Vicken Cheterian

Nikol Pashinyan: The Revolutionary and the Prime Minister


For several weeks during the months of April and May, Nikol Pashinyan was seen on television screens wearing a t-shirt, a baseball cap, with rucksack on his back mobilizing the Armenian masses in what became known as the “Velvet Revolution”. When we met him at one of the halls in the government building in Yerevan Pashinyan was wearing a suit and a tie, fully assuming his new role of the leader of the state. Yet, he had kept the beard from those months of revolutionary fervour. Behind the new suite and the old beard, is Pashinyan still a revolutionary or is he a statesman?

When he is asked who are his political models, his answer surprised me. I thought post-Soviet politicians would choose characters representing democracy but also liberal economy. Hence, in his answer he mentioned Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa. The two East European figures, before leading revolutionary change in their countries had also been political dissidents against totalitarian states. Yet, it was the two first historic figures that Pashinyan mentioned that were surprising: Nelson Mandela and Ernesto Guevara. They were not only dissidents and revolutionaries but also Communists, and hearing their names from Pashinyan who comes from a generation that witnessed the collapse of the soviet Union, that largely associated Communism with Stalinism and the Gulag, rather than anti-colonial struggle, or fight for social justice.  

When I asked him how did he live his transformation from a journalist and opposition militant to head of a state, he answered: “All revolutions at a certain moment are faced with the choice: to continue the revolution or to consolidate it.” He said he chose Fidel over Guevara; sate building instead of continuous revolution, another statement that would surprise many idealist revolutionaries for whom the self-sacrifice of “Che” has made him an icon. 

Pashinyan has been in the public space in Armenia for decades. He was first known as a maverick journalist, an uncompromising critic of authorities. As founder and editor-in-chief of Oragir in 1998, Pashinyan denounced systemic corruption in state administration. The authorities took him to court for his boldness, and closed down Oragir after which he founded a new paper Haykakan Zhamanak (Armenian Times). In 2006 Pashinyan decided to enter active politics, following whoch he lived two turning points. The first was the 2008 elections that ignited opposition protests, in which Pashinyan played a key role. Yet, these protests were supressed by the army leading to 10 fatalities. Pashinyan went hiding for a year and then surrendered and was imprisoned for two years. It was time to rethink about his past activities. “Former revolutionaries led the people to disillusionment,” he said. The other key moment was in 2016 when a group of radical group known as “Sasna Tsrer” stormed a police station in Yerevan, killing tow officers and taking several hostages, hoping to ignite a popular uprising and overthrow the rule of Serge Sargsyan. During the two-week standoff Pashinyan with his comrades organized demonstrations next to the police station demanding a non-violent end to the crisis. To show that they were there without aggressive intentions they approached police units with open hands to show that they were not armed. Two lessons were learnt: never abandon the people half way, and use open hands and peaceful means to make change happen. 

Pashinyan is an atypical post-Soviet revolutionary. Unlike Viktor Yuschenko of Ukraine, he was neither the head of the central bank, nor a former prime minister, and unlike Mikhai Saakashvili of Georgia, he was not a former justice minister. Pashinyan was the radical opposition activist who struggled against the powers to be all his life until the revolution. “There won’t be any upheavals in Armenia’s foreign policy,” he said answering a question. Not only he wants to keep the good relations between Armenia and Russia, its major economic and military partner, but the new Armenian leadership seems keen in preserving its relations with neighbours as they are, while the country concentrates on internal transformation. 

When I remarked that what concerns women’s participation in his government looked more like old Armenia, with two women ministers out of seventeen, he noted that “woman, with youth, played key role” in Armenia’s non-violent revolution. Yet, “this civic activism has not been transformed yet to political activism,” he said, adding his conviction to see increase in women’s role in the political process in the near future. 

Pashinyan said that during the revolution, at the main “square, we raised existing problems, here we are to solve these problems.” The declared objective is to eradicate corruption and establish rule of law. The political course he chose seems to be coherent with his declared objectives. He did not carry out a revolution that dismantled the old system to build a new one on its ashes. On the contrary, he took power through the existing laws although imperfect and became prime minister through the vote of a parliament that had majority of the old regime representatives. 

Since, Pashinyan is busy dismantling the old regime. The first detested figure to fall was Manvel Grigoryan, a former war “hero” from whose houses large quantities of cash, weapons, and expensive cars were found, but the most shocking was to find humanitarian aid collected by schoolchildren and addressed to young recruits on the frontlines, where not only canned food but even handwritten letters were discovered. The revelation of this corruption exposed the degree of sincerity of patriotic discourse of the old regime, which had monopolized power in the name of “defending the nation” for many years. On June 25 the arrest of Alexander Sargsyan was even more sensational, who is no other than the brother of former president. 

Will Pashinyan be able to eradicate corruption and install rule of law, as he promised? Will the old elite be eliminated to make place to a new elite, or will “new Armenia” incorporate basic ideas of social justice in its political culture? Only time will tell. For the moment Armenia seems to be in a course of dismantling the old regime, against the general trend of international politics of populism, of rulers who stay in power for decades and continue to concentrate power in the hands of the few.