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Armenia’s opposition leader named prime minister, and his supporters erupt in cheers

After weeks of peaceful protests, Armenia elected a new leader to power. Parliament selected protest leader Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister on May 8. (Video: Reuters)

MOSCOW — After weeks of rallies and unrest, Armenia’s bloodless revolution secured victory Tuesday when parliament selected protest leader Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister, making a dramatic break with the ruling elite in the former Soviet country.

Upon hearing the news, a crowd of around 100,000 in the main square of the capital, Yerevan, burst into cheers, Armenian news outlet CivilNet showed on its live feed. A large truck carrying ice joined in, dumping a frozen mound among the revelers, who turned it into flying snowballs. Rock musicians took to a central stage, where they played to jubilant crowds of mostly young people waving the tricolor Armenian flag and photos of Pashinyan.

The 42-year-old secured the vote after his pro-democracy movement ousted former prime minister Serzh Sargsyan after more than a decade in power. A previous vote on May 1 failed to elect Pashinyan. 

Capping weeks of nationwide strikes, protests and carnivalesque street parties, parliament voted 59 to 42 in favor of Pashinyan. Charismatic and fiery, Pashinyan had convinced some lawmakers from the ruling Republican Party to cross party lines and vote for him — something unthinkable just a short while ago.

Pashinyan’s rise from a fringe opposition lawmaker to prime minister has been meteoric: Six weeks ago, he was walking through the Armenian countryside, Gandhi-style, protesting what he said was cronyism in the small country of 3 million amid accusations that Sargsyan had altered the constitution to stay in power. Attempting to drum up support in villages, Pashinyan camped in tents along the way, attracting followers and growing a salt-and-pepper beard that he still sports. 

At first, his quest to overthrow the government whose leaders have ruled Armenia since the 1990s felt quixotic. But then he garnered an enormous amount of support from the streets, surprising just about everyone, including, initially, his own people. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin — who was inaugurated a day earlier for his fourth term as president —rushed to congratulate Pashinyan in what felt like part approval, part caution. 

“I hope that your work as head of government will promote stronger friendly and allied relations between our countries,” Putin wrote in a telegram, saying this should take place within the framework of security and trade agreements Armenia has establishedwith Russia.

Honoring Armenia’s bond with the Kremlin, Russian media said Pashinyan will visit the Black Sea resort of Sochi next week for a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union, a Russian-backed alternative to the European Union comprising a small group of former Soviet states. 

Impoverished and landlocked, Armenia relies on Moscow for economic backing and keeping a simmering conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan at bay. Moscow operates two military bases in the country, which also borders Turkey and Iran. Pashinyan has insisted he wants to maintain relations with both Russia and the West, in particular the European Union, and balancing the two will be key to his tenure going forward. 

Temptation exists on both sides.

“For the new Armenian leadership, there is a unique opportunity to pursue a greater degree of strategic significance for the E.U.,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan, an independent think tank. “The victory of the opposition in Armenia is also a victory of the E.U., in terms of ideals and ideas.” 

Armenia’s bloodless revolution has so far avoided the aggressive response from Moscow that met the overthrow of authority in other formerly Soviet republics, notably Ukraine and Georgia, although that could change. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has praised the Armenian protest movement.

But being one of the few democratic countries in the neighborhood will not go unnoticed.

“The Armenian revolution’s tool kit is something that many opposition groups in former Soviet states will be studying,” said Lilit Gevorgyan, senior economist for Russia and the former Soviet Union for IHS Markit. “Ideally, many former Soviet ruling elites, including those in Armenia, would like to see the revolution fail.”

The uprising sent a clear message that nepotism and corruption cannot prevail indefinitely, Gevorgyan said. 

An even larger battle may lay ahead for Pashinyan: dismantling a ruling class that still holds enormous economic and political sway. 

Not one to do things by halves, Pashinyan on Wednesday will visit the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian territory that broke away from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union crumbled a quarter-century ago. While Armenian leaders in the past have sought to placate Moscow by recognizing the enclave as an independent state, Pashinyan wants it to be part of Armenia.

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Armenia’s revolution enters new stage as Russia takes notice

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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