Armenia’s new government looks set to triumph

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NIKOL PASHINYAN, Armenia’s prime minister since May (pictured), still resembles the head of a movement more than that of a government. Ahead of an election rally in Abovyan, a town about 19km outside Yerevan, a screen mounted behind the stage where he is about to appear shows footage from the peaceful revolution which Mr Pashinyan, a former journalist, helped unleash this spring. One video shows him leading mass demonstrations. Another shows him, dressed in cargo pants and a baseball cap, confronting the man he and the protesters eventually forced to resign, the former president and prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan. Rousing action-film music helps set the mood. 

On stage, where he turns up in a coat and tie, Mr Pashinyan’s zeal appears undiminished, even amid pouring rain. “Everything constructed on the basis of fear will be destroyed,” he says, declaring war against inequality and corruption, to applause from several hundred supporters. “The new Armenia is here.”

The waves of discontent that brought Mr Pashinyan to power are set to carry him forward again on December 9th, when Armenians vote in an early election. The new prime minister forced the vote two months ago to cash in on his popularity and usher in what he calls the last stage of the revolution. Since he was elected by deputies following Mr Sargsyan’s ousting, Mr Pashinyan has had to run a government without a governing party. The mass protests began after Mr Sargsyan, in power since 2008 and increasingly unpopular, rewrote the constitution in an attempt to prolong his tenure.

Voters seem poised to give Mr Pashinyan a sweeping mandate. According to one poll, the prime minister and his political bloc, My Step, can count on the support of 68% of Armenians. In a September mayoral contest in Yerevan, the country’s capital and home to about a third of its 3m people, the party’s candidate received over 81% of the vote.

Support for the barnstorming Mr Pashinyan verges on hero-worship. Critics dismiss his rallies and live broadcasts on Facebook as publicity stunts. Most Armenians see them as evidence that they finally have a leader who listens. Across Yerevan, and even in the city’s dreary outskirts, people speak of a renewed sense of optimism, crediting the new government with bringing down rampant corruption, taming powerful oligarchs and paving the way for the first free and transparent election in a generation. (Previous ones were marred by fraud and vote-buying.)

Yet the limits to change, as well as the risk of revolutionary excesses, are also beginning to come into focus. The government has promised to break up monopolies, tackle poverty and attract new investment. None of this will be easy. Armenia is a poor, agrarian country. Income per person is around $4,000. The grey economy is almost as big as the formal one. The border with Turkey remains closed. The one with Azerbaijan bristles with troops and artillery. Trade with Iran, another neighbour, stands to suffer from renewed American sanctions. Dependence on Russia, which provides Armenia with cheap gas and security guarantees, acts as a brake on deeper relations with Western countries. “Armenians expect us to become the next Switzerland,” says Alexander Iskandaryan, an analyst. “This is crazy.”

As for the risk of excess, most Armenians applaud Mr Pashinyan’s determination to right former wrongs. Over the past months, a former president and the secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Russian-led defence bloc to which Armenia belongs, have been charged over a deadly government crackdown against protesters in 2008. A former prime minister has been accused of abuse of power.

Critics, including members of Mr Sargsyan’s Republican Party, which has been polling at below 2%, accuse Mr Pashinyan of intimidating opponents and indulging his populist instincts. Some fear yet more arrests of former officials. Government ministers say those suspected of petty crimes will be left alone, but that crooked politicians and oligarchs will be held to account. “We can’t send thousands of people to prison,” says the deputy prime minister, Ararat Mirzoyan, “but we have to expose what happened, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” The phrase “transitional justice” pops up constantly in conversations with officials.

At least some of Mr Pashinyan’s voters grasp the challenge ahead. “Change comes gradually, so we might have to wait,” says Feliks Petrosyan, an elderly pensioner holding a rainbow umbrella in one hand and his grandson’s hand in the other, on his way home from the rally in Abovyan. “But it’s nice to finally have hope.” 

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