Populist rhetoric following the velvet revolution in Armenia /Aram Kevorkian, HAHR volunteer/
In the months of spring of 2018, The Republic of Armenia witnessed the “Velvet Revolution”, a mostly peaceful transfer of power where the life-long oligarch Serzh Sargsyan stepped down of office following weeks of protests all over the country. The man who came on top was Nikol Pashinyan, a journalist turned critic of the current regime who was able to galvanize the anger of the Armenian populace around him and in a short time turn from an obscure and lesser-known actor in the Armenian political sphere, to become the effective Prime Minister of the country. Since then, his “My Step” party has continuously won elections after elections securing the majority of the parliamentary seats. Pashinyan’s appeal revolves around his straightforward nature and his ability to connect with the discontent of the people and appear as an alternative to the ruling elites, regularly using daily Facebook uploads to speak with his supporters and fiery language to denounce the corruptive and nepotistic nature of the post-soviet Armenian political class. Pashinyan’s assentation to power follows the global trend of rising populism; income inequality as well as governmental corruption laid the ground for a discontent and disillusioned Armenian population to seek a better or albeit a new alternative to the current political class (4). Additionally, his rhetoric and political maneuvering follow all the characteristic of a populist leader: non-establishment figure, strong-man attitude and unconventional methods of political dialogue (2).
Since the beginning of his presence in the public sphere, Pashinyan has made a point of himself being a newcomer, an outsider to the political elites of the Republic, thus making himself immune from the controversies and corruption charges that plague the Armenian political elites. Opponents used this lack of political experience against him, however for the Armenian populace, the fact that Pashinyan is not part of the establishment is one of the key characteristics that made him popular and appealing; as such Pashinyan was able to criticize the whole establishment and present himself as a viable candidate simply by not being part of it. In essence, he was able to promote himself as the savior of the Armenian people by rallying support during the protests of spring 2018 and present himself as the leader of the revolution. This was aided by the fact that the protests were started as an unorganized series of civil movements that brought together many facets of the Armenian society, from the youth to people arguing for an improvement of civil liberties and freedom of speech, the protests were a genuinely positive and healthy response of the Armenian society to decades of mismanagement and corruption by the government (4). Pashinyan came into the picture, participating in the protests in civilian clothing, a method to distinguish himself from the said corrupt elites and began forming a cult of personality around himself. As a journalist he had previously denounced the many issues surrounding the Armenian government and as such was able to present himself as someone who had been fighting for the Armenian people for decades. Similarly, his unorthodox methods of gathering support such as the usage of social media and especially Facebook allowed him to appear as a fresh and appealing new face capable of meeting the expectations of the protesters. His fiery rhetoric and his course criticism of the “Naxkiner” allowed the establishment of two camps of political groups; the old and corrupt and their followers and his newly formed camp, the camp that was able to oust a “Nakhkin” from power and therefore, in his eyes, restore democracy to Armenia. As such, Pahinyan was able to promote himself as the only person in the Armenian society capable of punishing the old elites and ameliorate the economic and social situation in Armenia. His assentation to power was followed with heavy criticism, notably after the formation of the government during which his close allies, often unqualified, were given positions of power. Pahinyan was able to brush off his critics by playing with the fear of the Armenian population; all his critics were part of the naxkiner, power hungry nepotists, who would take back Armenia into a police state and he and he only could protect the population from that. For example, following the disheartened realization of the Nagorni-Karapagh conflict last year, many military leaders called for his resignation arguing that his weak leadership had led to unnecessary casualties; Pashinyan reacted to this by calling his supporters to protest against a possible coup attempt by old generals sympathetic to the old regimes (3). Even though, his “My Step” party was in control of both the government and the majority of parliamentary seats and the mayorship of the Capital Yerevan, his supporters flocked to the Republic square fearing a return of an old regime. This demonizing of his enemies has allowed Pashinyan to immune himself from criticism and twist them into attempts from loyalists of the political elites to undermine the revolution. Recently, on December 13th for example, a pro-Pashinyan newspaper published an article attacking the mayor of Yerevan Hayk Marutyan and accusing him of “conspiring” with a “Nakhkin” (Robert Kotcharyan), following Marutyan’s increased annoyance and criticism of Pashinyan (1). Both men were close allies during and after the “revolution” and Marutyan is also part of the PM’s political movement, however as is the case with populists, Pashinyan does not accept any form of dissidence within his own camp. This populist rhetoric has succeeded; even after the capitulation of most of the territory of Artsakh to Azerbaijan, the multiple intrusions of Azerbaijani forces into the territory of the Republic in the Syunik region, the mismanagement of the COVID epidemic as well as no clear improvements of the socio-economic situation after 5 years, Pashinyan’s party has won a resounding victory in the last parliamentary elections.