As mass protests wracked Armenia last month, 23-year-old Arman Arutyunian laid down his law school books in Vienna and returned to his homeland, sensing that the country was at a watershed.
Now, as the leader of those protests is expected to become prime minister on Tuesday, Arutyunian believes that political changes in the poverty-ridden former Soviet republic could bring back many other Armenians who fled to seek their fortunes abroad.
“Life and hope returned to Armenia. We finally saw some prospects and believed that the hopeless situation in the country can change,” he said.
About 900,000 people who were born in Armenia, a country of 3 million, currently live abroad, according to the U.N. Population Fund. More than 10 percent of the population left the country during the decade — 2008 to 2018 — that Serzh Sargsyan was in power as president. Of those who remained, nearly 12 percent live in dire poverty on less than 1530 drams ($3.20) a day. The nation’s official unemployment rate is 16 percent.
Even some Armenians whose families have not lived here for many generations feel involved in Armenia’s political transformation.
Rebecca Topakian, from an Armenian diaspora community established in France in the early 20th century, says the current changes may persuade her to stay longer in the nation that her grandparents left.
“I thought well, I’m coming to a country everyone leaves … and now the fact that things are changing makes me want to take part in a country building its politics and independence,” said Topakian, who is working on an art project about her family’s roots.
Armenians widely blamed Sargsyan and his ruling Republican Party for keeping the country as the Caucasus region’s poorest through corruption and incompetence. So when he attempted to get around term limits and remain in power, longstanding frustrations boiled over into protests of up to 100,000 that gripped the capital, Yerevan, for weeks.
Sargsyan had stepped down from the presidency because of term limits but then was appointed by the parliament as prime minister — just as the government’s structure had shifted to give the prime minister more power than the president.
Even before Sargsyan was named prime minister, opposition lawmaker Nikol Pashinian was spearheading protests against the move that was widely seen as a Sargsyan power grab. Faced with the raucous but largely peaceful protests, Sargsyan resigned six days after his appointment.
On Tuesday, parliament is selecting a new prime minister and, under a concession made by the Republicans, Pashinian appears certain to be chosen. That would bring into power a man who has offered considerable charisma but no detailed program for how to turn Armenia around.
“We’re seeing rising expectations, especially among the youth. But the opposition doesn’t have a strategy for developing the country, no plan for modernization. The big question is how the opposition can use and institutionalize the credit of trust that it has received,” said Alexander Iskandrian, an analyst at the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan.
For now, many of Armenia’s young people are caught between high spirits about the changes wrought by their protests — which were often marked by singing and dancing — and concerns over the challenges ahead.
“Our protest will have a point only in the event that the new ruling elite propose a new scenario to the country and will be able to realize it,” said Toros Khachaturian, a 19-year-old film student.
Karina Eritian, who has an economics degree, ended up taking a job as a supermarket cashier after being unable to find work in her profession, earning 120,000 dram ($250) a month. She is eager for improvements to come, but knows it will take time.
“We very much want changes, but something can hardly change in a month. We are ready to be patient,” the 22-year-old said.
Arutyunian, the law student, is optimistic enough that he doesn’t plan to return to Vienna, despite the potential prestige of having a Western diploma. Still, he understands that uncertainty abounds.
“Armenia got a chance, which can easily be lost if there won’t be structural changes,” he said. “We have made the first step toward change, but now are frozen in expectation of what is next.”