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Armenia protest leader Nikol Pashinyan elected prime minister

Posted May 8, 2018 5:01 a.m. EDT
Updated May 8, 2018 6:57 a.m. EDT

— The Armenian parliament has elected opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan as the country's new prime minister, after an outpouring of populist anger against the country's ruling elite.

Thousands of Pashinyan's supporters, who had gathered in a central square in the capital, Yerevan, to watch the vote on large screens, erupted into cheers when the result was announced.

The result amounted to a peaceful revolution in the former Soviet republic, usurping a corps of leaders who have run Armenia since the late 1990s.

The tipping point came two weeks ago when veteran leader Serzh Sargsyan, who had served the maximum two terms as president of Amenia, was appointed prime minister instead -- complete with new powers conferred by a controversial referendum he had supported. Many Armenians felt it was a straightforward power grab.

Pashinyan, a former journalist and leader of the opposition Civil Contract party, put himself at the front of the protest movement as thousands of people took to the streets in Yerevan.

Stung by the protests, Sargsyan stepped down. But his Republican party, which holds a majority in parliament, thwarted Pashinyan's first bid to replace him. In Tuesday's vote, some Republicans switched sides, and Pashinyan won the backing of 59 lawmakers, with 42 voting against him. On both occasions, Pashinyan was the only candidate.

president, leading to concerns of authoritarian rule descending on the small nation, which borders Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Georgia.

New prime minister greets supporters

Pashinyan's supporters gathered in Republic Square in central Yerevan Tuesday ahead of the vote, waving Armenian flags and holding balloons.

Following the vote, the atmosphere turned festive, with a rock band performing live music.

Within an hour, the newly elected prime minister arrived in the square to greet his supporters. Unlike many previous appearances in the square, he wore a suit and was flanked by bodyguards.

The opposition leader had cut a rebellious figure during the protests of the last few weeks. His black cap, camouflage T-shirt and bandaged hand, reportedly injured on barbed wire, were in stark contrast to the suited Sargsyan.

At a concert in the city Monday night, Pashinyan appeared alongside System of a Down front man Serj Tankian, who gave his support to the former journalist and was also present in parliament Tuesday for the vote.

How did Armenia get here?

Armenia's turmoil began on April 17 when Sargsyan, who had previously served two five-year terms as president, was appointed prime minister -- just eight days after his presidency ended.

Thousands took to the streets in protest, driving Sargsyan to step down eleven days later. His deputy, Karen Karapetyan, was named acting prime minister.

According to Laurence Broers, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank's Russia and Eurasia program, discontent with Serzh Sargsyan had been brewing for years.

Armenians have seen their country, once the poster child for democratization following the collapse of the Soviet Union, stagnate in the hands of an entrenched oligarchy while many citizens choose to leave, Broers said.

In response to Sargsyan's appointment as prime minister, Pashinyan called for a campaign of peaceful, civil disobedience, harnessing a widespread desire for change among ordinary Armenians.

Following the failed vote last week, Pasinyan called for a nationwide day of protest. Demonstrators brought roads in Yerevan to a standstill, blocking roads to the main airport and to government buildings.

According to Broers, what matters now is whether Pashinyan can turn his hand to coalition-building skills, "because people have got to get off the street and into institutions."