On the morning of March 31st, opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan and a group of his closest confederates set off on foot from Yerevan on what would become, over the next several weeks, the largest and most successful application of popular civil disobedience in Armenian history. In launching a peaceful transition of power through direct action, the velvet revolutionaries set an unwitting precedent.
Various groups across Armenia took note and applied these tactics to voice their own grievances against a medley of targets, ranging from the valiantly just to the downright obscure (and even, absurd). One-by-one, peaceful demonstrations have popped up like Armenia’s very own Velvet Sprint. Critics of Taron Margaryan, Yerevan’s notoriously inept and corrupt mayor, occupied the City Hall in an attempt to garner his resignation. Supporters of the fringe militant group Sasna Tsrer—whose members had been imprisoned following their violent take-over of a police station two summers ago—began setting up their own roadblocks to demand the immediate release of those they deemed political prisoners. Even a local mob boss in Etchmiadzin recently attempted to cash in on the trend (a maneuver, which hilariously backfired when the Security Services arrested both him and the corrupt rival against whom he was protesting). The appropriation of the Velvet Revolution’s own tactics and slogans did not bode well with Prime Minister Pashinyan. In a Facebook post, he declared: “It’s unacceptable that criminal elements are desecrating symbols of our revolution of love and solidarity, and exploiting the revolution in mafia wars.”
But the most recent episode of direct action in Armenia is particularly noteworthy. Environmental activists based out of Yerevan have stepped up their campaign against the construction of a gold mine near the resort-town of Jermuk. This project, managed by the Canadian energy company Lydian International, has been denounced from its inception by environmental groups citing concerns with environmental pollution, damage to Lake Sevan’s ecosystem as well as a general opposition to mining.
The activists argue that direct action against mining operations is justified because they have a moral obligation to ensure that future generations of Armenians would inherit a country whose rivers, arable land, and air aren’t contaminated with heavy metals. The Lydian mine has been turned into their cause célèbre.
Such concerns are not unjustified. As Alen Amirkhanian, director of the American University of Armenia’s Agopian Center for the Environment, recalls, a history of poor environmental protection policy implementation, regulatory oversight and corruption has allowed for government-connected mining projects to wreak havoc on the country’s environment.
Lydian has, on numerous occasions, responded to these concerns by citing a number of independently-conducted environmental impact studies demonstrating the extent to which the mining firm had gone in order to comply with the strictest international environmental, safety, and labour standards. They argue that this mine would represent the gold standard (pun intended) of mining in Armenia. These findings were separately confirmed by the European Bank of Development (EBRD) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which both require extremely high levels of environmental compliance in order to finance projects.
Unfazed by these reports, environmentalists have resorted to more direct tactics. Over the last several weeks, activists have taken time off from their non-profit jobs in Yerevan to bus 200 km (about 124 miles) down to the chronically impoverished Vayots Dzor region and physically block work on the mine. These actions, which caused the mine an estimated 5$ million in damages, were harshly condemned by Pashinyan, who instructed activists to respect the rule of law and wait for the results of a promised government inquiry into the mining activities’ environmental impact.
For many of these activists, Pashinyan’s apparent solidarity with the mining company was interpreted as a stinging betrayal. The environmentalists, many of whom were veterans of the Velvet Revolution, called out the Prime Minister for what they saw as hypocrisy. By what right could he topple a corrupt and illegitimate government through civil disobedience yet deny the same recourse to those fighting corrupt and illegitimate mining contracts? Can Thomas Jefferson’s words: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty,” not be interpreted in both cases?
Indeed, civil disobedience has always been an ethically controversial political tool. Henry David Thoreau, who literally wrote the book on civil disobedience, long argued that citizens had a moral obligation to disobey laws deemed incompatible with justice. The issue with this line of thought should be obvious: Justice is in the eye of the beholder. And this moral ambiguity has been used to legitimize all sorts of actions across the centuries, ranging from peaceful boycotts to terrorist acts against both real and perceived oppressors.
Another way to put it is in terms of available legitimate outlets for expressing dissenting opinions. One could argue that the acts of civil disobedience witnessed during the Velvet Revolution constituted an appropriate response to a government which actively facilitates injustices such as corruption, impunity towards the law and so forth. The fact that the electoral system was designed to prop up the ruling party, rather than serve as a platform for popular expression left civil disobedience as the only viable recourse.
Reports by countless international observation missions lend credence to the accusation that the Armenian government was not simply unjust but acted primarily as a vehicle for corruption and injustice. In this sense, the Velvet Revolution was a morally justifiable challenge to the State order due to its popular backing, a lack of genuine opposition by supporters of the regime, and legitimation through consensus of non-acting observers. In Thoreau’s view, “All men recognise the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.”
The case for the Amsular protesters seems much murkier. The majority of protesters and their sympathisers come from NGO backgrounds, are based in Yerevan, and do not seem to possess an intimate knowledge of the engineering or environmental challenges at hand, other than a rather dogmatic notion that mining is harmful.
They also face the opposition of the local people who risk losing well-paying, long-term jobs. And perhaps most strikingly, they offer no viable alternative for sustainable development in the region. Organic honey production and cruelty-free farmers’ markets may sound really nice on a capacity-building grant proposal, but may not be as sustainable in the real world.
Organic honey production and cruelty-free farmers’ markets may sound really nice on a capacity-building grant proposal, but may not be as sustainable in the real world.
Environmentalists’ target is not an authoritarian government, but a publicly traded corporation, which has legally purchased the mining rights to the mountain, conducted every environmental sustainability study available, earmarked $450 million in investments into the area (one of the largest single investments in Armenian history), has paid over $3.5 million in taxes to the State coffers and created 1500 jobs in a region which struggled with chronic unemployment for a quarter of a century.
Crucially, unlike the people who toppled the Sarkisian government, the Amsular protesters do have recourse to a popularly legitimized government, which they themselves helped install. This government has heard their concerns and offered a sensible compromise.
Members of a vibrant civil society have a responsibility to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism towards government. It’s encouraging to see so many Armenians engaged in protecting the country’s environment and natural resources. Environmentalism is effective when employed to hold involved parties accountable, and propose sensible policy directives; the danger is when it turns into evangelistic dogma. It would be much more productive for activists to try to work with the government, with the companies to ensure that they comply with regulations; than to throw blanket attacks against the entire industry as a whole.
Economic development and environmental conservation do not need to be mutually exclusive constructs. Not all mines are created equal. Some deserve our condemnation. But by condemning the ones doing things right, are we overdoing it?
Editor’s Note 07/04/2018: An earlier version of this article misplaced a quote from Nikol Pashinyan’s facebook post. It has been correctly replaced to ensure continuity.
Editor’s Note 07/11/2018: An earlier version of this article contained a incorrectly directed link. This was fixed to point to the approrpiate study.