Following independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, civil society in Armenia began to develop and grow, not without Western donor aid. But it is only in the last five or six years that the nature and purpose of civic action have also become an important subject for (self-)reflection1 within the NGO and activist communities (Socioscope 2016; Ishkanian 2015). These have also been years of both small- and large-scale street protests on various causes. During this period, Socioscope team members have been conducting a number of small-scale studies in an attempt to keep track of the dynamics of civil society processes, human rights situation and prospects for democracy in the country. During this brief period, understandings of civil society members about their role and their position in relation to the government, as well as their perceptions and understandings about their work began to change. From the end of 2017 until early 2018, the period immediately preceding the unexpected Armenian revolution, these perceptions were already marked by considerable anxiety and confusion. With the increasing centralization of power of then-President Serzh Sargsyan and the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), there were growing concerns about the future of civil society as pressure from the regime on civil society began to intensify and become increasingly overt. As the recent Human Rights House Yerevan annual report has documented, this pressure included systematic attempts of producing unfavourable media discourses about HR activists and NGOs by depicting them as “grant eaters” and servers of outside interests, harassments of HRDs and in particular gender/LGBTIQ rights and environmental activists, obstacles to the activities of attorneys involved in high profile cases with large public resonance, just to name a few (HRH Yerevan, 2017). It was during this tense period, February-March 2018 when the Socioscope team and Prof. Armine Ishkanian (from LSE) initiated joint research examining civil society concerns and “responses to the shrinking space of Armenian civil society”. Shrinking or constricting space was how the situation was often described by many human rights NGO members, rights advocates and activists before the revolution. The interviews we had conducted with CS representatives and other key informants shortly before the revolution and prior to the start of this project, revealed apprehensions, concerns and analytical attempts that were informed by an underlying assumption that there was no room or possibility for a power shift. Yet, in less than two months, political life in Armenia took a dramatic and intense turn, which started with nationwide mass protests in April initiated by then opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan and ended with the May revolution with Pashinyan at the helm of a new government. Civil society groups – HR NGOs and informal groups/activists alike- played a key role in the revolution, as it will be discussed in more detail in subsequent parts of this report. For example, they initiated and participated in a variety of protest activities, including demonstrating in front of government buildings, organizing sit-ins, blocking streets, etc. Importantly, the very realization of the possibility for change –something widely disbelieved in the public discourse- was an essential social change.
The reshaped conditions after the revolution implied a reshaping of state – civil society relations. In this dramatically changed political context, it is important to rethink and re-examine the role of civil society in Armenia. Here we understand civil society to include both formally organised and professionally staffed NGOs as well as grassroots groups, civic initiatives, and movements. Drawing on the definition developed by scholars at the LSE Centre for Civil Society, we broadly define civil society as “…the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values…Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power”. (LSE Centre for Civil Society 2006: p. ii)2. Further to this, within our research, we have specifically discussed the role of the resistant or progressive segment of that civil society. We define resistant or progressive civil society as the groups that embrace a politically contentious stance and that challenge the conservative status-quo, acting on behalf of and defending the rights and interests of vulnerable groups in society who are largely oppressed, persecuted, unnoticed (ignored) and unheard (voiceless). Progressive civil society actors aim to advance the protection of vulnerable groups and to rally for social change.
After the revolution and the dramatic changes in Armenia’s political life, our research continued and we sought to capture the shifts that began to occur in civil society-state relations. Our aim was to examine and analyse the role of CS organizations and activists in the Armenian Revolution and to define both the opportunities and challenges for civil society in this new situation.