCEPT THAT FROM OUR 5 CONTINENTS COMMUNITEIS AT LEAST 5 permanent delegates be within Diaspora Ministry and now I have just added to that 5 delegates rather MPS from said areas within the RA National Assembly.
    And why not???? the Diaspora feels and does their best as brethren to those in Ra.(don´t count the bad doers) and are deserving at least that much to BE THERE AND COOPERAATE WITH THEM AND BY AND BY INJECT THE WAY THINGS GO IN THE WEST…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.