Armenia's Pashinyan: reformer tested with historic war

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was celebrated as a national hero when he swept to power in a peaceful revolution in 2018, but now he is fighting for political survival.

Pashinyan has come under immense pressure to resign since November, when he signed a ceasefire agreement with Azerbaijan that ended six weeks of fighting for control of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The 46-year-old reformer now faces a key test in snap parliamentary polls Sunday, a vote he called in the hope of defusing a political crisis and renewing his mandate.

November’s Moscow-brokered agreement led Armenia to cede swathes of territory it had controlled for decades and was seen as national humiliation.

The president and top military commanders demanded that Pashinyan step down, and people turned out in protracted street protests.

But Pashinyan still enjoys considerable support and his backers say he deserves another chance.

During an aggressive campaign he said he expected his party to win 60 percent of the vote and brandished a hammer.

“This is a hammer that belongs to the people, and on June 20 it will fall down on your empty heads,” Pashinyan declared at one of the recent rallies, addressing opponents.

The former newspaper editor and self-styled man of the people swept to power with a promise of change in 2018, spearheading a wave of peaceful protests against corrupt post-Soviet elites.

Pashinyan at the time mingled with enthusiastic crowds on the streets of Yerevan, winning over supporters with animated revolutionary speeches.

– From hero to traitor –

In the provinces, villagers greeted him as a hero, offering him fresh bread and berries as he led the protest movement.

He walked hundreds of kilometres across the country, slept in the open, clambered onto the roofs of garages and stood on benches to deliver speeches.

Three years on he has lost much of his appeal.

“Traitor! Capitulator!” are among the insults regularly hurled at Pashinyan by former supporters.

“Pashinyan yielded everything to the enemy, this man is a loser who ruined everything. He has failed on all of his promises,” his main rival, former president Robert Kocharyan, told supporters recently.

Analyst Alexander Iskandaryan said that “Pashinyan is rapidly losing popularity and faces an uphill battle in the upcoming elections.”

Some polls show that Pashinyan’s party is neck-in-neck with Kocharyan’s electoral bloc. 

– Crusade against corruption –

Pashinyan was born in 1975 in the small resort town of Ijevan in northern Armenia and studied journalism at Yerevan State University, but was expelled in 1995.

Before entering politics, he worked as a reporter and newspaper editor.

He spent time in prison between 2009 and 2011 on charges of trying to seize power and provoking riots in post-election violence in 2008. He was elected to parliament after his release.

He would ultimately become prime minister in May 2018, following weeks of mass popular protests that forced veteran leader Serzh Sargsyan to resign after a decade in power.

He then launched a crusade against graft, initiated economic reforms and sidelined corrupt oligarchs and monopolies.

Supporters praised him for accelerating economic growth, reducing poverty and creating new jobs.

But then the coronavirus pandemic struck, followed by the war with Azerbaijan for territory Armenia had controlled for decades.

As fighting last autumn raged and Azerbaijan’s technologically superior forces steadily gained territory, the politician with a soft handshake and bashful grin morphed into a tough-talking commander-in-chief.

He called on Armenians to “unite and break the enemy’s backbone” while his wife and son went to the front.

When it was clear Armenia could not emerge victorious in a war with Azerbaijan, which was backed by Turkey, he described having to sign the ceasefire as “unspeakably painful” both personally and for the country.

In the runup to the polls, Pashinyan said Armenia had lost 3,705 people in the war, and more than 260 were missing.

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