Protests in Armenia: Nikol Pashinyan's unlikely rise

The Armenia protest leader – and would-be prime minister – has won over many of his former critics.

Nikol Pashinyan's supporters in Republic Square, May 1. (Nazik Armenakyan/4Plus)

Nikol Pashinyan, who has led the largest political protests in Armenia's post-Soviet history, appears likely to become prime minister, although the dramatic events of the last two weeks preclude any confident prediction.

But just a month ago, the mere possibility of Pashinyan – a former journalist and backbench member of parliament – being considered as prime minister would have seemed wildly improbable even to his allies.

In the space of a month, Pashinyan has transformed himself from a marginal opposition figure to a political phenomenon unlike anything Armenia has ever seen. He has both outfoxed his political opponents in high-stakes negotiations and proved himself a master of street politics.

The movement he led forced longtime leader Serzh Sargsyan to resign, and united to an unprecedented degree Armenians of all ages and backgrounds, bringing a new sense of unity to a deeply stratified country.

In doing so, he has quieted many of his erstwhile critics among the opposition, who have chafed at his frequent accommodations with the government he's now trying to topple. “I'm supporting him now, and not saying anything against him, because we need to have unity against this government,” said one longtime opposition activist, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But the day he becomes prime minister, I'll start criticizing him again.”

Nikol Pashinyan in Yerevan's Republic Square
Nikol Pashinyan in Yerevan's Republic Square after long day at the National Assembly on May 1. (Nelli Shishmanyan/4Plus)

Pashinyan, 42, began his career as a journalist and editor of the newspaper Haykakan Zhamanak (“Armenian Times”), a prominent anti-government daily.

He first gained fame in 2008, as a supporter of former president Levon Ter-Petrosyan's failed election campaign. Pashinyan helped organize protests against the vote, which Ter-Petrosyan's supporters said Sargsyan stole. The protests were broken up violently and 10 were killed, and Pashinyan was convicted to a seven-year jail term for his role in the demonstrations.

Released under an amnesty the following year, Pashinyan entered parliament as a Ter-Petrosyan loyalist. He, however, soon split with his former mentor and rebranded himself an independent politician.

He became a tireless advocate of opposition causes, both in parliament and on the street, rarely missing a rally in Yerevan. Pashinyan played a minor organizing role in the “Electric Yerevan” demonstrations, which started out as protests against high electricity prices but grew into a youth movement with parallels to other global movements in the Occupy vein.

The following year, during the standoff between police and the radical opposition group Sasna Tsrer, Pashinyan offered himself as a negotiator between the two sides. However, in a matter of days Sasna Tsrer announced they didn’t trust him, and Pashinyan was pushed out.

He also drew criticism for compromises he made with the government; on occasion he’s been suspected of taking orders from the Sargsyan administration. In 2015, he refused to join other opposition members' protests against the constitutional changes that led to the adoption of the parliamentary system, a decision that still rankles with many Sargsyan opponents today.

And he took part in 2017 elections many saw as deeply flawed, with widespread intimidation and vote buying on the part of the ruling Republican Party. But a grassroots campaign propelled Pashinyan and eight allies into parliament as members of the Yelk bloc, the only true opposition force in the National Assembly.

Taking on Sargsyan

He began preparations for the current protest campaign last year, after the ruling Republican Party won parliamentary elections. Under the country's new constitution, which has shifted the country from a presidential to a parliamentary system, the parliament now has the right to elect the prime minister, paving the way for Sargsyan to rule indefinitely.

Members of Pashinyan's small party, Civil Contract, agreed that they would have to fight against Sargsyan's prolonged rule, and settled on a march as a tactic.

“One of our party members […] who studied Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March and then Turkey’s Justice March, offered this idea of a protest walk,” said party spokesman and executive committee member Tigran Avinyan. “We didn’t immediately appreciate the idea. But we organized a small group to study the idea more closely and I presented it to the committee and Mr. Pashinyan.”

It was Avinyan who came up with the name of Pashinyan's march, My Step (ԻմՔայլը). The Armenian language can be cumbersome, but the two-syllable name was concise and easily turned into a hashtag. It also came with an associated call to action: “Make a step!” (“Քայլ արա”).

Initially, not all of Pashinyan's allied MPs supported the idea of protesting Sargsyan's continued rule, and the bloc appeared divided.

“I was quite skeptical about the My Step initiative, as I think many were,” said Marine Manucharyan, a co-founder of Civil Contract who left the party in January. “I couldn’t imagine how it would be possible to mobilize people against the current government without a proper team and a clear program.”

The skepticism was borne out of a deep mistrust towards the political opposition, Roubina Margossian, managing editor for the Armenian web magazine EVN Report, told Eurasianet: “We were sure that nothing could happen in Armenia without Serzh's OK.”

Nikol Pashinyan's supporters in Republic Square, May 1. (Nazik Armenakyan/4Plus)

Pashinyan nevertheless decided to go forward with the handful of supporters he had. He had promised, in terms that seemed grandiose at the time, “the biggest and most decisive rally in Armenia’s history.”

He began his march to Yerevan on April 1 from Gyumri, Armenia's second city, and it received little press attention. Three of the biggest TV channels – state-owned Public TV as well as private networks Armenia and Shant – chose either not to cover the opposition’s actions at all or cover them briefly without mentioning their agenda.

His allies tried stunts to raise attention: On April 11, while Pashinyan was still on the road, his fellow Yelk MPs Ararat Mirzoyan and Lena Nazaryan lit colored flares on the National Assembly floor and called on supporters to rally against Sargsyan. The stunt caught some attention, briefly.

Pashinyan reached Yerevan on April 13, three days before the vote in Parliament that they intended to block – the one to make Sargsyan prime minister. 

Gathering allies

Meanwhile, in early March, two young activists, Armen Grigoryan and David Sanasaryan, launched their own movement to protest Sargsyan’s election. They first tentatively called it “We will make a change,” but then ultimately settled on “Reject Serzh.” The slogan rhymes in Armenian, and they saw that it quickly caught on. “It’s really a very catchy slogan, I think it played a huge role in the movement,” Grigoryan, a longtime political activist and member of Transparency International's Armenia chapter, told Eurasianet.

Pashinyan’s group and Grigoryan’s initiative agreed to cooperate in mid-March. “I knew Armen Grigoryan since 2016,” said Civil Contract’s Avinyan. “When he was about to start the Reject Serzh initiative, we met in a cafe at Cascade [in downtown Yerevan]. We talked for a half an hour and it was clear that we’re on the same page and we agree on a common tactic – peaceful protests.”

Grigoryan, like most Armenians, had first heard of Pashinyan in 2008, and like many opposition activists, had his disagreements with the politician – in particular his approach to the 2015 constitutional referendum. But in the wake of Sargsyan’s power grab, “We understood that we could cooperate to make Serzh Sargsyan leave,” said Grigoryan.

“Initially, we agreed on basic principles,” leaving tactical moves up to particular groups or participants, Grigoryan said. “We agreed that it should be a decentralized movement that coordinates its steps going ahead. It worked perfectly for us.”

Upon his return to Yerevan, Pashinyan seemed to have reinvented himself as a politician. No longer was he the clean-shaven, suit-wearing politician that Yerevantsi knew from billboards during his failed 2017 campaign to become Yerevan mayor. Now – based on a collective decision of the Civil Contract leadership – he wore a beard, a camouflage T-shirt and cargo pants. “His whole image was a collective decision. But it was also a natural process, since we were walking for 14 days [before reaching Yerevan],” said Avinyan, the party spokesperson.

But more importantly, Pashinyan proved that he learned from his years in the opposition. To prevent the violence that marked the 2008 protests, he endeavored from the beginning to try to get the police on his side. On the march, he regularly shouted “the police are our brothers” through his megaphone and constantly apologized to officers on the street for the inconvenience. His insistence on solidarity with the police became widespread among the protesters, a remarkable shift given the contempt the Armenian public generally feels toward police.

Watching TV
On the television in her Yerevan home, an elderly woman watches Nikol Pashinyan being grilled by parliament on May 1. (Nazik Armenakyan/4Plus)

Pashinyan also proved skillful at maintaining public attention in a country with a long record of protest movements. He regularly appeared at unexpected locations, taking the protests to university campuses and state radio studios, and leading protesters on marches through working class neighborhoods of Yerevan that hadn’t seen a political event in decades. Every day, more and more people rallied behind Pashinyan, soon defying predictions.

“It always seemed like he was crazy, or getting paid by the government,” said political analyst Mikayel Zolyan, referring to Pashinyan's history of compromises. “But now when you look back on it, it all seems to make sense.”

Decentralizing leadership

Returning to Yerevan from a business trip on April 20, Manucharyan – the former Civil Contract member – was disabused off her initial skepticism. “I realized that this protest can’t be contained and [Sargsyan's] resignation was inevitable,” she said.

A key element of the movement was that it was decentralized: While Pashinyan led daily marches around Yerevan, and nightly rallies on Republic Square, other protesters turned to civil disobedience; small groups of students would shut down busy intersections without any coordination with the protest leaders.

The decentralization of the movement played a pivotal role when, on April 22, Pashinyan, Grigoryan, Avinyan and other leaders were detained in an apparent attempt by the government to behead the movement.

There were, however, more Civil Contract party members and “Reject Serzh” activists ready to take over. “They didn’t know we had substitute players,” said Avinyan.

The arrest backfired – that evening more than 100,000 Armenians came out to Republic Square to rally in support. The next day, Pashinyan was released and Sargsyan resigned.

“In checkmate, there’s a situation called zugzwang, when every move you make only weakens your position,” said Avinyan, noting Sargsyan's background as a chess grandmaster and president of Armenia’s Chess Federation. “Serzh Sargsyan was in zugzwang.”

Gaining celebrity

Following Sargsyan’s resignation, the movement became increasingly centralized around Pashinyan. While he had spoken vaguely of a “people's candidate” to become prime minister, it became clear that he was now referring to himself. Protesters added a new chant, “Nikol for PM!” and Pashinyan came to be adored as a national hero, with people using his photographs from rallies as their social media profile photos.

Even his style became a subject of imitation. He started the campaign wearing a faded Adidas cap, but at one point switched to a cap reading “dukhov” (Դուխով), which roughly translates as “courage!” It was designed by local artist Ara Aslanyan, who gave it to a Pashinyan aide. “I support [Pashinyan] because he is against the oligarchs,” Aslanyan told Eurasianet.

Since Pashinyan started wearing the hat, the artist has received more than a thousand orders. Aslanyan said that wearing his own dukhov hat, he was greeted on the street by an older woman who took him for Pashinyan. Many local businesses started pirating the design and selling their own “dukhov” hats. “I took part in the movement through my hats,” Aslanyan said.

ikol Pashinyan wearing his trademark hat during a rally in northern Armenia over the weekend. (Nazik Armenakyan/4Plus)

With the demonstration of his political skills, he won over many skeptics in Armenia's long-suffering liberal elite.

“The movement that he created has turned into a revolution in a true sense of the word,” Arsinée Khanjian, an Armenian-Canadian actress and activist, told Eurasianet. Khanjian has for years been active in Armenia’s civil society, but had avoided supporting any particular politician.

That changed when she came to Yerevan to support the protests, and happened to meet Pashinyan. “I was thinking I was going to meet a politician, and I’ve met a man. A man who is capable of self-scrutiny,” Khanjian added.

“He’s been very adaptive,” said Babken DerGrigorian, a Yerevan-based political consultant who ran on Civil Contract’s Yerevan city elections ticket in 2017. DerGrigorian said Pashinyan had “an ability to self-reflect that you don’t normally see in Armenian politics. He’s learned from other [mass-protest] movements. For a long time, I had quite a negative opinion [of Pashinyan]. But despite my best efforts not to like him, over time he earned my respect.”

“Armenian politicians lack the ability to talk to the people,” DerGrigorian added. “And Nikol knows how to talk to the people. He’s been able to connect with an average person in the way that no other politician [in Armenia] has done.”

Both Khanjian and DerGrigorian traveled last week with Pashinyan and his supporters to rallies in smaller cities outside Yerevan. This was a rare example of grassroots-level politics in Armenia, where usually the power balance can only be shifted through scheming in Yerevan’s halls of power. Pashinyan’s travel companions were struck by his common touch.

“People were all along the road,” Khanjian said. “And at every gathering, [Pashinyan] stopped to speak with the people. The moment he would step out of the car, they would run towards him. And he was absolutely available, completely at ease with this proximity.”

Because of the non-stop rallies and a night in a police precinct, Pashinyan’s been sick for the most part of the last two weeks, almost losing his voice. But when Khanjian insisted that he needed to see a doctor, he said he didn’t have time to go to a hospital. “With all these people coming to him, he didn’t even think that a doctor would come to him,” said the actress. Eventually, a doctor visited him, and he was put on medication.

“He’s the most human being of all the politicians in this country,” said Khanjian. “If we can even call them politicians. […] They’re oligarchs in positions of power.”

Many in Armenia retain concerns about Pashinyan but are holding their tongues, convinced that unity is paramount. “I have numerous misgivings, but I don’t want to talk about them before a snap parliamentary election is held and a new government is formed,” said Manucharyan, the co-founder of Civil Contract. “For now, any word spoken can change the mood and interfere with the process.”

“I wasn’t sure if I even should be with Pashinyan,” said Khanjian. “Until now my [political actions in Armenia] were on behalf of the civil society. I didn’t want to provide support for a politician. But in a very short period of time, I’ve realized that I was supporting Pashinyan because Pashinyan represents the voice of the people. He gave people back the voices that they’ve been missing for so long.”

With additional reporting by Joshua Kucera

Protests in Armenia: Nikol Pashinyan's unlikely rise

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