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Armenia protest leader Nikol Pashinyan elected new prime minister

The man who spearheaded weeks of protests in Armenia was chosen Tuesday to be the country’s new prime minister, and carries the weight of high hopes for a turnaround in the impoverished former Soviet republic.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian faces an array of challenges, including a parliament dominated by the party he denounced as corrupt and how to resolve the volatile question of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan under the control of ethnic Armenian forces.

In one of his first moves after parliament elected him as prime minister, Pashinian announced he would visit Nagorno-Karabakh on Wednesday. He said the self-declared government there must be a part of any talks to end the long-standing frozen conflict.

Although Armenian leaders traditionally visit the region on May 9, the date on which many ex-Soviet countries mark the defeat of Nazi Germany, Pashinian’s trip is likely to provoke resentment from Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Hikmet Hajieyv issued a statement insisting “the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is currently occupied, has always been an integral part of Azerbaijan.”

Since a six-year separatist war ended in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh have been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia. Shooting frequently breaks out across a demilitarized zone that separates the forces and Azerbaijan’s soldiers, and a four-day war in 2016 killed scores on both sides.

Pashinian’s election, capping weeks of political turmoil, delighted his supporters, thousands of whom crowded the central square in the capital, Yerevan.

Such high hopes could lead to a hard fall, observers suggested, noting that Pashinian has yet even to articulate a platform.

“People are waiting for a miracle, but the risk of disappointment is very great — the lack of a program and of a team make Pashinian very vulnerable,” said analyst Vigen Akopian. “The fight against corruption demands concrete actions from Pashinian. The elites, sitting on the state’s money sources, aren’t ready for this and will oppose it.”

Many Armenians have stewed for years about the country’s poverty and widespread corruption, but Pashinian was able to galvanize that discontent into a mass movement that was raucous but largely peaceful.

The protests focused on former President Serzh Sargsyan, who tried to hold onto power by switching from president to prime minister, a move that opponents saw as allowing him to remain the country’s leader indefinitely.

Sargsyan was president for a decade, but stepped down this year because of term limits. However, Armenia has changed its government structure, giving the prime minister more power than the presidency.

Soon after Sargsyan stopped being president, he was named prime minister by parliament, where his Republican Party has a majority of seats.

Yet faced with weeks of mass protests, Sargsyan left the premiership on April 23, six days after his election. In a concession last week, the Republicans agreed to support any prime minister candidate nominated by a third of the parliament members, paving the way for Pashinian’s election.

The unresolved status of Nagorno-Karabakh contributes to the economic problems that are a key issue for Pashinian’s supporters.

Both Azerbaijan and Turkey have closed their borders with Armenia over the conflict, inhibiting trade and leaving Armenia in semi-isolation. It has direct land access only to a narrow border with Iran and to Georgia.

Pashinian, in a speech to parliament before his election Tuesday, said his revolution will lead to the “recognition of realizing the rights of Karabakh to self-determination.”

He later said he was prepared for talks, but only if the separatists were involved.

Armenia is strongly dependent on Russia, the source of about 30 percent of the country’s imports. Russia in turn has strong strategic interests in the country, where it has a military base.

Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Pashinian, who has promised he’ll continue close relations with Moscow.

Putin said in a telegram to Pashinian after his election that he counts on him to “aid the further strengthening of bilateral, allied relations between our countries.”