Armenia’s turmoil deepened on Wednesday as tens of thousands of people took to the streets after the opposition accused the ruling party of refusing to cede power following the resignation of veteran leader Serzh Sargsyan.
Protesters clapped, whistled, beat drums, banged pots and tooted car horns in demonstrations that underscored the political crisis gripping the impoverished former Soviet republic.
Many raised their hands in the air — a sign that the protest movement led by opposition lawmaker Nikol Pashinyan is peaceful — and robed priests joined the rallies in an apparent attempt to prevent possible clashes. Police did not intervene after abandoning attempts to clear central streets.
Led by 42-year-old Pashinyan, thousands of demonstrators earlier in the day marched through Yerevan against the ruling Republican Party’s unwillingness to facilitate the transfer of power after its leader and former President Sargsyan stood down Monday from his new post of prime minister.
Thousands are out on Republic Square in Yerevan this evening ahead of opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan’s rally there. After former Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation, protesters are calling for his Republican Party to leave government. #Armenia pic.twitter.com/3BhRUb9RAe
— Emily Sherwin (@EmilyCSherwin) April 25, 2018
Pashinyan sported his trademark khaki-coloured T-shirt and clutched a megaphone as protesters chanted “Nikol for prime minister” and “We are the masters of our country.”
Demonstrators and observers warned the crisis could destabilise the Moscow-allied nation which has been involved in a decades-long territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.
“There is a danger that riots, clashes could start if the Republicans do not leave in a calm manner,” 40-year-old lawyer Ruzanna Vartanyan told AFP.
Stepan Grigoryan, a political analyst who joined the rallies, said it was a do-or-die situation, describing the current system as “criminal.”
“The head has been chopped off,” he said, referring to Sargsyan’s resignation Monday, “but the body — the Republican Party — remains and it needs to be removed.”
In a surprise move, Sargsyan, who served as president for a decade, stood down as prime minister just a week after being elected by parliament, following days of protests by demonstrators who accused him of a blatant power grab.
Pashinyan, leader of the Civil Contract Party, had been due Wednesday to hold talks with acting government head Karen Karapetyan to discuss a “peaceful” power transfer. But the negotiations were cancelled late Tuesday.
Pashinyan accused the authorities of wanting to nominate a Republican Party candidate for prime minister, warning that the opposition would boycott snap parliamentary elections in that case.
“I want to tell Karen Karapetyan: I want you to understand that we will of course not allow you to implement such steps and the sooner you understand this the better it will be for everyone,” he said.
Pashinyan has insisted the new premier must be a “people’s candidate” and not a member of Sarkisian’s party, and told reporters he was himself willing to lead.
The Yelk opposition bloc said Wednesday it would nominate Pashinyan for prime minister. But a lawmaker from the bloc, Edmon Marukyan of the Bright Armenia party, said Pashinyan was currently 13 votes short of a majority. A candidate would need 53 votes to get elected.
A small member of the current ruling coalition, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, said it was leaving the coalition on Wednesday evening calling for a new prime minister to be elected to “overcome the political crisis.” But the move posed no immediate threat to the Republican Party’s rule as it still held 58 seats in parliament.
“The ruling Republican party has to leave,” Pashinyan said at a rally on Wednesday. “The Republicans have to recognise the victory of the people.”
Karapetyan, who has accused Pashinyan of promoting his own agenda, proposed holding a snap election so voters themselves could decide on the new leader under a parliamentary system of government.
Armenia’s President Armen Sargsyan, who is no relation to Serzh Sargsyan, and is a ceremonial figurehead, urged compromise.
The opposition had accused 63-year-old Serzh Sargsyan of wanting to extend his grip on power under a new parliamentary system, saying he failed to tackle a litany of problems including poverty and corruption.
Russia — which has a military base in Armenia — said Wednesday it was watching the situation “very closely” but reiterated that it would not interfere.