Almost a month ago, tens of thousands of Armenians filled the middle of the capital, Yerevan. They were listening to Nikol Pashinian, a journalist turned lawmaker. He was leading a protest against the old guard who had more or less controlled the Caucasian republic since it split from the Soviet Union in 1991. Power, he told the crowd, belonged to them and not to the politicians clinging on to their jobs. A few days later, the parliament reluctantly chose Mr Pashinian as prime minister and on May 23rd he formed a new government. What happened in Armenia amounted to a democratic velvet revolution—a rarity these days, particularly in Russia’s backyard. Unlike the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, it was barely noticed in the West. That is partly down to Armenia’s small size and relative remoteness, but more important still was the lack of violence and the absence of Russian intervention. Few pundits or politicians outside Armenia saw it coming. So why did it succeed and what does it mean for the rest of the world?

First, the conditions were right. The Armenian government had lost popular legitimacy because of corruption and a prolonged economic slump. So when the outgoing president, Serzh Sargsyan, tried to retain power by changing the constitution and making himself prime minister protests erupted. A generation of Armenians that had never experienced Soviet rule started challenging the post-Soviet elite. Second, Armenia is a mono-ethnic country backed by a powerful diaspora. Politically it is freer than Russia and more consolidated than Ukraine. Using force against fellow Armenians would have turned Mr Sargsyan into a pariah both at home and abroad. Mr Pashinian broadened the protest both geographically and politically. He rejected traditional, divisive definitions of liberalism, nationalism and modernism. As Alexander Iskandaryan, the head of the Caucasus Institute, said, he campaigned “for everything that is good and against everything that is bad”. Lastly and crucially, he steered clear of geopolitics, focusing the protest exclusively on domestic issues, and keeping out of Russia’s confrontation with the West. 

Moscow behaved with remarkable restraint, partly because it feels Armenia is not moving away from it and partly because despite its economic and military presence in Armenia, it had limited tools with which to influence the situation. In Ukraine, Russia exploited linguistic and historical divides between the Russian-speaking east and the Ukrainian-speaking west to ignite conflict, and then invaded the Donbas region. In Georgia in 2008 it used decades-long separatist conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as cover for an invasion. It had little chance of doing so in Armenia. It also had to tread carefully because of Armenia’s combustible relationship with two neighbours, Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Yet the fact that Russia did not interfere and that the revolution was peaceful does not make it less important. Quite the contrary. In many ways, it poses a greater threat to Mr Putin precisely because it has been peaceful and so far successful. Mr Putin congratulated Mr Pashinian on his appointment and shook hands with him in Sochi. He may hope that economic difficulties, inflated expectations, populist promises and regional conflicts will in due course allow Moscow to gloat about the failings of popular revolutions. Mr Pashinian stresses Armenia’s strategic alliance with Russia even as his country breaks away from the oligarchic system that Mr Putin embodies. Dismantling that system will be harder than ousting the government. So far he has behaved with caution, not promising miracles but retaining popular appeal. The revolution might be over; the transformation of the country is just starting.