Saint Nick of Armenia: how protest leader Nikol Pashinyan “rescued” Armenia and made it merry

Armenia's intensive street mobilisation over the past month has taken many by surprise. Who is the man at the centre of these protests? 

Emil Sanamyan
5 May 2018

14 April: Nikol Pashinyan on Freedom Square, Yerevan. CC BY-SA 4.0 Yerevantsi / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.Four months ago, Armenian parliamentary deputy Nikol Pashinyan, his spouse Anna Hakobyan and their daughter Arpi were on a New Year’s Eve programme on Armenia’s state-controlled Public TV. They were making idle talk about holiday routines when the anchor wondered if Pashinyan had asked Santa for anything political.

“I think in politics, people are the Santa Claus,” Pashinyan said. “And I want our people to realise that the notion that they cannot change anything is wrong, that in fact they decide their destiny.”

These words proved to be nothing short of prophecy. In just 10 days in April, acts of civil disobedience by a determined few snowballed into massive, unprecedented nationwide protests that forced Serzh Sargsyan, Armenia’s leader since 2008, to resign. And thanks to the protests, Pashinyan is now positioned to succeed Sargsyan.

More than anything, these events have become an exercise of power that Armenian citizens have never previously enjoyed. Since Armenia’s independence in 1991, incumbents have always won (or stolen) elections. Those who protested never reached the critical mass necessary to overcome the combination of state harassment and society’s widespread cynicism.

The chain of events in Armenia in the last few weeks has been so rapid, so seemingly profound, many Armenians might well come to believe that it involved some form of divine intervention, with 42-year-old Pashinyan representing the otherworldly in earthly form. The salt-and-pepper beard Pashinyan wears was grown specially for the protests, just like shopping mall Santas grow them for Christmas. With celebrations wrapping up, Pashinyan now faces huge public expectations. Can his now signature backpack fit enough gifts for everyone?

“Take a step, reject Serzh!”

As he neared the end of his second term as Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan decided to slide himself into the seat of prime minister, which became the country’s top political job after a new constitution took effect in April. Armenia’s foreign partners, including those in the European Union, as well as many domestic opponents, seemed resigned to the fact that Sargsyan was establishing indefinite rule.

Many, but not all. “Our long-term goal is the change of government,” activist David Sanasaryan said in late March 2018, before the launch of “Reject Serzh” campaign. Though Sanasaryan conceded that the chances of thwarting Sargsyan’s election were not great, “it would be worse if we all stay home and do nothing.” Sanasaryan and a few others began staging street protests, painting anti-Sargsyan graffiti around Yerevan.

“We need to prevent Armenia’s Azerbaijanisation,” Nikol Pashinyan told news outlets, referring to the fact that Azerbaijani ruler Ilham Aliyev was about to win a fourth term as president, following his late father’s decades in power. To draw attention to their anti-Sargsyan protest, Pashinyan and several dozen colleagues from his Civil Contract party began walking from the northern city of Gyumri to Yerevan in what became known as the “Take a step” campaign.

Promotional video for the Take a Step campaign. Source: Youtube.

The group covered the roughly 200km in two weeks, walking for several hours a day and blogging about it, to little public reaction. Discussing the hike’s practical aspects, Pashinyan said that he prepared for it by losing 20 kilos over six months through daily exercise. Even Pashinyan’s supporters made light of the campaign, calling it “Nikol-fitness”.

“Our hope was to spoil Serzh’s celebration,” opposition MP Ararat Mirzoyan told RFE/RL, acknowledging that expectations were modest. There was an established tradition of activists doing just that, forcing past presidential inaugurations in Armenia to take place behind police cordons rather than in public.

From opposition journalist to opposition activist

Nikol Pashinyan has been a fixture in Armenian opposition circles for two decades. After being dismissed from the journalism faculty of the Yerevan State University in 1995 over his criticism of university corruption, Pashinyan went into opposition journalism full-time.

Day in and day out, Pashinyan’s paper Haykakan Zhamanak (Armenian Time) launched verbal attacks against president Robert Kocharyan, individual government members and whatever policies the government was pursuing at the time and — according to the US embassy — had “a reputation for publishing unfounded stories that tended not to be borne out.” Haykakan Zhamanak, which Pashinyan edited from 1999 to 2012, was established by one of Armenia’s many dwarf opposition groups, the Democratic Homeland Party, which split off from the Armenian National Movement while it was still in power.

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March 2018: Nikol Pashinyan gives an interview to ParaTV. Source: Youtube / ParaTV.Still, the hard-hitting polemics helped Haykakan Zhamanak become a best-selling daily in Armenia and increasingly a target of government libel suits and outright attacks. In 2004, Pashinyan’s car was torched, as he suspected by the men of Gagik Tsarukyan, a businessman close to Kocharyan. In his first, unsuccessful bid for parliament in 2007, Pashinyan and supporters were attacked and beaten by police.

Seeking to challenge the status quo, Pashinyan became a vocal proponent of ex-president Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s return to politics. That materialised in the 2008 presidential elections, in which Serzh Sargsyan ran as a successor to Kocharyan. Per official results Sargsyan won, but Ter-Petrosyan claimed victory himself and launched a protest campaign. Soon, the government began to crack as officials — many of them holdovers from Ter-Petrosyan’s administration — began to defect. In response, Kocharyan ordered police to disperse protesters and introduced a state of emergency. During street clashes, ten people were killed (eight civilians and two security personnel) in what became known as “March 1 events,” the bloodiest day in Armenia’s politics since independence.

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The fifth day of of Armenian presidential election protests in March 2008. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.Pashinyan fled from the police in the aftermath, hiding with friends of friends for over a year. Most of that time he lived in a house on Yerevan’s outskirts, across an alley from the house of a government minister. As Pashinyan later said, he was hoping large-scale protests would resume and he would come out of hiding and join them. That never happened, and Pashinyan decided to turn himself in. He was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of provoking mass riots. In 2011, Pashinyan was released on amnesty after a year and ten months in prison.

Election to parliament and claims of “selling out”

In 2012, Nikol Pashinyan was elected to parliament on the list of Ter-Petrosyan-led Armenian National Congress (ANK). But he soon fell out with Ter-Petrosyan. During the 2013 presidential election, Pashinyan — unlike most others in ANK — backed Raffi Hovannisian’s campaign. The US-born Hovannisian managed to win almost twice as many votes as Ter-Petrosyan did five years earlier, while introducing several novelties into Armenian politics such as personal campaigning and conciliatory rhetoric towards government officials — tactics that Pashinyan later embraced himself. But in the incestuous world of Armenian politics, Pashinyan was quickly branded a traitor by his former allies.

“Nikol was attacked viciously after he separated [from ANK],” Gevorg Ter-Gabrielyan, a veteran observer of Armenian politics, tells me. “They called Nikol - Kocharyan’s creation or Serzh’s creation; that he was Putin’s creation, a Western creation.” These attitudes were so strong that when parliamentary elections came in 2017, Ter-Gabrielyan voted for Pashinyan, but would not admit this fact to his friends in the opposition. For Pashinyan’s detractors, the fact that the Pashinyan-led bloc named Yelk (Armenian for “Way Out”) was the only opposition group to win seats in Armenia’s parliament and the first opposition group to recognise the official election results only confirmed that he had “sold out”.

Armenian president and Serzh Sargsyan and Nikol Pashinyan meet for the first time during the protests. Source: Radio Azaztutyun.

While in Parliament, Pashinyan remained a vociferous public critic of government policies, frequently grilling testifying officials without mercy. At the same time, he worked to solidify his patriotic credentials, which have long the Achilles’ heel of other opposition figures. During the April 2016 war with Azerbaijan, for example, Pashinyan together with members of his Civil Contract party joined thousands of other volunteers from Armenia to serve as auxiliaries reinforcing the Armenian frontline in Karabakh. Several months later, Pashinyan joined a parliamentary delegation that reviewed works to upgrade these defenses, producing a detailed report published in Haykakan Zhamanak.

Indeed, Pashinyan’s views on the Karabakh conflict have grown increasingly distinct from those of the concessions-minded Levon Ter-Petrosyan. In July 2016, Pashinyan was asked about the formerly Azerbaijani-populated areas around Nagorno Karabakh under Armenian control since 1993. His answer was categorical: “territory we now control is necessary for our survival as a state”. For Pashinyan, there could be no talk of territorial concessions while the conflict continued.

“Pashinyan is one of the most principled people I know,” says Tevan Poghosyan, Pashinyan’s former parliamentary colleague, who helped broker his initial talks with president Armen Sarkissian as protests were underway. “I am certain he will stick to everything he says.”

Christmas in April

The unorthodox approach of Pashinyan’s party was on display again when Armenian MPs Ararat Mirzoyan and Lena Nazaryan announced the start of protests against Sargsyan’s election by lighting green- and yellow-coloured flares in parliament on 11 April. Representatives of the parliamentary majority were only mildly annoyed, while fellow opposition MPs from Pashinyan-led bloc complained that they were not consulted.

Returning to Yerevan by foot from Gyumri on 13 April, Pashinyan went straight to his almost alma mater, Yerevan State University, encouraging students to join actions of peaceful civil disobedience. Students turned out in numbers and with an enthusiasm rarely seen in Armenia. It helped that Pashinyan was Armenia’s youngest opposition leader since the 1980s. He also appealed to nationalist sentiments: “We will not let Serzh turn Armenia into Azerbaijan,” Pashinyan repeated through a megaphone as he led marchers through Yerevan’s streets.  


14 April: Nikol Pashinyan at Public Radio of Armenia. Source: Public Radio of Armenia.On 14 April, Pashinyan-led protesters broke into the building of Public Radio of Armenia and demanded an opportunity to speak live on air — an unusual request considering their protests were already being broadcast live by half a dozen media outlets. A Jesus and the money-changers moment, the radio break-in helped spread the word of the protests and channel the protesters’ determination even as they insisted they were acting peacefully, raising their hands in the air and professing brotherhood with the Yerevan police.

Subsequent blockades of major Yerevan thoroughfares and an attempt to breach the police cordon around parliament (when Pashinyan injured his hands) brought even more public attention and first foreign media coverage. As the protest expanded, Pashinyan moved it to the Republic Square — a huge space in central Yerevan that can accommodating more than 100,000 people, but rarely rarely used by previous, smaller protest movements.

It was at this point that the protests’ message began to get traction with Armenian celebrities. In the early days of the protest, Pashinyan read out Facebook messages from rock musician Serj Tankian and pop star Sirusho (who, incidentally, is the daughter-in-law of ex-president Robert Kocharyan). Armenian embassies were picketed abroad, and there was even a small but symbolically significant picket in Nagorno Karabakh, where political protests are rarely permitted.  

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25 April: Republic Square, Yerevan. Source: Mikayel Zolyan.When Pashinyan announced his demands on 20 April that Sargsyan resign from the premiership to which he was just elected, that a “people’s candidate” be elected instead and that interim government is formed which would prepare new elections, few expected that any of that was about to happen. On 22 April, Pashinyan, Mirzoyan, Sanasaryan and hundreds of others were detained, but the numbers of protesters only grew. The next day Pashinyan and others were released and Sargsyan resigned, admitting personal defeat while granting an unprecedented victory to his nation.

Great expectations

Sargsyan’s resignation ushered in celebrations Armenians have scarcely ever seen — particularly on the eve of 24 April, which marks anniversary of the Armenian genocide. After a pause for the memorial, Pashinyan continued his push, rejecting any deals with Sargsyan’s Republican Party and demanding that he be elected as prime minister “on behalf of the people,” launching nationwide strikes and blockades. As of writing, the parliamentary majority agreed to this demand as well, with a vote slated for 8 May expected to mark an happy end to what has so far been a fairy tale.

This process has seen Pashinyan transform from a lonely Don Quixote figure into a warrior-like Santa who managed to “rescue” Armenia from a corrupt regime. The level of Pashinyan’s popularity at this point is probably without precedent in Armenian history. The only one who comes close is Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who was elected president in 1991 with 83% of the vote. That vote was followed by the war in Karabakh and economic crisis throughout the post-Soviet republics. By 1994, Ter-Petrosyan’s popularity had deteriorated, and he banned the country’s main opposition party and shut down its media. Ter-Petrosyan’s loyalists then falsified a constitutional referendum, as well as the parliamentary and presidential elections, laying the groundwork for the cynical politics of the next two decades.


1 May: Nikol Pashinyan speaks in parliament. (c) Gevorg Ghazaryan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.It remains to be seen to what extent Pashinyan will be able to avoid repeating past mistakes or making new ones. For now, he has justified his first name — which translates from the Greek as the “people’s victor”. His last name is believed to be derived from Turkish “pasha” or “general”.

“Pashinyan has reassured Russia, as well as Armenia’s Western partners, about continuity in Armenia’s foreign policy,” says Arsen Kharatyan, who helped found the Pashinyan-led Civil Contract party and organise this spring’s protests. Indeed, most of Pashinyan’s focus has been on domestic affairs: ensuring fair elections and fair economic competition, eliminating government corruption.

“There will also be renewed focus on bolstering ties with both Georgia and Iran,” says Kharatyan. “We also want to see positive steps from the Turkish government that could promote a better climate for talks with Azerbaijan.”

In a victory speech on 2 May in the the Republic Square, Pashinyan promised to “finally make the Nagorno Karabakh Republic an inseparable part of the Republic of Armenia.” Unification was the original goal of the Karabakh movement when it began in 1988, but the official position has since shifted to Karabakh being a separate political entity.

Azerbaijan, of course, continues to insist that Karabakh is its territory and that Armenians should give it up. But Pashinyan’s rise in Armenia introduces added unpredictability for Azerbaijani leadership, which will try to find ways to continue to pressure Armenia, and not least to discipline domestic critics who may find inspiration from the events there.

A similar set of concerns is likely to be considered in the Kremlin: do events in Armenia undermine Russian regional influence or, more profoundly, can they serve as precedent for Russia? And if so, what can be done about that?

Having succeeded in his domestic rescue mission, Pashinyan and his supporters will now face external challenges that are no less daunting.


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