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.

Armenian riot police surround protesters during the 2018 Velvet Revolution. (Albero/Wikimedia)

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.

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 by 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.

What transitional justice processes are being considered? Prime Minister Pashinyan’s government initially undertook a series of swift investigations that led to criminal charges against the two former presidents. But these cases eventually ended up in the same judicial system that many Armenians see as untrustworthy, a system that Pashinyan has vowed to reform. This has led to debates in Armenia over what its transitional justice process should prioritize.  Pashinyan has since spoken of a more systematic approach to transitional justice that would apply to a broad range of abuses, including large-scale corruption, the recovery of ill-gotten assets, judicial reforms, and accountability for specific and egregious instances of human rights violations within the past 10 years or even earlier under the government’s roadmap for transitional justice.

ICTJ's Role:

In 2002, ICTJ was asked by the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) 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 will continue to 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 will 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 will encourage youth and student groups that were active in the period leading up to and during the revolution to engage with policymakers. We will 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 will 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 we work with in Armenia and will 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 impact 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 will provide 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.