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Nikol Pashinian: From Jailed Activist To Beleaguered Leader 

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian facing questions in parliament on June 12
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian facing questions in parliament on June 12

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian built his political identity on peaceful protests and resistance to police violence. Now, six years after taking power, he has presided over his own violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrations.

Video of stun grenades exploding amid crowds of protesters have shocked Armenians, not least because of the bitter irony that police were doing it on Pashinian's watch.

The future prime minister first came to prominence in Armenian politics in 2008 when he helped lead demonstrations against a disputed election. Those protests were violently broken up by police in what human rights groups described as a disproportionate use of force, and 10 people were killed. Pashinian spent a year in jail.

Ten years later, he came to power on the back of another round of street protests; he called it the Velvet Revolution because of its nonviolent nature.

"I understood that the best way to prevent violence is to be nonviolent," he told The New York Times back then.

Anger Over Nagorno-Karabakh

Now that he is in power himself, the tables have turned. On June 12, police used stun grenades to break up a demonstration of anti-government protesters, with at least 98 people reported injured in the clashes. In recent weeks, Pashinian has faced growing calls for him to resign amid public anger over Armenia's catastrophic series of military losses and concessions to its foe, Azerbaijan.

Police In Armenia Use Stun Grenades On Anti-Government Protesters
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Azerbaijan successfully recaptured Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been controlled by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support for decades. Azerbaijan's September 2023 military offensive led to the capitulation of the local Armenian leadership and the exodus of over 100,000 ethnic Armenians.

Many details of the June 12 clashes are disputed. The parliament speaker, Alen Simonian, said that the leader of the protest movement, Archbishop Bagrat Galstanian, who has drawn large crowds to protest in the capital, "directed people to attack the police." Simonian also said that the police response was justified.

Pashinian has also defended the actions of the police but said that there would be an investigation into the violence.

"Approved and ordered by a leader that came to power through a 'peaceful Velvet Revolution,'" wrote journalist Lilit Shahverdian in an Instagram post about the police violence.

Nikol Pashinian is greeted by opposition supporters in Yerevan on March 1, 2008.
Nikol Pashinian is greeted by opposition supporters in Yerevan on March 1, 2008.

When Pashinian led protests in 2018 against the autocratic government led by Serzh Sarkisian, there were widespread fears that the police would crack down violently, as they had in 2008. But while hundreds of protesters were detained during those events, the demonstrations never faced the level of police violence that was seen on June 12. After Sarkisian stepped down, the U.S. ambassador at the time praised the "professionalism" of the security forces.

Pashinian's government then embarked on an ambitious program of reforms, including holding free and fair elections and greatly reducing corruption in the country. But his approach to government critics has been consistently harsh.


In 2018, during his first election campaign after the Velvet Revolution, he drew criticism for violent rhetoric against the opposition. In the next campaign for snap elections in 2021, he vowed to "replace our velvet mandate with a steel one" and promised "vendettas" against vestiges of the former authorities. Under his administration, police have repeatedly gone after critics of the prime minister, even for merely writing insulting Facebook posts.

The most recent U.S. State Department report on Armenia's human rights record noted that "numerous organizations reported on a notable increase in cases of abuse or torture by law enforcement officials of individuals in custody and asserted such behavior was becoming systemic and often went unpunished."

Nikol Pashinian leads a demonstration in Yerevan on April 26, 2018.
Nikol Pashinian leads a demonstration in Yerevan on April 26, 2018.

Pashinian and his defenders have justified the crackdowns on government opponents by citing those figures' ties to the former government or by claiming they have pro-Russia sympathies.

"Here in Yerevan, society views this as the provocative actions of [a] few hundred activists," political science professor Nerses Kopalian wrote on X following the June 12 events. "Those arrested for violence are primarily from political parties/organizations associated w/ the pro-Russia, previous regime contingent."

Speaking in parliament on June 13, the day after the violence, Pashinian accused the protesters of being masterminded by former President Robert Kocharian and the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. He also said that protesters were trying to attack the parliament building.

"The police were defending the statehood of Armenia," he said.

Others, though, said that was no excuse.

"From a political perspective, it was long known that the political minority intended to legitimize its narrative as a result of an aggressive confrontation with the police," Artur Sakunts, a human rights activist and the head of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly office in the Armenian city of Vanadzor, wrote on Facebook.

"However, no political agenda can justify the use of violence and cannot be considered an acceptable and justified basis of a democratic lawful state, regardless of who is the perpetrator, the authorities or the opposition."

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