World News

Behind Armenia’s Revolt, a Young Army From the Tech Sector

Posted May 19, 2018 1:13 p.m. EDT

YEREVAN, Armenia — At 26, Lilit Petrosyan had a lot going for her, with a combined master’s degree in sociology and pedagogy and a job she liked developing features for PicsArt, a globally successful app used to manipulate photographs on social media.

Her parents nevertheless urged her to follow the path taken by young Armenians for decades: leverage her success into a Green Card or some other immigration visa and leave.

“I always said, ‘No, I don’t want to live in another country,'” said Petrosyan, sitting in the company’s open-plan office in Yerevan, the capital. “I am more about changing this country for the better.”

This past month her chance arrived, as she joined hundreds of thousands of other protesters in capsizing the ruling party.

Armenians under the age of 30, known as the Independence Generation because most were born after the country decoupled from the Soviet Union in 1991, formed the backbone of the protests. Within that broader group, tech-sector employees proved particularly effective in sustaining the demonstrations.

They used messaging apps like Telegram to coordinate protests. They snarled traffic by organizing infinite loops of pedestrians at street crossings not controlled by traffic lights. They donated money for simple things like a sound system and water at Republic Square, the center of the protests.

Tech workers described a kind of collective mental shifting of gears as they joined the demonstrations. They realized that by acting in unison, they might finally jettison the stifling one-party control over the government and the economy that their country had inherited from the Soviet Union.

“The new generation had never seen communism; they did not grow up with pictures of Lenin or Stalin or Brezhnev,” said Arsen Gevorgyan, 44, a co-founder of a software company, SFL. “The new generation is more active. They saw the internet, they saw Europe, they saw democracy.”

The countries of the former Soviet Union have seen many such “revolutions” over the years since the bloc collapsed. Ukraine and Georgia, in particular, have thrown out the old guard on more than one occasion, only to find themselves drifting back, often with the Kremlin’s encouragement.

Just a few years ago, there would not have been enough tech workers in Armenia to make a difference. Now, with at least 10,000 mostly well-paid employees in a booming sector of an otherwise stagnant economy, they believe they have the clout to press their demands for democracy, transparency and accountability.

“It helped to boost other people, who said, ‘If the tech guys are going out, why are we sitting on the fence?'” said Maria Titizian, the editor-in-chief of EVN Report, an online magazine.

Census figures are somewhat inexact in Armenia, a small country in the south Caucasus, but they show that at least 370,000 people emigrated in the last decade. The last census, in 2011, when the population was somewhat higher than the estimated 2.8 million today, indicated that some 45 percent of the population was under age 30.

The anti-government zeal among young tech workers was unexpected given their reputation for focusing more on the virtual world than the real one.

Plus, abandoning work to protest was not easy to explain to companies overseas that had commissioned projects. “It is kind of hard to tell them, ‘You know there is a revolution here, we cannot work this week,'” said Vahe Evoyan, 30, a physicist and computer programmer.

But as the demonstrations swelled, many tech workers recognized that his was a now-or-never moment.

Armine Hakobyan, 26, a digital marketing specialist at SFL, said she began thinking about what kind of life her 18-month-old son would have if Armenia remained the same. “It did not start on the street; it was something that happened in your mind,” she said. “You realized that you have to take care of your future.”

It helped that the tech sector is relatively oligarch-free. Armenia is a land of monopolies, with the government doling out exclusive control over various businesses. But the traditional powers had few means to pressure the tech sector.

Moreover, anger and discontent among the young had been building for years.

Many protesters mentioned a watershed moment from two years ago, after a four-day war started by neighboring Azerbaijan, the latest chapter in the nagging dispute over the mountain enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The oligarchs had sold the population on the idea that poverty and poor roads were among the sacrifices necessary to build a strong army. Then Armenia lost territory in the 2016 war, and there were reports that soldiers lacked basic items like bullets and medical kits.

“The government ate everything that was supposed to be used to supply the army,” said Samvel Mkrtchyan, 24, a quality-control engineer at Inomma, a small startup company.

As the young people evaluated the leadership more critically, they realized how the ruling Republican Party mirrored the old Communist Party. It controlled the courts and the education system, and you had to be a member to get anywhere in government.

The tech sector also rallied this spring because Nikol Pashinyan, the protest leader, emphasized nonviolence and broke with what had become stale protest choreography: a few standard speeches at the opera house in Freedom Square and a march on Parliament.

Pashinyan urged a campaign of civil disobedience everywhere, and the tech workers translated the idea into the language of the internet. They compared their strategy to a blockchain, the widely diffused technology behind online currencies that aim to stay outside government control, or to a denial of service attack that crashes a website because too many users try to access it at once.

“We would go out for lunch and never come back, we just stayed on the street,” Mkrtchyan said.

The government helped with a series of ham-handed responses to the protests, which started in earnest on April 17. That is when Serzh Sargsyan, the president since 2008, tried to bypass term limits by becoming prime minister under a new constitution that transferred most political power to that office — after having promised not to take the job. As the protests grew, he warned darkly of a repeat of the events of March 1, 2008, when soldiers opened fire on demonstrators after what many considered a tainted election win for Sargsyan, killing 10.

Like many of her peers, Petrosyan was enraged by the threat, making her eager to protest even more.

“From the first day that I went out onto the street I understood that something powerful was happening,” she said. “We all understood that it is not just a question of planting a tree or keeping up a street, but knowing that our government is outdated and that we needed to change it.”

Management at her employer, PicsArt — where the average age of the 350 employees is 24, and about half are women — and at many other companies, looking around at all the empty desks, bowed to the inevitable.

Companies with hundreds of employees like Synopsys and PicsArt gave their workers leave to go out, as did smaller firms.

Nobody was sure the protests would succeed. “At first we did not really understand the demands of the process or where it was leading,” said Mher Sargsyan, 28, the lead software engineer at SFL. “But I really want to stay here and to do my best to change everything around me.” That sentiment was not limited to the tech sector, with countless others blocking streets across the city. The younger generation, especially the high percentage of women who participated, are ecstatic that the protests succeeded, with many saying they want to maintain that effervescent feeling of potential change by doing volunteer work.

Most of all, they are staying put.

When the demonstrations first began, Vigen Sargsyan, 37, a developer at Inomma, the startup, was halfway through submitting the paperwork needed to move to Canada.

Then he joined the protests, including blocking a street with his 1994 black Zhiguli, a small Russian sedan.

He has since abandoned his effort to emigrate. “Now, everything has changed,” he said. “I wanted my country to be someplace where I wanted to live. Basically, we reached that goal.”