Pashinian for PM?

IT LOOKS more like a carnival than a revolution. Instead of burning tyres and mounting barricades, young people wrap themselves in Armenian flags, dance in the streets and block the roads by playing volleyball or simply sitting on carpets. On the morning of a general strike, a five-year-old boy drove a toy car with an Armenian flag through an empty street. In the evening, vast construction trucks loaded with students drove and hooted through Yerevan.

But behind the street theatre lies a velvet revolution led by a young generation of Armenians against an old guard who have controlled the country since its independence in 1991. Their victory is not yet complete, but their anticipation of success seems likely to be self-fulfilling. On May 1st, in an attempt to hold out, the ruling party blocked the election as prime minister by parliament of Nikol Pashinian, the leader of a three-week-old protest that has galvanised the entire former Soviet republic of some 3m people. A dozen pro-government MPs desperately tried to discredit him as a dangerous anti-Russia candidate, unacceptable to the Kremlin, which has a tight economic and military grip over Armenia. But Moscow was silent, confident of its strategic hold on Armenia and unwilling to back the losing side.

That evening Mr Pashinian addressed tens of thousands of people who filled in the main Republic square. “Beloved nation, proud citizens of Armenia. People in parliament have lost the sense of reality. They don’t understand that 250,000 people who came onto the streets in Armenia have already won. Power in Armenia belongs to you—and not to them.” His words sparked jubilation. To prove his point and his strength, Mr Pashinian called a general strike paralysing the city and the country.

A few hours later, on May 2nd, the ruling party appeared to cave in, implying it would back him in next week’s parliamentary session. It may still spring a nasty surprise, but is unlikely to regain control over the country—at least not for now. Mr Pashinian has led a textbook velvet revolution, made possible by textbook mistakes by the government, which tried to hang onto power after losing its legitimacy.

Mr Pashinian managed to personify Armenians’ resentment against a corrupt elite. Donning Che Guevara-style fatigues, he went around the country on foot, preaching non-violent protest. By doing so, he decentralised the revolution, making it virtually impossible for the authorities to quash. In the capital he appealed to students and young people with no memories of the Soviet past, but a strong sense of dignity and justice. Mr Pashinian’s brief detention doubled the size of the crowds in the streets, leading the prime minister to resign last week and perhaps making Mr Pashinian unstoppable.

Crucially, the challenger avoided any subject such as ideology or geopolitics that could divide the country and antagonise Russia. Unlike the revolutions in Georgia in 2003 and in Ukraine in 2004 and again in 2014, which were fought under the slogans of joining Europe and NATO, Mr Pashinian talked strictly about internal matters like corruption and justice, which everyone can agree on. He made populist promises and pledged that Armenia will remain with Russia’s security arrangements. Not a single European flag was waved in Yerevan and no slogan pronounced Armenia’s European destiny. But the fear of mentioning Russia-related subjects only highlighted Russia’s importance.

While Moscow clearly distrusts revolutionaries, it has so far decided not to interfere in Armenia, hoping that inflated expectations and lack of money will do their own damage. “It has been the smartest Kremlin policy I’ve seen for years,” says Alexander Iskandaryan, the head of the Caucasus Institute, a think-tank. Armen Grigoryan, one of the revolution’s leaders says, “All the stars were aligned, and even Saturn moved into the same position it was in 1988.” That was when protests in Armenia provided the first rumblings of the storm that was to bring down the Soviet empire three years later.