May 2, 2018 / 5:37 AM / 6 months ago

Armenian protest leader pauses strike for talks with ruling party

YEREVAN (Reuters) - The leader of a protest movement that has rocked Armenia on Tuesday called a pause in a campaign of civil disobedience while he seeks assurances that the ruling party will back him to be the next prime minister.

After a day of protests that blocked roads and railways and brought parts of the country to a standstill, a senior official with the ruling party hinted it may be willing to back Nikol Pashinyan when his candidacy for the premier’s job comes up for a vote in parliament next week.

That would signal a dramatic shift in power in Armenia and cause disquiet in Russia, which sees the ex-Soviet state as a strategic ally and does not want any changes that could pull the country out of its orbit.

Pashinyan - a 42-year-old former journalist who has spent time in jail on charges of fomenting unrest - said that on the face of it the ruling Republican Party was conceding defeat. But he said he needed to be certain it was not a ruse.

“Tomorrow, we will stage no actions,” Pashinyan, who has won a large following by accusing the ruling elite of corruption and cronyism, told tens of thousands of supporters gathered in a square in the capital, Yerevan.

“You will be resting tomorrow. We will be working in parliament and we will try to get the necessary guarantees that the statements made by the Republican party are true.”

He urged his supporters to listen out for further announcements, saying that if the talks did not go to plan, he may need to call them back out on to the streets.

“We should be vigilant,” he said.

Earlier on Wednesday, the head of the Republican Party in parliament, Vahram Baghdasaryan, told reporters that when lawmakers vote on who will fill the vacant prime minister’s post, his party will not put forward its own candidate.

He said it will back whoever is nominated. So far, Pashinyan is the only nominee. Baghdasaryan did not say explicitly, though, that this meant his party would back Pashinyan.

His party has already sown confusion over its intentions, saying last week it would not stop Pashinyan becoming prime minister, and then opposing his candidacy when it was put to a vote in parliament on Tuesday.

The re-run of the vote is scheduled to take place on May 8. If parliament fails on the second attempt to choose a new prime minister, the legislature will be dissolved and early parliamentary elections called.

Armenia hosts a Russian military base and is nestled strategically between Turkey and energy exporter Azerbaijan, with which it has been in a state of conflict since the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Pashinyan says that if in power he will keep close ties with the Kremlin. But Moscow is wary that Armenia could go the same way as Ukraine in 2014, where an uprising swept to power new leaders who moved their country closer to the West.

Armenian opposition supporters ride on a truck at Republic Square after protest movement leader Nikol Pashinyan announced a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience in Yerevan, Armenia May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

STANDOFF

The crisis in Armenia has pitted Pashinyan’s movement against a ruling elite that controls parliament, the security apparatus, and has Moscow’s backing.

Throughout Wednesday in Yerevan all main streets were blocked by cars, minibuses and garbage bins. Protesters marched shouting “Nikol! Victory!”, waving flags and blowing horns. Police tried to persuade them to open roads, but did not use force.

In a sign of cracks in the ruling elite, acting Culture Minister Armen Amiryan resigned, according to his spokeswoman. She said protesters came to his ministry, and after meeting them he came outside and announced he was quitting.

By evening, blockades on roads outside the centre of the capital had been lifted.

For most of the day, roads leading in and out of the capital were blocked, including the road to the international airport. A spokesman for the civil aviation authority said one flight had been cancelled. Residents and local media reported protests in several other cities in the country of three million people.

The national railway operator said it was forced to suspend some rail services because tracks were blocked.

The crisis was sparked when Armenia’s veteran leader Serzh Sarksyan, forbidden by the constitution from standing for a third term as president after a decade in office, tried to become prime minister last month.

Slideshow (17 Images)

His switch to the new job triggered protests by people who saw it as a cynical ploy to hang onto power, and he stepped down after just a week. The ruling elite has since dug in its heels and resisted ceding power to Pashinyan.

Not all Armenians back the protests. Some see Pashinyan as a demagogue who is trying to oust the country’s democratically elected leaders by whipping up public anger.

Reuters reporters witnessed two incidents in Yerevan when the drivers of vehicles remonstrated with protesters blocking their path.

“The country can’t exist like this. I couldn’t get to work today,” said Zhanna Petrosyan, a 56-year-old doctor.

Additional reporting by Polina Ivanova in MOSCOW; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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