Nikol Pashinyan came to power in 2018 as a revolutionary, a former journalist who led a movement on Armenia’s streets that ousted his rival, Serzh Sargsyan, after 11 years.
Sargsyan had amended Armenia’s constitution to prolong his Putin-esque run of political office under which he served as president and then prime minister in order to get around term limits on the top jobs. The amendment would have let Sargsyan effectively rule for life.
Pashinyan, now 46, had walked across Armenia in protest before organising a small demonstration in Yerevan which grew to tens of thousands. Eventually, Sargsyan resigned: “I was wrong. Nikol Pashinian was right,” he said.
On May 8, Pashinyan, who had once spent two years in jail for his political activities, was elected prime minister. In his speech to Armenians, he hailed 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 who remain in power long beyond their mandates. Pashinyan rallied hundreds of thousands in his country of three million, which borders Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.
But three years later relations with one of those neighbours has slowed the rise of Pashinian’s star over central Asia. Ahead of Sunday’s election, canvassing in Yerevan, Armenians who three years ago feted the revolutionary now refused to shake his hand.
As he walked the streets of his capital surrounded by security guards, the one-time protest leader turned prime minister had “Traitor” and “Capitulator” shouted at him.
At a campaign rally, a rival and former president, Robert Kocharian, used a Trumpian slur to describe him.
He was, Kocharian, told the crowd, “a loser”.
To many Armenians, the criticism is a valid one. Armenia’s war with its neighbour Azerbaijan lasted just six weeks before a Moscow-brokered ceasefire on November 10, 2020. Azerbaijan retained control of most of the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
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 spiralled into ethnic warfare, with brutal pogroms conducted by both sides. Armenia eventually occupied 90% of Nagorno-Karabakh and expelled over 700,000 Azeris.
In 2020, Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, seized Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia eventually 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 stresses that both his wife and his son fought – divides voters ahead of Sunday’s election.
“This capitulator, this traitor, must go,” Gedhan Hairapetian, 52, told AFP.
Sirouch Sirounian, 69, disagreed.
“We should not blame him,” she said. “Nikol is our hero. It is the old authorities who are responsible for everything, they plundered our country for decades.”
Of the 22 parties in four political groupings that face Pashinian’s Civil Contract party on Sunday, two of the biggest are led by representatives of those old authorities. Serzh Sargsyan governed Armenia from 2008 to 2018 and Kocharian from 1997 to 2008.
As such, Pashinyan is once again taking on the political and economic elites – and their supporters – that ran Armenia since independence from the Soviet Union. Except, this time around the legacy of the conflict with Azerbaijan is far fresher in the Armenian memory.