The uprising that has been ongoing in Armenia since last month seems to be on the verge of clinching a victory, after the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) finally agreed to support the Prime Ministerial candidacy of Nikol Pashinyan, if he musters the support of two-thirds of MPs in the parliament on May 8. Former journalist and an MP, Pashinyan has been at the forefront of the “velvet revolution” or the “April revolution” which forced Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, unpopular for alleged corruption and authoritarian rule, to resign last month.
Following Armenia’s transition to a parliamentary political system in 2015, the oligarchs of the country, in order to protect their interests, had been persuading Sargsyan, who had been the President for two terms since 2008, to continue to hold power in the capacity of a Prime Minister. But the President had promised in 2014 to step down at the end of his presidential term and assured the public that he will not seek to Prime Ministership in 2018.
After his second presidential term concluded on April 9, Armen Sargsyan (not related to Serzch), who was nominated by the Serzh Sargsyan as his successor, was sworn in as the President, before RPA appointed the ex-President as the Prime Minister on April 17. This betrayal of his promise to relinquish power after his presidential term triggered massive protests across the country, in the forefront of which was Nikol Pashinyan, who had come to national attention in the late 1990s as the editor of his newspaper Armenian Time, which came to be known for its fearless journalism at a time when the country slipped into authoritarian rule.
It was in 2008 that Pashinyan first made his foray into politics by aligning himself in the February 2008 elections with Ter-Petrosyan, the first President of Armenia who ruled from 1991-98. After Ter-Petrosyan lost the election to Sargsyan in an election the opposition claimed was rigged, Pashinyan led protests in March that year, which the government came down on brutally, leading to the death of 10 protesters and forcing him to go underground for months.
The protests that forced Prime Minister’s resignation
Last month, as Pashinyan led protests demanding the resignation of the Sargsyan from the post of Prime Minister, Serzh Sargsyan said on April 22 that Pashinyan had “not learned the lessons of March 1.”
With this ill-thought-out warning, interpreted by the public as his acknowledgement that the government had deliberately used brutality while cracking down on the protesters in 2008, the Prime Minister unwittingly provoked the public, who rendered increasing support to the protest demanding his resignation. “People who had never been to a demonstration before came out on street only because of that sentence,” Mikayel Hovhannisyan, an opposition activist said.
As protesters converged later in record numbers on the Republic square in the country’s capital, Yerevan, Pashinyan, along with two more opposition MPs and 200 others were arrested from the crowd. However, as the pressure built up from the unrelenting protesters, with soldiers joining them in large numbers for the first time, the Prime Minister announced his resignation on April 23 in a statement admitting, “Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong.” “This situation has several solutions but I will not take any of them,” the statement said, adding that he sought “peace, harmony and logic for our country.”
Russia, which has a military base in Armenia, was initially cautious about the change of power in Armenia from the hands of Putin's close ally Sargsyan, after the experience of the U.S-backed uprising in Ukraine which turned the country's ruling establishment against it. However, after the resignation was complete, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Facebook, “Armenia, Russia will always be with you!”
‘The RPA cannot remain in power. The people won, and victory must be secured’
But the resignation did not bring the ‘velvet revolution’ to an end. Karen Karapetyan - an ex-chief of the Armenian subsidiary of Russia-based company Gazprom involved in the natural gas business - who took over as the acting Prime Minister, cancelled a meeting that was scheduled on April 25 with Nikol Pashinyan to discuss the terms of formation of new government.
Upping the stakes after his success in forcing the Prime Minister to resign, Pashinyan now took his aim at the ruling RPA. “The issue is not in the person [Serzh Sargsyan].. but in the system. And we can not accept that an RPA representative will become the prime minister. There is every reason to suspect that the RPA is trying to use citizens’ jubilation about [Sargsyan’s] resignation in order to retain its power. The RPA cannot remain in power. The people won, and victory must be secured,” he said in a press conference on April 24, urging his supporters to resume protests from the next day.
Addressing a crowd of supporters who chanted “Prime Minister Nikol”, Pashinyan said on the 26th, “I will take the post of prime minister in a way that lets every citizen feel that they are the prime minister of Armenia,” explaining that on being elected, he intended to form an “interim government” in order to reform the Electoral Code, on completion of which snap elections will be held to vote for the next acting Prime Minister.
At the end of his speech, he called upon his supporters in Yerevan to halt their civil disobedience, announcing that he will be heading with a group of supporters to lead a rally in Gyumri, the second largest city in Armenia, from where he would be proceeding to Vanadzor, the third largest city, where approximately 10,000 rallied with him, many of them joining from surrounding towns and villages.
While the acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan had refused to engage in any negotiations with Pashinyan, accusing him of "dictating his agenda", the very next day, his party, in a press conference on April 28, two days before last date for nominating Prime Ministerial Candidate, announced its decision to “not nominate a candidate for Prime Minister”.
After the remaining parties declared their allegiance to the "people's candidate" following his nomination by his party Yelk (meaning ‘way out’) on April 30, RPA announced that it will not be blocking the vote in the parliament the next day. This left Pashinyan as the sole nominee to be voted on in the special session of Parliament on May 1.
RPA goes back on its promise
However, on that day, all but one MP from the Republican party voted against Pashinyan, which left him with insufficient votes to be elected to the office of Prime Minister. Following this eight hour long session, Pashinyan, addressing his supporters who had gathered in the Republic square, called for a "total strike", which left the capital paralyzed with almost all the major highways blocked.
Armeinian Weekly reported that many “treated the protests more like a celebration than a strike, and the recent civil disobedience seems deeply intertwined with a sense of national patriotism. Armenian flags are more prominent than ever in the nation’s capital, and social media is ablaze with jubilant imagery of citizens engaged in festivities typically reserved for Armenian celebrations, like barbecuing in the streets and dancing.”
After the propesters converged outside the residence of Minister of Culture, Armen Amiryan, demanding that he join the strike, the minister resigned, followed by another resignation from Varazdat Karapetyan, a Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Territorial Administration, who stated: “Dear friends, in this situation, I cannot remain indifferent. I am leaving the office of deputy minister.”
Under pressure, RPA announced that the party would not nominate any PM candidate for the next parliamentary session to elect a PM on May 8, and promised its support for any candidate who could muster the support two-thirds of the parliamentarians, after which Pashinyan called off the strikes on the day before yesterday.
With all the remaining parties having reiterated their support to Pashinyan's candidacy, it likely, according to reports, that he will be elected as the interim PM on May 8. A failure to elect on an interim PM on this day would require, as per Armenian law, to dissolve the parliament and hold fresh elections.