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Armenians await change of government after peaceful revolt

Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinian led his supporters through the streets of Yerevan, Armenia, on April 24 to mark the 1915 massacre of their people. (Video: RFE/RL)
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YEREVAN, Armenia — As they do each year, thousands of Armenians walked through the capital on Tuesday to commemorate the massacre of their people over a century ago, though this time was different: The crowds were triumphantly led by an opposition leader who a day earlier had managed to push Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan out of office.

Clutching flowers and wrapped in the tricolor Armenian flag, people of all ages took to the streets to remember the 1915 killing of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks, in what many historians consider the first genocide of the 20th century. They walked solemnly but frequently erupted into applause and cries of joy over their victory, which came after nearly two weeks of peaceful protests led by a former journalist turned fiery opposition leader, Nikol Pashinyan.

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On Wednesday, Pashinyan will meet with acting prime minister Karen Karapetyan, a veteran politician who spent years at Russian gas giant Gazprom, to discuss a government transition involving a fresh vote for new leadership and snap parliamentary elections, all expected to take place in coming weeks. Pashinyan, who counts Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara among his heroes, has not ruled out becoming prime minister himself.

Authorities released Nikol Pashinyan and two other Armenian opposition politicians April 23, the same day Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan resigned. (Video: RFE/RL)

His “revolution,” Pashinyan told crowds Tuesday, clad in his now-trademark camouflage ­T-shirt and sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, “cannot be left unfinished.”

The nearly two weeks of protests focused on what demonstrators called Sargsyan’s authoritarian grip on power, as well as the widespread corruption that benefited him and others in a ruling elite who have been backed by Russia for decades. 

Tiny, landlocked Armenia relies heavily on former imperial master Russia — which also maintains two military bases in the country — for economic relief and ostensibly keeping a simmering conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan at bay. Pashinyan rejects suggestions he had consulted with Russia, telling reporters on Tuesday, “There is no geopolitical context in our movement, in our revolution. It is a pure, interior Armenian process.” 

Russia offered tepid comments on the events — rare for the Kremlin when one of its neighboring countries engages in pro-democracy activities.

“The situation is not heading toward destabilization. We are satisfied with that,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Tuesday, adding that the Armenian tumult should not be compared to Ukraine’s pro-Western uprisings.

“This should in no way be looked at as an anti-Russian upheaval,” lawmaker Vyacheslav Nikonov said Monday on Russian state television. 

Pashinyan insists he wants Armenia to have friendly relations with Europe, the United States, Russia and Iran, which it borders to the south.

“This is a wise move on his part,” said Hayk Martirosyan, a political analyst and member of the opposition. “Why would he want to antagonize Russians in this transition period? We don’t need to create enemies.” 

But as tensions between Moscow and the West escalate over election interference, Syria and purported assassination attempts, carefully balancing ties could pose a challenge for the new leadership of the small country in the South Caucasus. Pashinyan suggested on Tuesday that Armenia could not survive without Russian support. “Armenia doesn’t have a big enough army, unfortunately, to properly defend all our borders,” he said, “and this is a political reality that any Armenian government should consider.” 

Others were not so trusting of Moscow, and say Russia may favor Karapetyan.

“My biggest fear is how strongly the Russians are engaged with Karapetyan,” said Marine Manucharyan, president of Civic Forum, an Armenian nonprofit focusing on education. She said she is worried about a provocation in Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians broke away from Azerbaijan more than 25 years ago in a still-unresolved dispute, and where tensions are high. “Russia could manipulate this,” she said. 

Walking with friends to the 1915 memorial, 36-year-old physician Ruslana would occasionally punch her fist into the warm air and whistle. “For as long as I can remember, Russia has interfered in Armenian affairs,” said Ruslana, who gave only her first name. “Let’s see if they leave us alone this time.” 

Natasha Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.

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