Armenia Protest Leader Elected Premier After `Velvet Revolution'

(Bloomberg) -- Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan was elected prime minister by the country’s parliament, completing a remarkable rise to power backed by massive street protests that he’s termed a “velvet revolution.”

Lawmakers voted by 59 to 42 on Tuesday to name Pashinyan as premier, a week after the ruling Republican Party, which holds a majority of seats, had refused to back his candidacy. This time, 13 Republicans voted with minority parties in favor of Pashinyan, who led the protests that ousted Armenia’s longtime ruler Serzh Sargsyan.

Armenia Protest Leader Elected Premier After `Velvet Revolution'

“There can be no return to the status quo,” Pashinyan told lawmakers before the vote as he pledged to call “free, fair and transparent” elections. There’ll be no vendettas against the former regime as “an atmosphere of national consensus” is needed to protect citizens’ rights and lure investment, he said.

Pashinyan’s election as premier was greeted with elation by massive crowds gathered in the capital, Yerevan’s main square. The tiny Caucasus republic of 3 million plunged into political crisis last month when Sargsyan sought to extend his rule by becoming prime minister after a decade as president. He’d overseen constitutional changes to concentrate power in his hands, but resigned after just six days as Pashinyan led tens of thousands of people in peaceful protests amid anger at widespread poverty and official corruption.

Putin Telegram

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a telegram congratulating Pashinyan on his election, according to a Kremlin statement. Russia is watching events closely because it has deep political and economic ties with Armenia as well as a key military base there.

Other former Soviet republics including Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan have experienced uprisings against corruption or authoritarianism in recent years, which were condemned by Russia as U.S.-inspired “color revolutions” intended to weaken its influence. The Armenian protests were unusual in forcing the authorities to cede power without bloodshed, and Pashinyan repeatedly rejected the idea that his movement was making a choice between east and west.

His supporters staged a general strike, blocking major roads in Yerevan and bringing much of the country to a standstill, after the Republicans rejected his appointment in a May 1 parliamentary vote. Amid mounting tensions, Republican leaders reversed position a day later and said they’d support any candidate nominated by at least a third of lawmakers.

‘Unprecedented Situation’

The ruling party backed Pashinyan to end the “unprecedented situation” in Armenia and ensure political stability, though it’s still opposed to him, said Vahram Baghdasaryan, head of the Republican faction in parliament. Society has been divided and “there’s an atmosphere of hatred,” he said.

Failure by Pashinyan, 42, to win a majority this time would have meant early elections with the Republicans’ acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan retaining power until the vote. The ruling party didn’t nominate a candidate after Pashinyan threatened to blockade parliament if it put Karapetyan forward.

The new prime minister, a former journalist, now has 15 days to form a government and has promised elections once the electoral code is changed to ensure a fair contest. The Republicans hold 58 of 105 seats in parliament while Pashinyan’s Yelk (Way Out) alliance won just nine at elections last year that international observers criticized as “tainted by credible information about vote-buying.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.