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  • Writer's pictureNina Kolarzik

Nikol Pashinyan: Revolutionary Hero or National Traitor?

Updated: Jan 14

Most renowned political leaders care vastly about how their achievements and actions for their countries (or parties or military groups) are remembered; and how they are remembered: as heroes or as traitors, winners or losers. The story of Nikol Pashinyan, prime minister of the Republic of Armenia, is still being written. To date, several chapters have been filled in which he takes on differing roles.

Pashinyan, the Journalist

In 2006, Nikol Pashinyan was a journalist editing the Haykakan Zhamanak Daily (the Armenian Times), an opposition newspaper he founded after having been dismissed from Yerevan State University. As a student, he reported critically on politics and public officials. Over time, his journalistic activities merged with his political actions.

The biggest political protest at that point, during the presidential elections in 2008, ended in an escalation of the military and police response during which ten people were killed, nearly 200 injured, and 150 arrested. Pashinyan was sought as one of the main protest organizers, and he eventually turned himself in in July 2009 and served two years in prison until he received amnesty in May 2011

Despite the huge backlash in 2008, the protest movement developed, and opposition leaders learned throughout the next ten years from the successes and failures of previous protests and election campaigns. While they were focused on social instead of political issues, the youth protests of the 2010s provided models and strategies that would become relevant again in 2018 when a younger generation of activists, who were less traumatized by the events of 2008, took the floor in the political protest movement, among them Pashinyan. After being released from prison, he did not rest but continued being politically active within the Armenian National Congress (ANC). In 2015, after disagreeing with ANC leader Ter-Petrossian, he established the party Civil Contract together with his followers.

Pashinyan, the Charismatic Revolutionary

Pashinyan became the most important political figure in Armenia during the spring of 2018. In the protest movement called the Velvet Revolution, Pashinyan and some of his supporters started a protest march on the 31st of March: the “Take a Step” initiative from Gyumri to Yerevan where they arrived on the 14th of April 2018. In Yerevan, activists from the civil society group Reject Serzh demonstrated by blocking the streets of the city and demanded President Sargsyan’s resignation. Both groups merged and the revolution, which started with a few hundred people, developed within a short time into a nationwide general strike. With several tens of thousands of people, they flooded the Republic Square in central Yerevan. In the course of the protests, Pashinyan and other activists were arrested. However, the protests could not be stopped, despite Pashinyan’s arrest.

Pashinyan’s leadership is often named as one of the main factors that contributed to the successful outcome of the revolution. Even though there was an entire team of activists, it often appeared as if Pashinyan made many of the final decisions without considering his team's advice. He appealed to the young generation and the students in Armenia’s main cities. They could identify with the youngest opposition leader since the 1980s and 90s while those supporting the Karabakh movement were still of a different generation. He was a rhetorically strong speaker and knew how to connect with his audience and encourage them. He knew how to employ social media in his favor, to communicate directly with people and update them on the situation. He knew how to approach people and bring them to the street and he knew well how to respond to their questions and requests. This made him approachable to people as opposed to the distant politicians they were used to. Furthermore, he became known to use non-violent methods such as outstretched hands to show that the protesters were unarmed. He named the revolution a Velvet Revolution calling on protesters and authorities to refrain from violence.

The support for Pashinyan shows a glorification of his figure. With his hand injured from barbed wire, the beard he had grown, and the camouflage t-shirt and baseball cap from the walk, he had the looks of a martyr or revolutionary. He appeared like a hero who seemed to always do the right thing. Often, he is described as the “charismatic leader” of the movement. 

The nature of Armenian political culture is relevant to understanding this development. Many election campaigns tend to value ‘‘personality over policy’’. The popular leader of the opposition was Nikol Pashinyan. The popularity of the persona Pashinyan as a movement leader was a major factor in the success of the Civil Contract party, even after the revolution itself.

After Sargsyan stepped down, his party members refused to vote for Pashinyan as prime minister. Therefore, the general strike continued until the majority of parliament voted for Pashinyan. The result of the promised snap elections in December of the same year affirmed the popularity of the new prime minister and hero of the revolution. The first elections under the new government in December 2018, which confirmed its rule, were the cleanest ones that Armenia ever had to that date. Through the successful revolution, the people regained their self-worth, pride, and belief in their strength and their will to fight. For the next few months, they spoke full of positivity and hope about Armenia’s prospects.

Pashinyan, the Prime Minister

The parliamentary election of Pashinyan was celebrated as a success of democracy in Armenia; people were optimistic that things could take a turn for the better. For his mandate, he promised fair elections, to end corruption and improve the economy. Fulfilling these promises is what his political career depends on. Directly after the revolution, some scholars and journalists warned of the challenges that the new Armenian government was about to face: Keeping its promises of reform, solving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and balancing the foreign policy dilemma of wanting to get closer to Europe while not offending the regional security guarantor Russia.

While Pashinyan was careful to portray the revolution as motivated by changing internal politics and not foreign relations, to not upset the security guarantor and big neighbor Russia, the calls for getting closer to Europe among liberal Armenians grew stronger. This however brought a shadow over Armenian-Russian relations. Stefan Hedlund, director of research at the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University, stated that Russia is as much a prisoner to Armenia as it is its protector.” Any move away from Russia would risk Russia moving against Armenia, which is something dangerous for Armenia considering its insecure situation in the area without any other big military allies. 

Pashinyan was not the favorite leader from the Russian political perspective since he came to power through the kind of revolution that the Russian regime feared. The move towards democratization is what Moscow is suppressing within its borders. To live up to his ideals and promises as well as the expectations of many Armenians therefore always meant to endanger Armenia’s relations with Russia.

Progress has been made. In the Corruption Perception Index, Armenia improved its score from 35 points in 2018 (ranking 105/180) to 49 in 2020 and 2021 (ranking 60 and 58; scoring 46 and ranking 63 in the latest report in 2022). The Global Democracy Index shows how Armenia —despite still being categorized as a hybrid regime— has made a significant move towards democratization from 2018 to 2019. Even those who dislike Pashinyan admit that: A tour guide in Yerevan’s streets, who claimed to have never voted for Pashinyan, explained to me that corruption has disappeared under his rule and he has been good at handling this problem.

However, since 2020 the positive developments seemed to stagnate. The COVID-19 pandemic as well as the repeated escalations of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict hindered economic improvement and are a reason for the government to focus on state security and fast decision making instead of further democratization and work on the constitution and political system. Pashinyan himself has become suspect of accusations of playing favors, and there, cracks began to show in the image of the charismatic and infallible leader of the revolution. Pashinyan’s government additionally restricted media freedom and put pressure on the judiciary to fire the judges of the Constitutional Court whom Pashinyan claimed represented the old and corrupt government by Sargsyan. It seemed as if the new governmental leader of Armenia had fully arrived in everyday politics, with all its lights and shadows.

Pashinyan, the Loser of War

In Armenia, internal politics and the popularity of their politicians are closely tied to how successfully they deal with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For this reason, finding a solution to the conflict was a priority on Pashinyan’s agenda. With him came the hope that some change would reach this frozen conflict. Time however showed that the internal political change did not bring the hoped-for developments. His post-revolution promise to solve the conflict by making the self-declared Republic of Artsakh part of Armenia necessarily involved conflict with Azerbaijan.

Things did indeed stir up. However, not in Armenia’s favor. On the 27th of September 2020, an Azerbaijani offensive started a series of clashes which escalated into the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. Russia brokered a ceasefire between Azerbaijan and the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh on the 10th of November to end the war that took 44 days and claimed thousands of lives. Azerbaijan retook a third of the separatist territory plus surrounding areas and is considered the victor of this war. 

Pashinyan agreed to the ceasefire without consulting the parliament, saying that he essentially had to salvage the situation. This put him under domestic pressure with some people blaming him for the escalation of the conflict, the loss of the war and the territory to Azerbaijan, demanding his resignation, and protesters breaking into the government building in Yerevan. Protests against the Armenian government continued long into 2021.

Perhaps there would have been more pressure if Azerbaijan retook control of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh. This became reality since the most recent escalation of the conflict on the 19th September of 2023 when Azerbaijan violated the ceasefire of 2020 and launched a large-scale attack on the area. Overwhelmed by the military strength of Azerbaijan, the Artsakhi authorities surrendered only one day later which meant the end of the war and the reintegration of the territory into Azerbaijan. 

At that point, many became angry and disappointed with Pashinyan; he was the leader who lost Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan after more than 30 years of political and military struggles. Some people blame Pashinyan for losing the war since the Armenian military did not intervene. It is not the first time that they say he is young and inexperienced as a politician and especially as a diplomat. While succeeding in many domestic affairs, he was not handling Armenia’s foreign relations well, as people in the street claimed. Anti-protesters gathered in Republic Square demanded Pashinyan’s resignation, shouting Nikol is a traitor. Some stones and bottles were thrown and destroyed the windows of the government building, and police and military formed a cordon around it (as well as around the Russian embassy) for protection. 

But not everyone blamed the Armenian government. The group of protesters on Republic Square is a fraction of the crowd that had gathered here during the revolution in 2018. The group of protesters there were mainly those who were pro-Russian or frustrated with democracy because they felt like things had gone downhill since the revolution, so I was told by Armenians. An Armenian peace activist points out that the undisturbed protests against the government and people openly voicing their opinions were only possible now that Armenia has this new government that allowed criticism and protest. They did not forget his prior achievements.

Other people say that there should be more protests in front of the Russian embassy (some pro-Western protesters were there) since the outbreak is the fault of Russia supporting Azerbaijan and its peacekeepers not fulfilling their duty. In the course of the developments of the last three years, the relations between Armenia and its main ally and security guarantor Russia worsened significantly. In the months leading up to the September 2023 clash, Pashinyan accused Moscow of not fulfilling its peacekeeper duties in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

As of November 2023, Pashinyan continues to be Armenia’s prime minister, but his popularity is not the same ‘the hero’ he once used to be. During my first visit to Armenia in the spring of 2019, everyone told me about the revolution with excitement. By the time I last traveled there in the autumn of 2023, their excitement turned into hopelessness and anger because of the war. And his political opponents will know how to use this against him.

Good Leader, Bad Leader

Armenia is currently facing many challenges: integrating all the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, securing its territory from Azerbaijan that it believes endangers it, and continuing to improve its weak economic situation, just to name a few. It is hard to tell how exactly all of this will turn out and how the recent developments will affect what Armenia will look like in the future.

Armenian politics, likely due to the legacy of Soviet times and the hybrid form of the political system, is influenced by a rather simplistic worldview of good and bad leadership. All political successes and failures are connected to the leadership, which is perceived as responsible for all developments. Bad leaders are therefore seen as reason and not as the result of bad and corrupt politics. In consequence, the solution for change is equally simple: replacing the bad leaders with good ones. A good leader is expected to magically provide free and fair elections, abolish corruption, and so on. This was also the mantra of the Velvet Revolution: the corrupt and lying Sargsyan, standing for the old regime, opposed to the Pashinyan who symbolized change. Now Pashinyan as well is faced with the expectations of this thinking: “We hope he leaves. It’s better for a leader who lost the war to leave than to stay and continue.”

Pashinyan’s image is changing; he no longer seems to be the symbol of positive change. He is not only characterized as a savior, hero, and saint but also as a traitor and incompetent politician. When things go well, leaders are praised; when they do not, they are blamed, sometimes rightfully so, sometimes not. But Pashinyans story is still in the making, and who knows what else he might be called at the end.

Written by Nina Kolarzik.

Photo Credits

Cover photo by Yerevantsi.

Nikol Pashinyan April 17 General Prosecutor's Office by Yerevantsi.

Vladimir Putin and Nikol Pashinyan (2018-05-14) 02, by Пресс-служба Президента Российской Федерации.

Police by Nina Kolarzik.


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