The leader of protests that forced out Armenia’s long-time ruler last month has been appointed prime minister, paving the way for new elections in the former Soviet republic.
Nikol Pashinian, an opposition member of parliament, was confirmed to the post with a vote of 59-42 while his supporters rallied outside. Several ruling party members backed him after helping prevent his election in a vote last week.
“I want us to underline that the victory is not that I became prime minister, the victory is that you chose who will be prime minister,” he told a crowd on Republic Square in the capital Yerevan.
The new leader has promised to reform the electoral codex and hold parliamentary elections in the nation of three million bordered by Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan. He called for an end to corruption and political persecution.
Protests engulfed Armenia last month when parliament appointed former president Serzh Sargsyan as prime minister, prolonging his 10-year rule indefinitely. Mr Sargsyan, who had overseen a reform vesting the prime minister with greater power, unexpectedly resigned after 11 days of demonstrations.
Mr Pashinian, a former newspaper editor imprisoned after protests in 2008, will have to balance his country’s military reliance on Russia with its deepening European Union ties.
Despite his dislike of colour revolutions in nearby states, Vladimir Putin signalled his readiness to work with Mr Pashinian by sending a congratulatory telegram on Tuesday that called for the “strengthening of friendly allied relations”.
Mr Pashinian called military cooperation with Russia the “main factor facilitating Armenia’s security” and said he planned to meet with Mr Putin this month at a summit of the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Armenia is a member. But he also called for better relations with the United States and Europe.
Armenia relies on Russian troops to keep the fragile peace with its larger neighbour Azerbaijan.
In a move that could raise tensions, Mr Pashinian on Wednesday will visit Nagorno-Karabakh, a region over which Armenia fought a war with Azerbaijan in the 1990s.
In a statement on Tuesday, the European Union said it looked forward to working with Armenia’s new government on the implementation of a partnership agreement signed in November.
The agreement includes reform targets but doesn’t establish a free trade zone with Armenia, unlike the one Ukraine signed with the EU after toppling its pro-Russian president in 2014.
Some worry Mr Pashinian has been set up to fail by the ruling party, which retains a majority in parliament.
He will have to push for elections and try to build a broad coalition while also showing progress against endemic corruption and poverty. Unemployment in the country is at 19 per cent.
Richard Giragosian, director of a think tank in Yerevan, said the new prime minister would begin with the narrow focus of tackling corruption in state procurement, rather than targeting oligarchs and politicians.
Mr Pashinian told parliament on Tuesday he would not engage in “personnel purges” of ruling party officials.
“Having discussed this with him, Nikol’s approach is basically we have to create a more open and fair system first, then we can move toward anti-corruption policy, regulatory reform. He doesn’t want this to be hijacked like in Ukraine, he doesn’t want new crowd of oligarchs coming in and cutting corners,” Mr Giragosian said. “It may be too little too late given the entrenched nature of the cancer of corruption.”
Nonetheless, new elections will see less vote-buying than in the past, he predicted.
On Tuesday, Armenians were celebrating Mr Pashinian’s appointment in the hot streets of Yerevan with traditional dances and chants of “Nikol prime minister”. In one case, a truck brought snow from a mountainous region so people could cool off.
Serj Tankian, the Armenian-American singer from the popular metal band System of a Down, had rallied people in support of Mr Pashinian on Monday night and attended the parliamentary session on Tuesday.
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