Leader Of Armenia's 'Velvet Revolution' Takes Power After Weeks Of Protests

May 8, 2018
Originally published on May 8, 2018 10:44 am

Three weeks ago, things in Armenia were proceeding roughly as expected.

Serzh Sargsyan had just followed his two terms as president by winning election as the country's prime minister, largely on the strength of his ruling Republican Party. He had been in power for a decade, and recent constitutional changes to boost the premier's authority had made the office an enticing way to retain that power while still observing term limits.

And if there were crowds in the streets protesting — even then — what did they compare to the authority entrenched in the halls of the National Assembly?

Now, that question has been answered — but not the way one might have anticipated.

On Tuesday, half a month after Sargsyan stepped down under popular pressure, Armenian lawmakers elected rough-hewn protest leader, Nikol Pashinyan, 42, to be the country's next prime minister.

It was Pashinyan's second attempt in the span of a week, after he failed to win the Republican Party's support.

This time around the party relented to the tens of thousands of Pashinyan's supporters in the capital, Yerevan, who cheered the balding former journalist known for his ratty camouflage T-shirt and graying beard. The National Assembly voted 59-42 to make him premier.

Armenian President Armen Sarkissian then signed the decree appointing Pashinyan to the position.

"Your victory is not that I was elected as prime minister of Armenia," he told the crowd in Republic Square after the vote, according to a New York Times translation, "your victory is that you decided who should be prime minister of Armenia."

During the weeks of unrest leading to this moment, Pashinyan had repeatedly called the protest movement a "nonviolent velvet revolution," comparing the demonstrations to the peaceful 1989 revolt that ended Communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia. Reuters reports that, now that the movement has achieved its aims, Pashinyan said he would pursue an aggressive anti-corruption campaign — but that there would also be no "pogrom" against holdovers from the ruling party.

The majority Republican Party, meanwhile, accepted Pashinyan's election with ambivalence, bowing to the demands of the crowds but explaining that it would become the principal opposition party.

"We do not consider it expedient to cooperate with the new government," party member Armen Ashotyan said Tuesday, as translated by The Associated Press, "it would be hypocritical to consider the issue of our participation in the new government."

The new leader of the landlocked former Soviet republic received a much warmer embrace from Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday. Pashinyan has promised to maintain Armenia's partnership with the regional heavyweight to the north, which stations military in Armenia and helps buoy the small country financially. And Putin, who just inaugurated a new term as president himself, quickly congratulated Pashinyan.

"I expect that your work as the head of government will contribute to further strengthening the friendly, allied relations between our countries," the Russian president said in his message.

Pashinyan's polemics against the powerful as a longtime newsman brought him his first glints of fame and even some time in prison. Now that he has taken power himself, his fellow lawmakers still view him with caution — a caution his supporters have largely exchanged for hope.

"We chose a new road in Armenia where the driver will be the people and not clans," one middle-aged demonstrator told the AP on Tuesday. "Jobs will appear, people will return, corruption will disappear"

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