8 May, 2018 11:43

Armenia’s everyman on brink of election victory. FT

By Max Seddon, the article was originally published by Financial Times

Serj Tankian, lead singer of the US metal band System of a Down, is used to a hero’s welcome in Armenia, his ancestral home.

But in front of crowds in Yerevan’s Republic Square on Monday night, the singer could expect to cede the biggest rock star reception to the middle-aged man alongside him: protest leader Nikol Pashinyan, who in two months has gone from obscure opposition MP to the cusp of power.

Mr Pashinyan, 42, has said big change is coming to the Caucasus republic after two decades of stagnation and creeping authoritarianism.

His protests ousted prime minister Serzh Sargsyan, who had switched to the job after a decade as president in an attempt to cling to power. Mr Sargsyan’s Republican party has said it will back Mr Pashinyan’s candidacy for prime minister on Tuesday in a vote considered a foregone conclusion. 

“They lost power because they were unable to see obvious things. Now they can’t avoid seeing reality,” Mr Pashinyan told the FT in an interview.

The protests by Mr Pashinyan have been a year in the planning, since his coalition won nine seats in parliamentary elections that he said unfairly favoured the government.

Though various opposition parties usually gathered about 40 per cent of the vote, the Republicans tightened their grip on power through their control of state institutions and universities.

“It was like the Communist Party in the USSR — the only route to advancement was through the party,” said Mikael Zolyan, a political analyst.

This spring Mr Sargsyan, a two-term president, admitted he planned to switch to the prime minister’s job after years of denials, prompting an outcry that a constitutional change he pushed through in 2015 was a ruse to help him stay in power.

At the same time, popular anger grew over Armenia’s moribund economy after the Russian rouble devalued, prompting a drop in remittances and an influx of Armenians from abroad who struggled to find jobs. Many lucrative import monopolies, meanwhile, were closely tied to the Republicans, sparking allegations of corruption.

Mr Pashinyan thought the time was ripe for protests — even though his willingness to enter electoral politics and make concessions to the Republicans made him a divisive figure, even among his own allies. 

“Before people were criticising him very much, I was also,” said Armen Grigoryan, another leader of the protest movement. But once the protests began, fellow activists realised that “he was the best character among us,” added Mr Grigoryan.

Inspired by Gandhi and Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mr Pashinyan began by marching from Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city, to Yerevan. By the time he arrived two weeks later, Mr Pashinyan had ditched his suit and clean-shaven look for a man-of-the-people appearance: salt-and-pepper beard, a camouflage T-shirt and cargo pants.

Mr Pashinyan’s willingness to compromise, which fellow opposition activists had previously criticised, helped broaden his appeal. “Pashinyan’s everything to everyone — he is a blank slate and a vessel for every feeling,” said Richard Giragosyan, director of the Regional Studies Center, a Yerevan think-tank.

Mr Pashinyan — whose face in the style of Che Guevara is stencilled across Yerevan — said he realised victory was at hand two weeks ago when police began to crack down on the protests and senior figures from the Republican party came to visit him in jail after he was arrested.

“They said that Serzh Sargsyan will resign in October. I said no, I don’t agree. Then they came back and said he would resign within two months. I said two hours,” Mr Pashinyan said.

The next day, Mr Pashinyan and his allies were back on the streets, and Mr Sargsyan had resigned.

Mr Pashinyan has faced hiccups in his attempts to turn his popularity into a governing mandate. After Mr Sargsyan’s resignation he put forward his own candidacy for prime minister last week — only to see the Republicans, who still have a majority in parliament, vote it down after a series of speeches that many in Armenia saw as dog whistles asking Russia to intervene.

The next day Mr Pashinyan called a nationwide strike, prompting the Republicans to concede defeat within hours. “People will stand on the street for one month or two months,” Mr Grigoryan said. “They felt their power and want their victory.”

If his ascent to power is confirmed Mr Pashinyan will have to work out a strategy to improve the economy and handle complex foreign relations. Armenia is keen to keep Russia as an ally: it also faces longstanding tension with its bigger neighbour, Azerbaijan — in particular over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave with an Armenian population inside Azerbaijan.

Mr Zolyan said Mr Pashinyan had already changed Armenia irrevocably. “There will be a hangover at some point,” he said. “But the problems are on another level now. Two months ago, the trend was towards tightening the screws. Now, anything can happen. It’s a completely different paradigm.”