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100 Days: Walking A Fine Line, Armenians Still On 'Revolution' High

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (file photo)
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (file photo)

Three months after a "Velvet Revolution" of sorts toppled President Serzh Sarkisian and brought opposition leader Nikol Pashinian to power, Armenians remain optimistic about the future.

The problem is, now comes the hard part.

The 43-year-old prime minister and former journalist Pashinian called on Armenians to mark his first 100 days in office by returning on August 17 to Republic Square in central Yerevan, where tens of thousands rallied to protest against corruption and cronyism, forcing the ouster of Sarkisian in May.

Since taking power, Pashinian has publicly made a priority of peeling back the layers of the old guard that had basically ruled the country since it left the Soviet Union in 1991, including the detention of former President Robert Kocharian, who is awaiting trial on charges of "overthrowing Armenia's constitutional order."

He's also traveled to Brussels and other foreign capitals to meet with key leaders to assure them Armenia has a stable administration that is interested in more than just settling old scores with previous regimes.

But even Pashinian knows the real work is yet to come.

Pashinian speaks directly to citizens by giving live talks on Facebook, as seen here on August 1.
Pashinian speaks directly to citizens by giving live talks on Facebook, as seen here on August 1.

"At this stage, you need very fast and effective reforms for the country's economy to be launched with a new spirit, new speed, and within the context of the budget discussions," Pashinian told journalists on August 16.

"We are entering a new phase, the main essence of which is to make major reforms in order to open new room for our country and economy," he added, giving no details on the next policy stage.

Observers suggest Pashinian needs to enact deep structural reforms to an economy that has been hampered by decades of graft and to stem a trend of rising national debt that reached $6.5 billion at the end of the first half of the year, or about 56 percent of economic output, compared with $1.5 billion a decade earlier.

Olesya Vartanyan, a South Caucasus analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), says that while officials are calling for business to be done "in a clean way," the task is proving difficult for many businesspeople because few laws have been amended, while other regulations are failing to make the system more transparent.

"This just indicates the amount of work that Mr. Pashinian and his team have still to do," she told RFE/RL. "So far, they have opened high-profile investigations into officials and their affiliated businesses. But this cannot distract them from structural reforms that are still essential."

Pashinian also must walk a fine line as he cleans house.

Armenia is dependent on Russia for security through a defense pact in the Caucasus region, where simmering tensions can boil over at any moment.

Armenia is geographically locked between Iran, Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, with which it fought a war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in the 1990s and where a fragile cease-fire agreement barely manages to keep a lid on hostilities.

The previous administrations of both Kocharian and Sarkisian, who led Armenia into the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2015, were in close contact with Russia, which has a military base in Armenia. Moscow is also Armenia's main arms supplier.

Former Armenian President Robert Kocharian (file photo)
Former Armenian President Robert Kocharian (file photo)

Unlike its angry reactions to unrest that unseated leaders in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine, publicly at least, the Kremlin has so far raised no major objections to the change of administrations in Armenia. Pashinian has also insisted there was no shift in loyalties, telling Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Sochi in May that "nobody has ever questioned the strategic importance of Armenian-Russian relations, or ever will."

However, eyebrows were raised when Armenian authorities charged Colonel General Yuri Khachaturov, the Armenian head of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), with overthrowing the country's constitutional order in connection with a 2008 crackdown against protesters.

Khachaturov, who was deputy defense minister in 2008 and has denied any wrongdoing, reportedly returned to Moscow after being freed on bail.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov weighed in on the matter on August 1, expressing "concern" over the arrest warrant.

Despite the daunting tasks ahead, the spirit of the revolution seems alive and well on the streets of Yerevan.

Russia was not amused when charges were brought against Yuri Khachaturov. (file photo)
Russia was not amused when charges were brought against Yuri Khachaturov. (file photo)

Vahagn Movsisian participated in the protests that brought Pashinian to power and says the biggest change so far is in the mood of regular citizens.

"People are instilled with more hope, they feel positive," the 28-year-old told RFE/RL's Armenian Service.

Pensioner Volodya Minasian also marched through the streets during the protests, and echoed Movsisian's thoughts.

"There is no feeling of being psychologically depressed; there is a feeling of confidence in tomorrow," the 65-year-old said.

"Now we want to continue to live in Armenia. We are in a good mood and feel optimistic about the future."

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