A political earthquake hit Europe’s furthest far-flung frontier last week, as Armenians voted in what has been called their nation’s first free and transparent elections. But just who is the revolutionary leader that has captured the hearts of Armenia’s inhabitants?
In May, Armenians protested en masse against what they saw as authoritarian political manoeuvring by the country’s ruling party. As EURACTIV reported from the capital, Yerevan, the demonstrations were peaceful and, ultimately, effective.
Thousands of disgruntled and disenchanted citizens rallied behind the banner of journalist-turned-politician Nikol Pashinyan. A khaki-wearing, megaphone-wielding rival of incumbent leader Serzh Sargsyan, he has spent time behind bars for his role in organising mass protests.
The April and May demonstrations, later dubbed ‘the velvet revolution’, swept Pashinyan to the top echelons of power and he was installed as interim prime minister of a minority government, pledging to battle corruption and Armenia’s oligarchs.
Still riding a crest of popular support, Pashinyan called snap parliamentary elections for early December, in a move denounced as “unfair” by Sargsyan’s party, the Republicans, who cried foul at the lack of preparation time.
It proved to be a crushing gambit, as not only did Pashinyan’s alliance secure over 70% of the vote, the Republicans did not manage to cross the 5% threshold needed to be awarded seats in the parliament.
But a lot is expected from the new prime minister by the inhabitants of a country where around a third live in poverty, economic prospects are bleak and antagonistic powers, in the form of Azerbaijan and Turkey, lie on the western and eastern borders.
Armenia is technically at war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is only de facto under the control of Yerevan, and has no relations with Ankara (Turkey has closed its border with Armenia over the Nagorno Karabakh conflict).
Moreover, the worldwide recognition of the the Armenian genocide of 1915 (the massacre of 1.5 million of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire) is a core aspect of Yerevan’s policy, while Ankara makes a priority of countering this effort.
Pashinyan brings immense popular support with him into government but concerns have already been raised about what kind of team he will assemble. Many of his party colleagues have never held public office and the Republicans insist they lack the knowledge to govern well.
To make matters more complex, Armenia has only just switched from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system of governance. Skills as fundamental as law-writing are in short supply and there isn’t even a parliament library yet.
Those issues notwithstanding, running Armenia is no easy task, given that it persists with a two-headed foreign policy that balances ties with both Europe and Russia, not to mention the tensions with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
In that regard, Pashinyan’s triumph has already sparked reaction to the east, as Azeri President Ilham Aliyev tweeted that 2019 will “give new impetus” to efforts to find a solution to the conflict.
The year 2019 will give a new impetus to the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement process.
— Ilham Aliyev (@presidentaz) December 14, 2018
To Russia with Love
Pashinyan consistently refuses to be drawn on whether Armenia’s relationship with Russia will change under his leadership and whether he will pursue closer ties with the EU instead, after the two parties signed a major investment agreement last year.
Armenia is also a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and of a Russia-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
He and his political allies insist that the new government will “look to develop” both relationships, ensuring “one does not disadvantage the other”, Armenia’s deputy foreign minister, Garen Nerzian, told EURACTIV.
But in a meeting with journalists after his election victory, the prime minister insisted Armenia is “not under anyone’s influence except that of the voters”, adding that “we’re a part of the Council of Europe but no one can say we’re under its influence”.
Pashinyan also has to tread carefully given Russia’s perceived unease with revolutions in the USSR’s old backyard and the new PM is on record as making anti-Moscow comments during his time in opposition.
There are also persisting tensions following Russia’s decision to sell weapons to Azerbaijan, although Armenian diplomats insist it has not damaged Yerevan-Moscow ties.
Shades of Che
Pashinyan is a fiery public speaker, whose image has taken on a life of its own since the revolution. T-shirts adorned with his face, car bumper stickers, even commemorative coins have already become a common sight.
That has sparked fears that the new leader could be swallowed up by the legend rapidly growing around him. When asked about the “cult of Pashinyan”, he insisted that the use of his image doesn’t bother him and added that it is “definitely not organised”.
Pashinyan counts Nelson Mandela and Lech Wałęsa among his political heroes, as well as Marxist revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara, who he admires for abandoning Cuban politics in order to continue his activities elsewhere.
“I refuse violence but respect Che. It’s not easy to leave office and go into the forests to continue the mission. I respect Che Guevara for that.”
The parallels are there if you look hard enough: Che Guevara’s face has been printed on any kind of merchandise you can think of, while Pashinyan also harbours dreams of leaving public office when the job is done in order to write books.
As an aside, the first law the new prime minister hopes to pass is a tax-free regime for micro-businesses. He also mentioned that he has no objections to entrepreneurs making money off of his image by selling their wares on the streets of the capital.
Pashinyan also shrugged off suggestions that he could turn to the dark side and go down the same authoritarian path against which he campaigned so fiercely over the last couple of years.
During the campaign, he pledged to “grab by the throat” the former ruling party but laughed off the incident later, claiming it was “just a metaphor”.
“Maybe my style is not nice to some people but the reality is more important than impressions,” he added, citing “the media being more free than ever” and his efforts to curb corruption and increase transparency.
Although huge changes have reshaped the political scene, the new government will not be using that momentum to increase the rights of the LGBTI community, as Pashinyan says “it is in all interests not to push this topic hard”.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in Armenia in 2003 but people still face social exclusion in what is a predominantly Christian country. Same-sex marriages performed abroad are recognised but ceremonies performed domestically are not.
Pressed on whether his government would work on the issue, Pashinyan said there “are many other important topics” and that “in the past, the issue has been put in our society from outside”.
He cryptically added that “I have [the] suspicion that this topic is being used in geopolitical games. I won’t be involved in these kind of games.”
Peak behind the curtain
It is hard to pin down what kind of politician Pashinyan actually is and to what political ideology he subscribes. He often avoids that line of questioning and says he is “pro-Armenian” and “beyond ‘isms’”.
Instead, he and his supporters believe that each sector deserves its own approach, be it liberalism in economic matters or socialism when it comes to welfare.
But his rivals have no doubts about where to bracket him and have labelled him a populist. One Republican Party member said that he is “a clear populist” and “part of his success is down to the rise of pan-European or even global populism. He has no ideology at all.”
Ominously, the former lawmaker added that “Armenia is a showroom to show what will happen to a country under populism”.
The proof of the pudding will be in the eating and if the Republicans do not appeal the result of the election, Pashinyan, the man whose face peers out at you all around Armenia, will hold court over the new parliament from 7 January.