Nikol Pashinyan is Armenia’s Donald Trump. Although they are different physically, in demeanor and in policy, and despite the huge gap between the issues facing tiny Armenia and giant America, both men lean heavily on the populist playbook. Us against them. The people against the elite. The virtuous against the corrupt. Spitak against sev. Like Trump, Pashinyan also promised to drain the swamp, ridding the government of dirty and corrupt officials. Unlike Trump though, Pashinyan largely accomplished this goal. The 2018 Velvet Revolution toppled the corrupt pyramid of governance in Armenia, where high-ranking state officials or members of parliament were also the country’s richest businessmen and regional governors operated like feudal lords, spreading money and fear, whichever was necessary at any particular moment, to retain power.
In the run-up to the 2016 American presidential election, it was amusing and ironic that Trump, neck deep in the murky waters of New York’s business and real estate world, touted himself as the one to clean up America’s politics. His “Lock her up!” chants directed at rival Hillary Clinton became popular shorthand for demonizing and neutralizing his democrat party opponents. In a strange twist though, it was many of Trump’s own associates and friends who were eventually either locked up or faced criminal prosecution. Trump’s business dealings were so shady that he was the first American president in forty years to refuse to make his tax returns public. You could say the swamp of American politics eventually got the best of Trump, who was the first U.S. president since 1992 to be voted out of office after only one term.
Pashinyan, heavily bruised and battered, has managed to keep his Prime Minister post even after overseeing, as Commander-in-Chief, the devastating defeat during the most recent war in Artsakh, on top of faltering on many of his revolutionary promises. At a March 1 rally at Republic Square, Pashinyan threw down the gauntlet, again, promising to “end the velvet.” Although he didn’t lead a lock ‘em up chant, by promising to end the velvet, he surely meant convicting and locking up members of the old corrupt guard. Many of Pashinyan’s fervent supporters say his biggest failure is the fact that the largest alligators continue to freely swim around dirty waters, waiting for their chance to strike again. The Pashinyan-led revolution may be the only one in history where the dirty and corrupt leader revolted against is not dead, in exile or in jail. Time has shown that both Pashinyan and Trump have barks bigger than their bites. Although corruption in Armenia is nowhere near as rampant as before, it is still far from being eradicated as the way of governing and doing business. Time will tell if the swamp also gets the best
Nikol Pashinyan governs as if he’s the PM of Hayastani Hanrahavakapetutyun [Rally Republic of Armenia]. Whenever he finds himself in a political bind or facing resistance, he calls his supporters out onto the streets as a show of force or to the square for a hanrahavak – a rally. During the revolution, rallies at Republic Square were a common way to showcase the irrepressible strength of the movement. Long disgruntled citizens, accumulating hope and energy, would gather after hours of protesting to hear a summary of the day’s successes and plans for the following day. Even after assuming office, PM Pashinyan continued to use the power of the street as a political tool. In October 2018, when the main target of the revolution, the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), still controlled parliament, Pashinyan instantly summoned a vast throng of supporters to surround the parliament building, forcing the RPA to withdraw a draft law that Pashinyan considered a threat to his revolutionary government. Then in May 2019, one day after Robert Kocharyan was released from pre-trial detention, Pashinyan ordered his supporters to blockade courthouses throughout the country and not allow workers to enter them, hailing it as the start of the second phase of Armenia’s revolution. This was definitely an unusual tactic, more suitable to an opposition figure than a sitting PM with an overwhelming parliamentary majority.
Donald Trump loves rallies as much as Pashinyan, if not more. He would frequently fly all over the vastness of America and ramble on for hours in front of thousands of devoted cheering followers. Only COVID-19 was able to stop Trump from organizing and headlining political rallies for several months. When Trump lost the presidential race, he pouted over the fact that he was beaten by a man who could not draw large enthusiastic crowds like himself. He believed that jam-packed rallies meant he was also the most popular candidate with the electorate. He argued that the election must have been stolen from him by the Democrats. By most accounts, Trump’s White House was a chaotic and dysfunctional seat of government. He clearly enjoyed the public appearance aspect of leadership, not the day to day grind of managerial and policy responsibilities. Trump’s supporters, like Pashinyan’s, also gathered in large numbers to pressure government officials on the opposing team. In Michigan, a group of rifle-carrying Trump-supporting protesters occupied the state capitol to voice their discontent over the Democrat governor’s strict coronavirus lockdown rules. Trump’s final rally as president, after his defeat to Joe Biden, but before his last day in office, was a national disaster and disgrace as thousands of his supporters walked away inspired after hearing their savior speak and invaded the U.S. Capitol building, forcing lawmakers into hiding.
After a few months without a hanrahavak because of the war and its depression-inducing aftermath, Pashinyan recently called two rallies where he channeled his revolutionary flare and fervor. He railed against the old regime, the military leadership that had recently called for his resignation, and whoever else he felt was threatening the people’s right to be governed by a duly elected government. Leading a rally and making promises that whip up a crowd come easy to rhetorically-gifted Pashinyan. His screechy high-pitched voice appropriately reflects his deep disdain for the old guard. The part Pashinyan has not been able to master is back at the quiet solitude of his office, where he’s required to make difficult unpopular decisions as PM to govern the country. The ability gap between hanrahavak Pashinyan and varchapet Pashinyan is wide and frustrating.
Both Pashinyan and Trump embody opposition figures more so than leaders of governments, parties and countries. Trump operates from the right wing of the political spectrum, Pashinyan more from the left, yet each is more confident as opposition to the old guard, rather than as leader of the majority party. Sometimes they even oppose their own governments. Trump can even be considered an opposition figure within the Republican Party. Each is more comfortable fighting against resistant forces rather than governing through institutions. They both also enjoy the palpable enthusiasm from their rabid supporters, who provide them with the energy to keep plowing forward in the face of fierce and bitter resistance. A populist is a populist after all.
Don’t Believe Anything You Read
Trump made the boogie man of fake news a worldwide phenomenon, and it didn’t take long for the concept to take hold in Armenia. Fake news, fakeri fabrica, fake Facebook users, fake Telegram channels. Pashinyan treats fake news like an enemy invasion. Recently, the National Security Service (NSS) arrested four opposition types accused of running a fake Facebook account highly critical of Pashinyan. It’s the fakesters that are making up stories to whip up destructive sentiment in the country. Pashinyan even elevated the alarm level a few notches, calling fake news media terror. Never mind the fact that, under Pashinyan’s watch, Armenia lost thousands of soldiers, thousands of square miles of land in Artsakh, control over the border with Azerbaijan, chunks of border villages and roads, and its national dignity. Channel 5, reportedly closely linked to ex-president Kocharyan, and ArmNews, associated with Serzh Sargyan’s son-in-law, are to Pashinyan what CNN and MSNBC were to Trump: peddlers of fake news, solely interested in spoiling any political victories in the country based on pure naked disdain and bias for the top man in government. There is no doubt that a well-financed media machine is working day and night against Pashinyan. Unfortunately, political discourse throughout the world is going through serious degradation. News in Armenia is now largely propaganda coming from all sides and camps. Before the war, it was easy to dismiss the Channel 5 and ArmNews types as mouthpieces for disgruntled ex-officials who had lost their place at the state trough. Pashinyan’s performance as leader during the war and its aftermath has gifted these mouthpieces a wider audience and their benefactors hope for political success.
Ironically, it was Pashinyan’s administration that orchestrated a largely fake narrative during the war that led Armenians throughout the country and diaspora to believe they were going to win. Hakhtelu enk became the rally cry. Of course, not every dark detail and stark reality during war can and must be advertised, but the Armenian government’s media strategy turned out to be cynically and inexplicably overblown. The message consistently relayed was that the military was on the verge of turning the tables. Clear Azerbaijani land advances were advertised as temporary flag raising PR moves. As the war moved on from days to weeks, many prepared themselves mentally for a long drawn out battle, even for guerilla warfare. On November 9, 2020, as late as 7:15 in the evening, Pashinyan wrote on Facebook that the battles for Shushi continue. Yet, only hours later, the ceasefire agreement cementing Armenia’s loss of Shushi and much more dropped unexpectedly, sending shockwaves throughout the Armenian nation, shattering all hope and illusion in a single moment. Armenians overwhelmingly felt betrayed by the wide disconnect between the administration’s portrayal of the war and its result. Looking back at the press conferences and live online appearances by Pashinyan and his team, it is true that the bitter truth was often told, even if subtly, between the outright lies and exaggerations. But those responsible for devising the war’s media strategy must have known the Armenian nation was whipped up and blinded by a hopeful frenzy, and would only hear the essence of the message, hakhtelu enk.
The State Against the Government
From day one, President Donald Trump lamented the deep state within the American government. Right along with fake news, rigged elections and America First, the deep state was one of Trump’s favorite talking points. He insisted there was a hidden network of officials within the U.S. government that were actively working against his political mandate and agenda, mainly in the FBI and Justice Department. One deep state episode which was unearthed, according to Trump, was a high-ranking FBI official who sent text messages in 2016 that Trump interpreted as a group within the FBI scheming to prevent him from becoming president. These deep staters clearly failed. On another occasion, Trump even accused the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of delaying the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments to undermine his re-election bid. There is no doubt that a large number of people in the U.S. bureaucracy detested Donald Trump the candidate and president. Whether agencies that were run by Trump appointees were actually deep state anti-Trump actors though is thin on evidence.
Armenia’s deep state, according to Pashinyan, is made up of loyalists to the old corrupt regimes, especially ex-President Serzh Sargsyan. During the recent dust-up with Onik Gasparyan, who then held the top job in Armenia’s armed forces, Pashinyan accused Gasparyan of taking orders from Sargsyan when Gasparyan issued a written statement calling for Pashinyan’s resignation. Ironically, it was Pashinyan who elevated Gasparyan to the rank of Lieutenant-General and appointed him to the top military post in the country – Chief of General Staff.
For populists like Pashinyan and Trump, the deep state is a convenient foil to divert attention away from their own failings and shortcomings, instead casting blame on unelected elites who secretly plot to take power away from the people’s elected leader. It’s the bureaucrats and loyalists to the opposition who are a stick in the wheel of their great political aspirations and victories. Although the deep state as an idea isn’t natively Armenian, Pashinyan has certainly used the concept to justify the fact that many of his reforms either stalled or never even got off the ground.
Presidential candidate Trump once boasted that he knew more about ISIS than America’s generals. This from a man who evaded serving in Vietnam on a trumped-up medical condition. When Trump appointed General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, he touted him as one of America’s greatest generals. But two years later, General Mattis resigned, unable to work for and with Trump, who was making serious geopolitical decisions against Mattis’ advice. During Trump’s rapprochement attempt with North Korea, Mattis was worried that losing contact with the president for even a couple of seconds could pose a serious threat to America’s national security. That’s how much Mattis distrusted Trump’s judgment as Commander-in-Chief.
Pashinyan, like Trump, also did not serve in the armed forces, although he turned 18 at the height of the First Karabakh War and service in Armenia is compulsory for all males. As PM, he has hired and fired the Chief of the General Staff – the top job in Armenia’s armed forces – three times in just over two years. He recently nominated someone for this position that he fired from the very same position less than a year ago.
In July 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan exchanged significant fire along the border in Tavush. Armenian forces were able to successfully repel the enemy forces and even retake a more beneficial tactical position. Pashinyan’s teammates rushed to hail him as a successful and victorious Commander-in-Chief. Pashinyan publicly stated that this skirmish proved that Azerbaijan could not solve the Artsakh issue through military action. Yet, in a televised statement a few weeks after the end of the war, Pashinyan distanced himself from the Commander-in-Chief role, arguing he is wrongly being held responsible for mistakes on the battlefield because as Prime Minister he had no hand in battlefield decisions. As the popular saying goes, victory in war has many fathers, while defeat remains an orphan. Once again, it was Pashinyan who elevated Onik Gasparyan to the rank of general, then appointed him to lead Armenia’s military. Yet, a few months after the war, Gasparyan called for Pashinyan’s resignation, essentially calling him a threat to national security. Pashinyan subsequently relieved Gasparyan of his duties for what Pashinyan called an attempted coup.
And so both Pashinyan and Trump have been labeled Commanders-in-Chief who pose a danger to the country’s national security. It’s one thing for opposition politicians to make this claim. It’s another when it’s your own defense secretary, a retired general, in Trump’s case, and the current leader of the armed forces, in Pashinyan’s case. Of course, Mattis would not and could not call for Trump’s resignation while defense secretary, given the sanctity of America’s elections and democracy. Plus, any potential military threat to America was far away in the Middle East and North Korea. In Armenia, Gasparyan took the unusual and surprising step of publicly calling for his own commander’s resignation, both because the state institutions in Armenia are still underdeveloped and because the dangers to Armenia’s national security are right at the borders threatening the existence of the state itself.
Defeated But Still Popular
What likely roils Pashinyan’s fiercest critics and rivals the most is that he still enjoys palpable support in Armenia, despite the devastating loss at war. You would expect a leader who suffers such a humiliating defeat to either resign or be swept from office by a tide of angry citizens. Like Trump’s supporters, Pashinyan’s also lay blame for most of the country’s failings at the feet of others.
It’s the previous corrupt regime that so heavily plundered the country and weakened the armed forces that victory in war was impossible.
When Pashinyan took office, Artsakh had already been ceded to Azerbaijan for all intents and purposes by Serzh Sargsyan.
Pashinyan was simply unlucky to take the reins of a country that was doomed for defeat.
Pashinyan has not been in power long enough to change a system rotting for over twenty years.
Pashinyan’s biggest failing is that he wasn’t tough enough with the old regime.
At least Pashinyan isn’t corrupt.
These are some of the justifications voiced by Pashinyan supporters. At this point, a large portion of the Armenian population appears to be giving more importance to domestic issues than national security – which Pashinyan clearly failed at.
Over four months after his defeat at the polls, Trump made his first public appearance at a yearly conference of conservative Americans. The large crowds at the multi-day event were vociferously pro-Trump, who is still the most powerful force in the Republican Party, despite losing the presidential race and internal resistance from many establishment party members. Both Pashinyan and Trump owe their political success to everyday people who fiercely protect their elected leader against corrupt forces, who are simply interested in their own narrow entrenched political and economic interests. Both leaders enjoy a cult-like following among a sizable segment of their populations who can see no wrong in the actions of each man. Candidate Trump wasn’t embellishing by much when he said he could shoot someone in the face on Fifth Avenue in New York and still not lose any voters. In Armenia, the list of national institutions that have called for Pashinyan’s resignation includes the President, both catholicoses, the military leadership, university rectors and more, yet Pashinyan has not faced the kind of overwhelming public pressure that could force him out of office. In classic populist form, Pashinyan labeled these calls for him to resign as revenge by the elite. Pashinyan probably couldn’t get away with shooting anyone, but he seems to be politically bulletproof with a sizable portion of the electorate. Trump also enjoys the support of a big chunk of voters who refuse to desert him. Although Trump is no longer running the country, he is still essentially king of the Republican Party, even though much of the party establishment turned on him after his supporters invaded Congress.
The U.S. and Armenia are not similar countries, but populist politics has clearly left its mark on both societies. Pashinyan is still PM, and Trump is discussing playing a role in the next presidential election in 2024. Populism, anchored in the common folk of both countries, isn’t going away anytime soon.