Nikol Pashinyan came to power in 2018 as a revolutionary, a former journalist who led a movement on the streets of Armenia that toppled his rival, Serzh Sargsyan, after 11 years.
Sargsyan had amended Armenia’s constitution to extend his Putin-style political tenure, under which he served as president and later prime minister to circumvent term limits in top positions. The amendment would have allowed Sargsyan to effectively rule for life.
Pashinyan, now 46, had passed through Armenia in protest before staging a small demonstration in Yerevan that reached tens of thousands. Finally, Sargsyan resigned: “I was wrong. Nikol Pashinian was right, ”he said.
On May 8, Pashinyan, who once spent two years in jail for his political activities, was elected prime minister. In his address to the Armenians, he greeted the birth of a new Armenia.
It was not only a good story, but a relatively rare one in a region so often dominated by autocrats that they remain in power well beyond their mandates. Pashinyan gathered hundreds of thousands in his country of three million, which borders Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
But three years later, relations with one of those neighbors have slowed the rise of the Pashinian star over central Asia. Before Sunday’s elections, campaigning in Yerevan, Armenians who celebrated the revolutionary three years ago now refuse to shake his hand.
As he walked the streets of his capital surrounded by security guards, the former protest leader turned prime minister received shouts of “traitor” and “capitulator.”
At a campaign rally, a rival and former president, Robert Kocharian, used an insult from Trump to describe him.
Kocharian told the crowd that he was “a loser.”
For many Armenians, the criticism is valid. Armenia’s war with its neighbor Azerbaijan lasted only six weeks before a ceasefire brokered by Moscow on November 10, 2020. Azerbaijan retained control of most of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
It had been the other way around in 1994, when ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, then under Azeri control, voted to secede from Baku.
The dispute turned into an ethnic war, with brutal pogroms carried out by both sides. Armenia eventually occupied 90% of Nagorno-Karabakh and expelled more than 700,000 Azeris.
In 2020, Azerbaijan, with the backing of Turkey, seized Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia finally agreed to hand over control of the region for 25 years.
‘The capitulator, the traitor’
On the streets of Yerevan, Pashinyan’s role in the conflict, in which he often emphasizes that both his wife and son fought, divides voters ahead of Sunday’s elections.
“This capitulator, this traitor, must go,” Gedhan Hairapetian, 52, told AFP.
Sirouch Sirounian, 69, disagreed.
“We shouldn’t blame him,” he said. “Nikol is our hero. The old authorities are responsible for everything, they looted our country for decades ”.
Of the 22 parties from four political groups facing the Pashinian Civil Contract party on Sunday, two of the largest are led by representatives of those former authorities. Serzh Sargsyan ruled Armenia from 2008 to 2018 and Kocharian from 1997 to 2008.
As such, Pashinyan once again faces the political and economic elites, and their supporters, who have ruled Armenia since independence from the Soviet Union. Except this time the legacy of the conflict with Azerbaijan is much fresher in Armenian memory.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism