Pashinyan’s Populist Shift From Nationalism to Pragmatism

May 2024

Onnik James Krikorian

Journalist and Analyst
More than six months since the collapse of what was once the Soviet-era Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), a territory situated within Azerbaijan but inhabited mainly by ethnic Armenians, there are hopes that the three decades long conflict between Yerevan and Baku can finally be resolved. Hitherto, the status of the breakaway region had proven the most intractable obstacle to a lasting peace. Even Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has publicly stated that the exodus of 100,000 ethnic Armenians following Azerbaijan’s operation to disarm local militia last year is not likely to be even partially reversible. Time will tell, but European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has already committed the European Union to supporting the “long-term integration of refugees” into Armenia.

Her statement came during a high-level meeting with Pashinyan and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Brussels on 5 April where von der Leyen announced an additional €270 million in support for Armenia spread over the next four years (Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, 2024). RFE/RL later reported that €10 million in non-lethal military assistance could also be available from the European Peace Facility (Buniatyan, 2024a). At time of publication, however, RFE/RL now reports that sources say Hungary has blocked the decision as Azerbaijan had been excluded from receiving similar (Buniatyan, 2024b).

With or without the Peace Facility, the financial support had anyway been less than many in Yerevan had hoped for but perhaps the meeting itself had more of a symbolic meaning for a once popular premiere that sees his ratings drop with each passing year. In the parliamentary elections that brought Pashinyan to power following street protests in 2018, his Civil Contract party won with 70 percent of the vote.

One disastrous war with Azerbaijan in 2020 later, and only 20 percent of respondents in a public opinion survey conducted in December by the International Republican Institute (IRI) say that they would re-elect them if elections were held that weekend (International Republican Institute, 2024). The figure is even less than snap elections held in June 2021 immediately following the 44-day war when Civil Contract won with 53.95 percent of the vote despite the defeat. In Yerevan’s municipal elections last year, it almost lost control over the city council with just 32.6.

In that context, any apparent endorsement of his leadership by the EU and US comes at an opportune time. Before the 2020 war, Pashinyan had relied solely on his populism and a literal fan base (Atanesian, 2018), that would blockade streets and buildings at a moment’s notice (Antidze, 2019). That no longer exists and he is only fortunate that the opposition remains significantly less popular than him. However, relations between Yerevan and Moscow, on whom Pashinyan has also sought to shift the blame for Armenia’s military defeat, continue to turn sour while only the EU and US provide him with a means through which to secure his political future. But given that the country continues to be economically, militarily, and politically dependent on Russia, that won’t necessarily remain the case. For any real diversification away from Moscow, he will have to find new allies and reach new markets.

That looks a daunting task given that two of Armenia’s four borders, namely Azerbaijan and Türkiye, are closed. Speaking at the Antalya Diplomacy Forum in early March (Krikorian, 2024c), the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and Crisis in Georgia, Toivo Klaar, had already spoken of Türkiye’s “unique opportunity” to “cement its role as the leading regional power” in the South Caucasus, a more preferable choice for Brussels and Washington D.C. than Moscow or Tehran. Thus, Klaar also emphasised the need to unblock regional transportation, including from Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhichevan through Armenia, something stipulated by the trilateral ceasefire statement ending the 44-day war in November 2020. The sides appear declaratively committed, but at odds on how to implement it and on who should control it (Krikorian, 2024a).

Border Demarcation

But another pressing issue – the demarcation of the shared border between the two countries – has seen a very public breakthrough in the past two months, surprising many. It follows a historic joint statement made on 7 December last year in which Azerbaijan would release 32 Armenian captives and Armenia would release 2 Azerbaijani prisoners (Armenia News, 2023). Yerevan would support Baku’s bid to host the UN Climate Change Conference (COP) in November while it would receive support for Eastern European COP Bureau membership in return. And in March, another breakthrough came that signalled progress precisely on the border issue.

In January, Azerbaijan’s Aliyev had said that the four non-enclave villages of Baghanis Ayrim, Ashagi Askipara, Kheyrimli, and Gizilhajili should be returned. On 7 March , the Office of Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister, Shahin Mustafayev, called for the “immediate” return of the four non-enclave villages before the process of demarcation could continue (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia, 2024; Galstian, 2024). Situated in the Gazakh region of Azerbaijan they had been under Armenian control since the early 1990s. Though their return had been included in an early version of the November 2020 ceasefire statement they were removed from the final version (Meduza, 2020). On 23 April, following the eighth meeting of border commissions from both, Armenia and Azerbaijan erected the first concrete boundary marker on that very section of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

At time of writing, there are believed to be over 20 such markers and both sides say they consider that around 10 km is demarcated. Though it was known that this was being discussed, the speed at which it became reality took everyone by surprise. It shouldn’t have. Pashinyan was already preparing them in his own special way.

Pashinyan the Populist

Even before he came to power, Pashinyan had always been a fiery orator able to manipulate an audience and always eager to confront anyone that opposed him (Krikorian, 2024d). Moreover, he has also been adept at changing both policy and language on a whim (Avetisyan & Karapetyan, 2022). If in February 2021, following the country’s defeat just three months earlier, Pashinyan still referred to the “Republic of Artsakh,” a nationalist and separatist reference to Karabakh, by the following year he was only referring to “Nagorno Karabakh” or sometimes not at all. Unnoticed by many analysts and regional observers at the time, this was clearly in preparation for announcing in April 2022 that the international community believed Armenia should “lower the bar” on Karabakh’s status.

Since then, he appears to have considerably expanded on this apparent tactic. This was most evident in response to Mustafayev’s demand for the non-enclave villages in March. Pashinyan called a sudden press conference broadcast live just days later in which he explained why the four non-enclave villages had to be handed over. He even had props to hand – a golden cut out map of the Republic of Armenia and three sand timers each in a colour of the Armenian flag. There could be war by the end of the week if the villages outside the internationally recognised border were not returned, he warned, highlighting that time was running out. He also reignited discussion over the dichotomy of what he has termed “historical Armenia versus Real Armenia.”

“The government and I have personally come to the conviction that historical Armenia and present-day Armenia are not only incompatible but also frequently in conflict with each other, sometimes posing serious threats to each other,” he said. “Being the bearers of the psychology and tradition of historical Armenia […], in 2022 we recognised that a key factor in ensuring the security of Armenia had been neglected, and this neglect has been ongoing since the early years of our statehood.”

This was a far cry from before the war when he was often more militant and boisterous. The opposition and other critics were quick to point this out but he had already crafted his words in such a way as to explain the reason for this reversal. “Only after […] September 2022 […] did I become unequivocally and unreservedly convinced that the demarcation of the internationally recognised territory of Armenia can become an additional and decisive factor in ensuring the short-term, medium-term, and long-term security of our country,” he said. “From that moment, an actual political and psychological process has begun, which can be called a demarcation process between Real Armenia and Historical Armenia.”

Linking these two – the demarcation of the border and the mind – was not out of line with what appears to be his new strategy to transform the country away from a legacy of nearly always focusing on the past into one looking to the future. This was always inevitable, but critics argue that it also allows him to escape blame for everything that has led up to this point, including defeat in 2020 and the definite end of Karabakh last year.

Pashinyan had always been a fiery orator able to manipulate an audience and always eager to confront anyone that opposed him

Constitutional Changes

Pashinyan had already attracted the ire of his opponents in February when he again raised the likelihood of not only amending the constitution but replacing it entirely (Krikorian, 2024b). Though he had anyway planned to change the document in 2020, the pandemic put those plans on hold. Ironically, despite his later post-2021 about face on Karabakh, Pashinyan had distributed mock passports embossed with the map of Armenia, Karabakh, and the then occupied seven regions on its cover. Today he says that the preamble in the constitution referring to the 1990 Declaration of Independence makes claims on the territory of both Azerbaijan and Türkiye which can only lead to continued and perpetual conflict.

In Pashinyan’s proposed constitutional changes, however, other issues have emerged, including in the appropriateness of including Mount Ararat, or Mount Agri in Türkiye, on its official coat of arms along with other symbols of “historical Armenia.” He famously raised this issue in a May 2023 rebuke to children that incorrectly believed that Ararat was the highest mountain in Armenia. “We all get confused in distinguishing between notions of homeland and state,” Pashinyan reportedly responded. “We constantly have to make a choice between a homeland and a state […] and our choice must be in favour of the state because [if not] we will constantly be losing.” (Kucera, 2024).

Future Elections

For now, the controversial nature of such comments and decisions in a country like Armenia has not mobilised the opposition as once it might have, offering a unique window of opportunity to press ahead with such changes now. Not only can Pashinyan rely to some degree on his trademark populism, but the population now remains weary from the war. But will this be enough to overcome the discontent and existential narratives sewn and disseminated by the opposition?

With parliamentary elections scheduled by the middle of 2026 at the latest, the situation can change and more credible alternatives materialise. Assuming that Pashinyan does not reverse course once again, he will be unable to rely solely on his rhetorical acumen as once he could. Short of an ill-advised crackdown on any opposition, Pashinyan will have to demonstrate to the electorate that his much touted peace agenda is working and that it guarantees Armenia’s long-term stability, security, and prosperity. Here, Azerbaijan and Turkiye can help. While it might be counter-productive to show direct support for the Pashinyan government, it can only be hoped that Ankara and Baku can be at least benevolent enough to provide him with enough to demonstrate that his policy of normalisation is bearing fruit.

Substantial progress on the normalisation process with Türkiye can help while Azerbaijan could show some benevolence in terms of some Armenian territory under its control as the demarcation process continues.


Antidze, Margarita. 2019. ‘Armenia Told to Refrain from Pressuring Judges’. Reuters. 21 May 2019.

Armenia News. 2023. ‘Statement: Azerbaijan Releases 32 Armenian Military Servicemen, Armenia Releases 2 Azerbaijani Military Servicemen’. 7 December 2023.

Atanesian, Grigor. 2018. ‘“Savior from the Planet Ijevan”: One Man Documents Pashinyan’s Rising Cult of Personality’. Eurasianet. 27 November 2018.

Avetisyan, Ani, and Hakob Karapetyan. 2022. ‘Nikol Pashinyan’s Duality on Karabakh: How the Discourse Changed’. Fact Investigation Platform. 19 April 2022.

Buniatyan, Heghine. 2024a. ‘EU Set To Provide Nonlethal Assistance To Armenia’. RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. 18 April 2024.

Buniatyan, Heghine. 2024b. ‘Hungary Blocks the Provision of Support to Armenia from the EU Peace Fund’. RadioFreeEurope RadioLiberty. 30 April 2024.

Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations. 2024. ‘Press Statement by President von Der Leyen on a Resilience and Growth Plan for Armenia’. European Commission. 5 April 2024.

Galstian, Shoghik. 2024. ‘Baku Insists On Armenian Withdrawal From Four Border Villages’. RadioFreeEurope RadioLiberty. 11 March 2024.

International Republican Institute. 2024. ‘Public Opinion Survey: Residents of Armenia | December 2023’. 11 March 2024.

Krikorian, Onnik James. 2024a. ‘The Pashinyan Conundrum : Predictably Unpredictable, Consistently Inconsistent’. Baku Dialogues Journal 7 (3).

Krikorian, Onnik James. 2024b. ‘Baku, Yerevan, and Moscow Clash Over Regional Transit’. The Jamestown Foundation: Eurasia Daily Monitor 21 (12).

Krikorian, Onnik James. 2024c. ‘Armenia at a Crossroads: Constitutional Speculation Sparks Debate’. The Caspian Post. 5 February 2024.

Krikorian, Onnik James. 2024d. ‘Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Türkiye Discuss Peace, Development and Connectivity in the South Caucasus at the Antalya Diplomacy Forum’. The Caspian Post. 8 March 2024.

Kucera, Joshua. 2024. ‘Between Two Mountains, An Armenian Search For Identity’. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. 6 March 2024.

Meduza. 2020. ‘The Kremlin has published the text of an agreement to end the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is very different from what was distributed before’. 10 November 2020.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia. 2024. ‘The 7th meeting of the State Commissions on the delimitation of the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan’. 7 March 2024.


Bio: Onnik James Krikorian is a journalist, photojournalist, and consultant from the United Kingdom based in Tbilisi, Georgia, since 2012. Until then, he was based in Yerevan, Armenia, from 1998 closely covering issues related to democracy, culture, poverty, and conflict. In 1994 he first visited Karabakh as a journalist and also covered the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. He has also been a consultant on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism for a number of intergovernmental organisations and writes news and analysis for a variety of international media and analytical publications. He can be followed on X at @onewmphoto.

Share this on social media