After the 2018 revolution, Armenia emerged from decades of post-Soviet rule characterized by impunity for corruption and human rights violations; but its new leaders now have to draw up a transitional justice roadmap to overhaul a government captured by a network of corrupt oligarchs and powerful politicians and to meet citizens' expectations of justice, redress, and reforms.
Background: Armenia’s Political Transitions
Similar to the Arab Spring which traces its beginnings to long-festering grievances over unemployment, corruption, and human rights violations, the 2018 Armenian revolution was not an isolated event taking place in April that year. The revolution was driven by decades of hardship and abuses—from post-Soviet economic disarray and stagnation to large-scale corruption, election fraud, and human rights abuses carried out by a network of oligarchs and ruling-party politicians that captured the state.
Armenians have gone through significant political transitions in their history, from the Armenian Genocide in the early 20th century to the break-up of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a modern independent republic in 1991. The end of the socialist Armenian state and with it the privatization of many previously state-owned public enterprises led to economic and social turmoil. Conflict with Azerbaijan over a disputed region began in the late 1980s. It has led to tens of thousands of deaths and massive displacement. It also gave wartime leaders, including former Presidents Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan, the political capital to commit and cover up human rights violations and large-scale corruption, further weakening state institutions.
Since the mid-1990s, Armenians have protested electoral fraud, corruption, environmental harm, and various miscarriages of justice. Allegations of fraud involving the adoption of the 1995 constitution and the 1996 and 2004 elections provoked protests, which police violently suppressed. But it was the killing of 10 Armenian citizens—8 protesters and 2 policemen—in protests against election fraud in 2008 that prompted civil society groups to mobilize more systematically.
In 2015, after periodical social and political protests, some 20,000 Armenians took to the streets in the “Electric Yerevan” protests to oppose a 17 percent increase in the price of electricity and other austerity measures. The following year, a four-day escalation in the conflict with Azerbaijan brought attention to the scale of corruption in the military and the harsh conditions, even in non-combat zones, to which young conscripted Armenians were subjected and from which many were dying.
In early 2018, in order to get around the two-term limit that barred then-President Serzh Sargsyan from seeking a third one, the ruling party nominated him as prime minister, which would have allowed him to exercise broad executive powers under a controversial constitutional amendment. This ignited massive protests across Armenia, which culminated in the peaceful revolution that forced Sargysyan to resign on April 23, 2018, just a day before the 103rd official commemoration of the Armenian genocide. Nikol Pashinyan, a former journalist, political detainee, and opposition legislator who led the protests was named prime minister. In the snap parliamentary elections at the end of 2018, Pashinyan was then elected prime minister by a parliament consisting of many new, young legislators that formed the bulk of Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party.
The 2020 resumption of the armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the social and political impact of the hostilities prompted authoritarian-led governments in the region, alongside efforts by oligarchs and political forces in and outside the country, to roll back the democratic transition of 2018. Snap Parliamentary elections were again held in 2021. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his party won them in landslide, creating new opportunity for Armenians to consolidate and protect their democratic space, as well as fulfill the promise of transitional justice.
What are emblematic examples of large-scale corruption and how are they linked to human rights violations? Large-scale corruption and violations of human rights, including economic and social rights, have been mutually reinforcing abuses since Armenia’s independence in 1991. In what is known as the North Avenue case, the Kocharyan government forcibly removed families living in a historic neighborhood in Yerevan and demolished their pre-Soviet-era homes by invoking “the state’s needs.” The project favored private developers with ties to oligarchs close to the then-ruling party.
The truth about the deaths of young soldiers in non-combat situations has been a continuing demand of their families. The military’s explanations have not assuaged the families because these deaths happened against the backdrop of corruption in military procurement and perceived cover-ups and obstruction of justice in the closing of criminal investigations involving these deaths. These deaths, which have continued even after the revolution, epitomize the intersection between and the persistent capture of the State by powerful oligarchs and their political allies and impunity for human rights violations and corruption.
What transitional justice processes are being considered? The post-revolution government has tried to advance transitional justice and accountability by filing criminal cases of corruption and constitutional violations against two former presidents and some of their closest family members, applying pressure on high judicial officials to resign in order for the new government to introduce a set of proposed judicial reforms, debating judicial vetting in parliament, creating new agencies to investigate corruption and recover ill-gotten assets, and issuing official apologies and holding commemorations. However, no actual transitional justice policies have been enacted through legislation or implemented, and a transitional justice strategy has not been adopted. No significant measures have been taken to address demands by victims of human rights violations and their families seeking truth, reparations, and individual accountability for episodes of violent political repression, repeated or prolonged detention of opposition activists, the corrupt and unjust expropriation of property, and the deaths under suspicious circumstances of Armenian conscripts in non-combat situations.
The recent resumption of the armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the social and political impact of the hostilities, once again highlight the urgent need for truth, accountability, and reforms in the country. Now more than ever, a strategy, rather than ad hoc measures, is needed to overcome the entrenched impunity for past corruption and human rights abuses and to assess the emerging post-conflict needs of Armenians. Transitional justice cannot meaningfully take place in circumstances where the same oligarchs, political leaders, and foreign governments that benefited from authoritarian rule and state capture are undermining or even seeking to roll back the democratic transition that created the opportunity for accountability. It is therefore important to not simply pursue transitional justice in the midst of Armenia’s renewed conflict with Azerbaijan, but to pursue it with the explicit goal of consolidating the democratic transition; protecting the human rights of Armenians including their rights to truth, justice, and reparation; and demonstrating to Armenia’s authoritarian-led neighbors its courage to seek the truth and its willingness to discuss peace with justice.
In 2002, ICTJ was asked by the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission to facilitate the drafting of a legal memorandum on the applicability of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide to “events which occurred during the early 20th century” in Armenia. The memorandum concluded that the killing of Ottoman Armenians “can be said to include all of the elements of the crime of genocide as defined in the Convention, and legal scholars as well as historians, politicians, journalists and other people would be justified in continuing to so describe them.”
In July 2018, ICTJ met with Prime Minister Pashinyan and discussed the importance of learning from the relevant experience of other countries that have carried out transitional justice processes after authoritarian rule. Since then, ICTJ’s experts have met several times with civil society organizations, youth groups, human rights advocates, journalists, and the families of victims of corruption and human rights abuses. They have also spoken before Armenia’s parliament and met with legislators, justice officials, and diplomatic missions supporting transitional justice initiatives. In late 2019, ICTJ established an Armenia country program, which focuses on the following activities:
- We provide policymakers with technical and comparative knowledge on such issues as vetting, judicial and institutional reforms, accountability for corruption, and truth seeking. Among others, ICTJ has addressed fundamental questions raised by policymakers about the relevance, timing, and sequencing of transitional justice measures. We are also providing input on draft legislation and frameworks for judicial reform, accountability for corruption, and truth-seeking processes.
- We actively convene, and open and maintain discussions among, various civil society organizations, human rights groups, and victims of economic, social, and physical integrity violations and their families. Using this ability to convene diverse stakeholders, we encourage youth and student groups that were active in the period leading up to and during the revolution to engage with policymakers. We also help provide information to journalists working in mass media as well as social media users who are still learning about transitional justice, while also reporting and commenting on the debates in Armenia related to the topic.
- We offer comparative experiences and lessons learned from other countries that have embarked on a transitional justice process. We are also learning from our own work and those with whom we partner in Armenia and bring these insights to other countries. We are paying attention to how the legacy or continuity of political repression and authoritarian rule in the post-Soviet Caucasus region affect the feasibility, sustainability, and design of transitional justice. For example, ICTJ has done an assessment of how transitional justice work may be done in neighboring Georgia. In October 2018, Armenian parliamentarians took part in ICTJ’s annual Barcelona intensive transitional justice course. In March 2020, Armenian policymakers and activists joined those from Tunisia, the Gambia, Kenya and South Africa at our conference on transitional justice and accountability for corruption in Tunis.
- ICTJ provides training and technical assistance to Armenia’s parliamentarians and other officials as they design truth-seeking and investigative bodies as part of the government’s transitional justice roadmap. We will provide expertise to the government on constitutional reform and judicial reform measures.
- Apart from meeting with and offering advice to families of soldiers killed in non-combat situations in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, ICTJ avoided working on conflict-related transitional justice issues in Armenia. This was in part to abide by the do no harm principle. We did not want the humanitarian law aspects of transitional justice work to be misconstrued to support any legal argument on the status of the disputed region, and we wanted to avoid inadvertently disrupting the relatively peaceful conditions in the region that prevailed until recently. The resumption of the conflict with Azerbaijan and its outcome and the role that authoritarian-led governments in the region played, alongside efforts by oligarchs and political forces in and outside the country to roll back the democratic transition in 2018, have made it necessary for us to cautiously consider what ICTJ and transitional justice do to protect the political transition in a time of conflict-related crisis, advance peace and justice in Nagorno-Karabakh, or support efforts to resolve the conflict by promoting a narrative of peace and justice in society.