Armenia election: Gloves come off after ‘Velvet Revolution’

Pashinyan supporters in Yerevan, 25 April 2018 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mass street protests in April ousted veteran leader Serzh Sargsyan

The man behind the extraordinary "Velvet Revolution" that convulsed Armenia in April faces a key test with an early parliamentary election on Sunday.

Former journalist-turned-politician Nikol Pashinyan, 43, engineered a peaceful transfer of power and raised hopes for an economic transformation.

Nearly a third of Armenia's 3m people are officially classed as poor. The unemployment rate is about 16% and the average monthly wage is 166,540 drams (£270; $343).

One of Mr Pashinyan's key promises to the tens of thousands of Armenians who took part in street protests was to hold the country's first democratic parliamentary elections.

He is still very popular and few doubt that his My Step Alliance will come top among the 11 parties and political blocs in the vote.

'Grab them by the throat'

But Mr Pashinyan's critics say the early vote puts many parties at a disadvantage.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A giant election poster for Nikol Pashinyan in Yerevan

"All political parties were deprived of time to prepare well for the elections," says Armen Ashotyan, vice-president of the former governing Republican Party.

He claims his party members have been harassed and intimidated, and has accused Mr Pashinyan of hate speech.

At one rally Mr Pashinyan said he would "grab them by the throat" - referring to Republican Party loyalists - and "throw them out of office".

"There's still a so-called post-revolutionary euphoria in Armenia, which will be reflected in the voting. And that means that Armenia's multi-party democracy is at risk," says Mr Ashotyan.

What makes this leader so popular?

Mr Pashinyan uses regular Facebook live broadcasts to come across as an accessible politician.

Yerevan shopkeeper Andranik Grigorian was so impressed he renamed his shop after Mr Pashinyan.

"I'm not afraid of him becoming too powerful," he insists. "I'm sure he will remain as honest as he is today."

Image caption Shopkeeper Andranik Grigorian named his shop after the new leader

Shortly after the change of power in May, Armenia's man of the moment made another popular move, launching an anti-corruption campaign.

When state security agents raided the villa of a retired army general in June, they found an arsenal of weapons, a fleet of vintage cars and a stockpile of canned food. That food had originally been donated for Armenian soldiers deployed in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, in neighbouring Azerbaijan.

The general allegedly kept the food to feed animals in his private zoo, which included bears and tigers.

Mr Pashinyan announced last month that a sum of more than $20m that had been misappropriated since May was being returned to the state budget.

Will Russia step in?

When he came to power, Mr Pashinyan reassured Russia that the street protests were an internal issue and would pose no threat to Armenia's external policy. The country is after all a strategic ally for Moscow in the Caucasus.

But Russia is sensitive to so-called revolutions anywhere in the former Soviet Union. It maintains a military base in Armenia and is watching developments closely.

Mr Pashinyan had initially promised there would be no political vendetta, but he then went after former political leaders and their relatives.

Charges were brought against ex-President Robert Kocharyan for his role in post-election violence in 2008, in which 10 people were killed.

After Mr Kocharyan was released on bail, he received a birthday phone call from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov commented that the two leaders were just good friends.