Above: Student leader of Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution and Prague Civil Society Centre Fellow Davit Petrosyan helped build the network of student activists who would be the spark of change in Armenia. In 2017, his organisation, Restart, was involved in student protests against changes to the law on student deferment from military service.
In our series Students Leading the Change, we’re looking at the role of student activists in democratisation processes ahead of the November 17th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. In 1989, students in Prague took to the streets to protest against Communist rule. Armenia experienced its own Velvet Revolution in 2018, which also started as non-violent student resistance to autocratic leaders.
Prague Civil Society Centre Fellow Davit Petrosyan was a student leader during the Velvet Revolution. He shared more about his experiences in this interview with the Centre, and discussed the role of students in democracy movements with Prague students November 6. Watch the full talk in the video below.
Why were students so crucial to the success of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution?
When you are young, you see a clear division between right and wrong. As you get older, that line gets more blurred. Young people are more romantic and ready to take to the streets in defence of what is right. There were student structures that existed before the revolution, so people knew each other already and trusted each other already, so they were ready to take action together.
How were these student networks formed?
Our organisation Restart was involved in two big student movements before the revolution. Students knew us and trusted us from these initiatives, and we tried to stay true to our promises and keep our integrity. Trust was the key. We protected each other. We protected students who had been approached by the university administration or security services as a result of working on these initiatives. When people feel safe, they will join. You have to be very attentive to your reputation.
How did university and state authorities try to discourage students from participating?
It depends on the context of the country which tools of intimidation are used, but they always use tools that can work, so some people were frightened. Different methods can be applied to men and women and it can seriously decrease participation and dramatically influence the process.
Davit spoke with Prague students November 6 at a panel co-hosted by the Prague Civil Society Centre and the Charles University Faculty of Social Sciences International Studies Student Association (SIMS).
How did you overcome these attempts to weaken the movement?
It is very important to speak and communicate. In our case we had an “honesty hour” at our meetings where we could speak plainly with each other. I’m sure this also happened during the Velvet Revolution in the Czechoslovakia: One of the practices of the security services is to ignite doubts inside of people participating in pro-democracy political movements in the hopes they will turn against each other. When there is good communication, when people know they can share and trust each other, this can be solved. We always stood together. If someone was approached by the university administration, we would go to the meeting with them to support them so people knew they were not alone. We also gave them a choice about what they wanted to speak up about and what not.
What can students in other authoritarian or quasi authoritarian countries learn from the example of Armenian students?
It is one thing to participate in a democratic revolution, it is a very different thing to actually make the institutional changes to create a strong democracy. And the role of students is very sensitive here. Political parties like to attract students for their energy, but they will not necessarily prioritise the changes students want. Students should keep strictly to their own agenda. It is important to have institutional presence and institutionalise their energy and gain some leverage, otherwise their agenda can be neglected by politicians. My advice is to institutionalise as fast as possible early on in the democratisation process. Most politicians won’t address your agenda unless pushed to do so.
It has been more than 5 years since Armenia’s Velvet Revolution. What are the current challenges facing Armenia’s democratic student activists?
Much has happened in Armenia since the Velvet revolution. Wars, escalations on the border, snapp elections, a political crisis after the war, Covid 19, etc. Students are the ones, especially in our post-Soviet space and post socialist countries, students are the ones who really have something to say, because they were born in independent republics with free and open minds. I don’t look down on our older generations, the cooperation across generations is very important, but the younger you are the easier it is to push for changes. It is easier to take risks when you are young because you don’t have much to lose.
The students’ role is always to push forward the process of democratisation, in some places even liberalisation, which has to happened before democratisation. Students should be aware that for all political parties, their main goal is to stay in power. There can be very good individual politicians, but in general, the parties want to stay in power first. It is important after a democratic revolution to be vigilant and protect the civic space. There will always be need for changes. We need groups who can ignite and accelerate changes, and students are one of the pillars of this. History has shown that even most democratic governments will only do as much as society demands of them. They should always be asked to do more. Students are the ones who can push them. If we don’t push them, the risk is not just stagnation, we risk moving backwards.
Armenians, particularly young people, are responding to the coronavirus crisis with characteristic compassion and ingenuity.
Artists and activists paired at PCSC’s Vsyo Yasno workshop create eye-catching campaign against sex-selective abortion in Armenia.
In November, The Centre and Impact Hub Yerevan hosted two events in Armenia focused on social business, bringing together civil society groups interested in developing a social business.