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Pedal Power: Armenia's Pashinian Escapes Political Turmoil On His Bike

Armenia's prime minister sometimes rides his bike to work.
Armenia's prime minister sometimes rides his bike to work.

With a large protest movement loudly demanding his resignation amid high-stakes negotiations continuing with Azerbaijan, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has a lot on his plate these days.

But what better way to clear your head than a bike ride on a sunny summer morning?

Over the past two weeks, Pashinian has been demonstratively taking to his bicycle, producing a series of social media videos of his rides. He has shown himself cycling around Yerevan on a number of early-morning pleasure rides and commuting to work on his bike. He has also started what he promises will be a regular Friday morning group ride with regular Armenians.

He punctuates his posts on Instagram and Facebook with paeans to cycling. "The bicycle is life, the bicycle is optimism, the bicycle is strength for overcoming difficulties. Long live the bicycle!" he said in one message.

Pashinian is facing no shortage of difficulties these days. Top among them is a protest movement spurred by his concessions to Azerbaijan following Baku's full takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh, which for decades was under ethnic Armenian rule.

Armenian opposition groups have been strongly critical of Pashinian for agreeing to transfer four formerly Azerbaijani villages to Baku without reciprocal concessions. It is the first time in Pashinian's six years in power that a significant organized opposition has emerged.

Violent Crackdown

On June 12, police violently cracked down on the protesters, firing stun grenades into the crowd and injuring scores. Less than 48 hours later, though, Pashinian was back on his bicycle for another group ride around Yerevan and posing for photos with smiling supporters.

"The bike is solidarity," he wrote.

The public displays of cycling may be a way to project an air of confidence and popular support in the face of the challenge posed by the protest movement, says Benyamin Poghosian, a senior fellow at the Yerevan-based APRI Armenia think tank.

"My understanding is that he wants to send a message of normality, to say that the protests do not concern him and that normal life is under way," Poghosian said.

It is not the first time that Pashinian has displayed an interest in cycling. Shortly after taking power in 2018, he also made several social media posts showing his rides around the city. In 2019, he posted about riding his bike to work.

At the time, the fact that he was a leader who didn't close off streets and even stopped at red lights was seen as a demonstration of his modesty in a region where large corteges of speeding black cars is the preferred mode of transport for heads of state. It suited his image as a man of the people who had overthrown the former corrupt, authoritarian regime.

In the last few years, Pashinian's popularity has plummeted. He entered office extremely popular, with an International Republican Institute poll from 2018 showing an 82 percent approval rate, But the military losses have taken their toll and, according to a recent IRI poll, only 13 percent of Armenians trust the prime minister.

Critics have mocked the fact that he cannot move freely about Yerevan as he used to; one pro-opposition website last year noted that "five years later, Pashinian's bicycle has turned into a 20-car cortege."

Lately, the leader of the protest movement, Archbishop Bagrat Galstanian, has also called attention to what he referred to as Pashinian's bunker mentality. When Pashinian organized his first group ride, Galstanian's press service crowed that the event showed that the prime minister "is evidently worried about the challenges questioning their leader's popularity and is forced to organize shameful performances."

Biking Leaders

For post-Soviet leaders with a reformist, pro-Western image, riding a bicycle can be mocked and criticized as beta male virtue signaling. One recent article on an Armenian pro-opposition news site was illustrated with a photo montage of Pashinian, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili all in unflattering cycling shorts.

Cycling is a means for these leaders "to present themselves as men of the people," the article argued. But "all three brought analogous results to their countries: territorial losses, human suffering, and a collapse of the country."

Pashinian isn't the only world leader who likes to get out on his bike. Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was a keen advocate of cycling and, during his time as mayor of London, he would sometimes travel around the city on his bike. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has often commuted by bike to his office in The Hague.

Other, more authoritarian leaders, such as Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, have also been proudly photographed riding a bike. Not to mention Turkmenistan's former leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, whose extravagant love of cycling did not prevent him from being perhaps the harshest despot in the post-Soviet space. (And lest one overinterpret the geopolitics of Pashinian's embrace of cycling, it was Turkmenistan's embassy in Yerevan who co-sponsored this year's World Bicycle Day event in Yerevan.)

A number of people have been supportive of Pashinian's outings on his bike. Commenting on one of his Instagram posts, Ernest Sinakarian said: "A great example of healthy living. We must take care of the nation's wellness." And writing on Facebook, David Muradian, who works for a software company in Yerevan, said, "Today, I had the incredible experience of biking through Yerevan with over 100 cyclists, including Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian."

Some cycling advocates have welcomed the prime minister's rides, hoping that they might build support to make Yerevan a more bikeable city. "It was nice that he acknowledged Yerevan has the potential to be a very cyclable city, which it certainly could be with a radical overhaul," said Tom Allen, an England native and longtime resident of Armenia who promotes hiking and cycling in the country.

But for many others, Pashinian's recent trips on the bike have struck the wrong tone and look like pedaling while Armenia burns. One journalist from Nagorno-Karabakh, Marut Vanian, wrote an essay about his experience under the blockade of 2023, when Azerbaijani forces managed to cut off supplies to the territory to the extent that fuel was hard to come by. Many, including Vanian, adapted by switching to human-powered transportation.

Like virtually the entire rest of the Armenian population of Karabakh (also known as Artsakh by Armenians), Vanian was forced to flee in September 2023 when Azerbaijani forces attacked and forced the de facto authorities to capitulate. Now living in Armenia, he sees bitter irony in Pashinian's embrace of cycling.

"Long live, long live," Vanian's essay concluded, referencing one of Pashinian's paeans. "But the despair of the people of Artsakh remains."

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