Thursday, 10 May 2018

Armenian News... A Topalian... Max Seddon in Yerevan

Financial Times, UK
May 8 2018
Armenia’s opposition leader named as prime minister
Max Seddon in Yerevan

Nikol Pashinyan wins parliamentary backing after masterminding weeks of protests

Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian opposition leader, was named prime minister on Tuesday after parliament voted to back him following weeks of street protests that forced the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan.
The parliamentary victory caps a rapid rise to power for the former journalist, who rose from near obscurity to become the most popular figure in Armenia after leading a campaign against corruption.
The vote passed by 59 to 42 after Mr Sargsyan’s own party, the majority Republicans, grudgingly agreed to support Mr Pashinyan despite him controlling just nine seats in the 105-seat assembly.
Speaking to parliament on Tuesday, Mr Pashinyan said: “There is no return to the status quo. We will no longer be hopeless. Hate and the propagating of hate is not our mantra.”
Thousands of Mr Pashinyan’s supporters had thronged Yerevan’s Republic Square, focal point of the protests, to await the result. Cars honked their horns throughout the capital and drivers waved Armenian flags.
Mr Pashinyan’s movement began a month ago as a quixotic march to Yerevan, then snowballed as he struck a chord with Armenians frustrated over corruption and the ruling party’s control of a moribund economy. The subsequent mass protests forced the resignation of Mr Sargsyan.
As president in 2015 he held a referendum on constitutional changes that shifted powers from the president to the prime minister. He pledged not to become premier himself but, having served the maximum two presidential terms, he was then elected by the ruling Republican party to be prime minister.
The Republicans voted down Mr Pashinyan’s first attempt to replace Mr Sargsyan as prime minister last week, but effectively conceded defeat a day later when he mobilised his supporters for a nationwide strike.
Mr Pashinyan has a week to name a cabinet, then two more to present a programme to parliament.
Republican leaders said they had decided to give Mr Pashinyan enough votes to win in order to “stabilise the situation in the country”, but did not promise to support his agenda.
Indeed, Mr Pashinyan needs the Republicans to reject his programme to achieve his biggest goal: holding early elections under a revised code.
Mr Pashinyan’s other priorities are ending lucrative import monopolies on commodities such as bananas, sugar and diesel fuel — many of which are held by figures close to the Republicans — and cracking down on corruption.
Armenia’s international stance is likely to remain unchanged. Mr Pashinyan said that Armenia would remain in Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union and collective security bloc, adding that he saw the military alliance with Moscow as the main factor ensuring Armenia’s security.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia responded on Tuesday by sending Mr Pashinyan a congratulatory telegram. The two are expected to meet in the Russian resort of Sochi on Monday at a conference of the EEU’s executive board.
Mr Pashinyan’s aggressive rhetoric against Armenia’s neighbour Azerbaijan, with which it has been in a technical state of war since 1988, means those hostilities are also likely to continue.
On Wednesday, Mr Pashinyan will mark Victory Day in Nagorno-Karabakh. The disputed enclave is recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan but the majority population is Armenian and it is de facto run by Yerevan. Mr Pashinyan has called for Nagorno-Karabakh’s leaders to be represented in peace talks, a more aggressive stance than that taken under Mr Sargsyan.

The Washington Post
May 8 2018
Armenia’s opposition leader named prime minister, and his supporters erupt in cheers
by Amie Ferris-Rotman

MOSCOW —  After weeks of rallies and unrest, Armenia’s bloodless revolution secured victory Tuesday when parliament selected protest leader Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister, making a dramatic break with the ruling elite in the former Soviet country.
Upon hearing the news, a huge crowd of around 100,000 in the main square of the capital, Yerevan, burst into cheers, Armenian news outlet CivilNet showed on its live feed. A large truck carrying ice joined in, dumping a frozen mound among the revelers, who turned it into flying snowballs. Rock musicians took to a central stage, where they played to jubilant crowds of mostly young people waving the tricolor Armenian flag and photos of Pashinyan.
The 42-year-old secured the vote after his pro-democracy movement ousted former prime minister Serzh Sargsyan after more than a decade in power. A previous vote on May 1 failed to elect Pashinyan.
Capping weeks of nationwide strikes, protests and carnivalesque street parties, parliament voted 59 to 42 in favor of Pashinyan. Charismatic and fiery, Pashinyan had convinced some lawmakers from the ruling Republican Party to cross party lines and vote for him — something unthinkable just a short while ago.
Pashinyan’s rise from a fringe opposition lawmaker to prime minister has been meteoric: Six weeks ago, he was walking through the Armenian countryside, Gandhi-style, protesting what he said was cronyism in the small country of 3 million amid accusations that Sargsyan had altered the constitution to stay in power. Attempting to drum up support in villages, Pashinyan camped in tents along the way, attracting followers and growing a salt-and-pepper beard that he still sports.
At first, his quest to overthrow the government whose leaders have ruled Armenia since the 1990s felt quixotic. But then he garnered an enormous amount of support from the streets, surprising just about everyone, including, initially, his own people.
Russian President Vladi­mir Putin — who was inaugurated a day earlier for his fourth term as president — rushed to congratulate Pashinyan in what felt like part approval, part caution.
“I hope that your work as head of government will promote stronger friendly and allied relations between our countries,” Putin wrote in a telegram, saying this should take place within the framework of various security and trade agreements Armenia already has established with Russia.
Honoring Armenia’s bond with the Kremlin, Russian media said Pashinyan will visit the Black Sea resort of Sochi next week for a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union, a Russian-backed alternative to the European Union comprising a small group of former Soviet states.
Impoverished and landlocked, Armenia relies on Moscow for economic backing and keeping a simmering conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan at bay. Moscow operates two military bases in the country, which also borders Turkey and Iran. Pashinyan has insisted he wants to maintain relations with both Russia and the West, in particular the European Union, and balancing the two will be key to his tenure going forward.
Temptation exists on both sides.
“For the new Armenian leadership, there is a unique opportunity to pursue a greater degree of strategic significance for the E.U.,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan, an independent think tank. “The victory of the opposition in Armenia is also a victory of the E.U., in terms of ideals and ideas.”
Armenia’s bloodless revolution has so far avoided the aggressive response from Moscow that met the overthrow of authority in other formerly Soviet republics, notably Ukraine and Georgia, although that could change. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has praised the Armenian protest movement.
But being one of the few democratic countries in the neighborhood will not go unnoticed.
“The Armenian revolution’s tool kit is something that many opposition groups in former Soviet states will be studying,” said Lilit Gevorgyan, senior economist for Russia and the former Soviet Union for IHS Markit.“Ideally, many former Soviet ruling elites, including those in Armenia, would like to see the revolution fail.”
The uprising sent a clear message that nepotism and corruption cannot prevail indefinitely, Gevorgyan said.
An even larger battle may lay ahead for Pashinyan: dismantling a ruling class that still holds enormous economic and political sway.
Not one to do things by halves, Pashinyan on Wednesday will visit the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian territory that broke away from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union crumbled a quarter-century ago. While Armenian leaders in the past have sought to placate Moscow by recognizing the enclave as an independent state, Pashinyan wants it to be part of Armenia.

Moscow Times
May 8 2018
Putin Congratulates Armenia’s Opposition Leader-Turned Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan

Russia’s newly-inaugurated President Vladimir Putin was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Armenian protest leader Nikol Pashinyan on becoming prime minister on Tuesday.

Armenia’s parliament voted for opposition leader Pashinyan to take the post of Prime Minister, weeks after the politicians spearheaded a popular revolt against Armenia’s longtime leader Serzh Sargsyan. Armenia has relied heavily on Moscow after the Soviet Union’s collapse and houses a Russian military base near its second-largest city of Gyumri. 

“I expect that your work as the head of government will contribute to further strengthening the friendly, allied relations between our countries,” the Kremlin cited Putin as saying in a congratulatory message to Pashinyan Tuesday. 
Throughout Armenia's wave of protests, Moscow has remained publicly neutral, and Pashinyan has consistently said he viewed Moscow as a vital ally.
In the lead-up to his election on Tuesday, Pashinyan said that he was committed to staying in an economic bloc and regional collective security organization led by Russia, which is wary of an uncontrolled change of power that would pull the country out of Russia’s orbit.

Pashinyan told the state-run TASS news agency that he hoped to meet Putin on May 14 during a Eurasian Economic Union summit in Sochi.

Reuters contributed reporting to this article.

Al-Jazeera, Qatar
May 8 2018
How Armenia's revolution became a brand
by Robin Forestier-Walker

A new culture of resistance is emerging in Armenia as artists express the feelings of the people on the streets.
by Robin Forestier-Walker

Nikol Pashinyan has been elected as Armenia's new prime minister, days after former PM Sargsyan resigned.

Pashinyan has become hugely popular among Armenians after spearheading weeks of mass protests against the ruling party.

His messaging has been so effective, he and the movement have become like a brand.

Al Jazeera's Robin Forestier-Walker reports from Yerevan.

Deutsche Welle, Germany
May 8 2018
Can Armenia's new PM address locals' frustration?

After weeks of protests that pushed Armenia to the brink of crisis, the country now has a new prime minister. But locals at Yerevan's Firdaus Market are fighting for their existence – and for a government they can trust.

It almost doesn't look like a market anymore: Firdaus bazaar is hidden on a side street just a few minutes walk from the central square in the Armenian capital. Towards the beginning of the road, a few vendors sit quietly, selling patterned aprons, women's underwear and neatly arranged rows of children's shoes in pastel colors. But the selection of stalls thins as the road continues. Most of the improvised stores are shuttered.

Just under a year ago the government officially closed the market which sprang up in Yerevan in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. The authorities plan to build a whole new neighborhood here in the city center, a modern architectural complex which will reportedly include apartments, offices, and an underground parking lot.

The remaining stalls shouldn't be here anymore. The vendors were told to move their business to a different market — but many say they can't afford the rent there. Anahit Pkhrikyan had to close up shop, too. Like many of the former vendors here, she lives just off the market.

There is a thick lock on the thick turquoise metal doors that used to hold the clothes she sold at her stall.  She explains that the government is claiming eminent domain on the land around the market, and is trying to buy the locals out of their houses as well. Her anger is palpable. "Are we the government's enemies? Whatever is profitable for the government, that's what they do. They don't want to help us, we are nothing to them."

After the government officially closed Yerevan's Firdaus market only a few determined vendors have remained

Hanging in the balance
Anahit's neighbors nod in agreement. No one really seems to know when the neighborhood will actually be cleared for construction. But many of the locals feel sure that the government is corrupt — and that it is out to cheat them. "We heard on TV that they have allotted $300 million (€253 million) to this [project]," Anahit explains. "But they put those 300 million in their own pockets and then come here and try to kick us out on the cheap."

Anahit is a single mother. She lives with her teenage daughter and her disabled mother. Without her regular daily income from the market, the three of them struggle to survive on a total of 39,000 Armenian drams (under €70) per month in government benefits. Now Anahit fears she may lose her home as well. And she says the compensation the authorities are offering to buy up her property is much too low, especially considering the central location of the neighborhood.

"They can come at any point and kick us out over night and pay us whatever they think the price should be," Anahit rails, referring to the government. "I should be able to determine the price I want for this land. It's my land, my property! How can you steal property? That's what they are doing — stealing!"
An oasis of calm in the city center

Anahit is refusing to let the government buy up her family land

Just behind her former stall, Anahit leads the way through a little passageway that runs between the houses into a huge garden, planted with cherry trees and flower beds. A little path leads to a chicken coop in the corner, where a handful of the birds peck at their feed. Anahit shows us the walls of the houses, which are made of old stone she insists remain from the time of the Ottoman Empire. 

"Actually, I wouldn't even give this up for a million," says Anahit, surveying her land, which stretches 2000 square meters. The property has been passed on through generations. Anahit proudly shows the documents for the land, which were signed one hundred years ago by her grandfather.

"My daughter says we should just leave all this behind, even leave the country. But how can we leave this behind? Our land, our cemeteries. My father is buried here, my grandmother and grandfather! Why should I leave this? Let the government leave instead — they have billions!"

Crumbling walls, steadfast determination
Clara Melkumyan's house is crumbling but she wants a fair price for her property

Clara Melkumyan lives on the other side of the street from Anahit, just on the other side of Firdaus market. Clara is over eighty years old and has lived in her small two-bedroom house for 30 years, she says. The house is in poor condition, but Clara, too, is waiting for the government to give her what she says would be a fair price for her property.

Clara doesn't believe the authorities' claim that the land is for government use. "They aren't building a road here, they aren't building a hospital or an airport. They just want the land for themselves. Now they want to seize this land too, this nugget of gold here, and force us out for just a few cents."

In the meantime, Clara has had shut off one of the two rooms in the crumbling house and has moved her bed across the floor, which has buckled with time. "I'm afraid my bed might fall through the floor," she explains. There are cracks in the ceiling and in the basement, Clara has put up wooden beams as supports for the floor - just in case. 

As soon as she is offered enough money to move somewhere new, she will leave in a flash, Clara says. She accuses the government of "trampling on our rights" and explains: "At least for the remainder of my life, I want to be able to live a bit, to breathe a bit, that's it."

Many of the locals who live on the market street used to have stalls here

Pushing for change
For now all the vendors at Firdaus market and the residents around it can do is wait. Many of them say they have taken their dissatisfaction with the government out into the streets in recent weeks, joining tens of thousands of Armenians who chanted for change.

After all, it's not just the Firdaus locals who feel betrayed by the government and want a better life. In Armenia, around 29 percent of the population live under the poverty line and around 18 percent are unemployed, according to the World Bank.

A long build-up
Back in her garden, Anahit, too, said she joined demonstrators. "Of course," she nods. "Everyone just wants a good life. We are sick of everything — for years they have been stealing from us," Anahit says, referring to the government of Serzh Sargsyan, who served as Armenian president for 10 years. 

To Anahit, and many others in Armenia, these protests were not so much about whether opposition leader Nikol Pashinian would end up in charge of the country or anyone else for that matter. "It's about the people, not about Nikol Pashinian," she explains calmly. "We have lost our hope. This feeling has just been building up in people."

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