MOSCOW — After weeks of nationwide protests, street parties and jubilant mayhem, on Wednesday the leader of Armenia’s pro-democracy movement urged his flock to rest, confident victory is finally within sight.
It followed a turbulent 24 hours: After the Armenian parliament voted against making Nikol Pashinyan prime minister on Tuesday evening, he ratcheted up the pressure by organizing his largest-ever strikes and blockades of major roads including, briefly, the access highway to the country’s sole international airport.
To an estimated crowd of 150,000 people in the center of the capital, Yerevan, the charismatic 42-year-old said Wednesday evening he has since persuaded lawmakers to cross party lines and vote for the “people’s candidate” — himself — in the new vote on May 8.
“Now, we will stop our actions for a while and rest,” Pashinyan told his mostly young followers to enthusiastic whistling. “Though we’re not tired, we have to save our strength and be really ready to pursue certain goals. Continue your studies and go read your books!”
Armenia’s parliament voted 55 to 45 on Tuesday against making Pashinyan, who was also the sole candidate, prime minister, two weeks after Serzh Sargsyan was ousted from the post. If the vote next week also fails, parliament will be dissolved and new elections would need to take place at least a month later. Acting prime minister Karen Karapetyan, an ally of Sargsyan’s and a former executive at the Russian gas giant Gazprom, will stay in place.
Impoverished, landlocked and with close ties to Moscow, Armenia has been under the careful watch of both Russia and the West as recent events unfolded.
The country of 3 million has long relied on Russia, which operates two military bases there, for energy needs and economic backing. Armenia also counts on Russia for keeping its simmering conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan at bay, although Moscow sells arms to both countries.
Pashinyan has repeatedly insisted his movement is unmotivated by geopolitics, and instead by the need to dismantle the ruling elite’s authoritarian grip on power. But Russia has been steadily emerging as a player in Armenia’s political turmoil.
In an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, the director of a reputable Armenian news site urged the leader to stay out of Armenian politics.
“Trust me, the May 1 debates in Armenian parliament have reduced, not increased the number of people sincerely supporting stronger ties with Russia,” Ara Tadevosyan wrote in MediaMax. “You have so many concerns in Russia and globally, (the ruling Republican Party) isn’t worth your time.”
“Even you,” Tadevosyan wrote to Putin, “cannot breathe a new life into it.”
Ahead of the vote on Tuesday, lawmakers from the Republican Party grilled Pashinyan on a range of topics, questioning among other things his lack of allegiance to Russia, a claim he disputed as “nonsense.”
Some argue showing loyalty toward Armenia’s former imperial master is key to ensuring stability.
“No matter how disingenuous this may be, the perception of Armenia as a consistent loyal ally of Russia is more important than the reality,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan, an independent think tank. This, he said, will “avoid prompting any Russian interference or provoking any Russian move to undermine a new government.”
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.