The FINANCIAL — YEREVAN. Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the center of the Armenian capital after lawmakers elected Serzh Sarkisian prime minister, cementing his continued dominance of power.
The demonstrators massed in Yerevan’s Republic Square late on April 17, holding Armenian flags and chanting “Armenia without Serzh.”
Protests were under way in other cities including Gyumri and Vanadzor, according to local media.
Protest leader Nikol Pashinian, after announcing the start of a “peaceful people’s revolution” in Armenia, told the rally in Yerevan that “Sarkisian lacks legitimacy and has earned the hatred of Armenians.”
Parliament voted 76 to 17 with no abstentions on April 17 to put Sarkisian back into power just eight days after his presidency ended and his hand-picked successor, Armen Sarkisian, was elected by parliament to a single seven-year term.
The appointment of Sarkisian as prime minister came as police detained at least 80 activists who were demonstrating against the move in Yerevan, where crowds have been rallying for days in protest, according to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
Despite warnings from the authorities that they would act to quell the unrest, hundreds of demonstrators blocked streets in central Yerevan on April 17, a day after dozens of protesters were hurt in clashes with police barring the path to parliament.
Early in the morning on Yervean’s France Square, a deputy police chief handed Pashinian a notice warning that protesters had violated legislation on public gatherings and that the authorities had decided to stop the demonstrations.
Pashinian tore up the warning without reading it and declared that a campaign of “total disobedience” had begun. Nearby, a group of protesters were camped out in front of a riot-police line on a central street, with rolls of razor wire separating the two sides.
“I declare today the launching of a velvet [revolution], a peaceful people’s revolution,” Pashinian, wearing a camouflage T-shirt, said as Sarkisian addressed lawmakers from the legislature’s podium before a vote that seemed certain to make him prime minister.
“A revolutionary situation is brewing across the country. Demonstrators are blocking streets and…highways in the cities of Gyumri, Ijevan, Vanadzor, Kapan, and Metsamor,” he added. “People are not going to work, mass strikes have begun.”
Police said in a statement on April 17 that they will take “legitimate measures dictated by the state to ensure the normal functioning of state structures” after Pashinian called on protesters to block government buildings and agencies as part of the protest.
Human Rights Watch urged the Armenian authorities to refrain from the use of force against demonstrators, noting that in the past few years, police have repeatedly used violent force in Yerevan, mainly to disperse peaceful rallies.
“Any response from the police should be proportionate and comply with UN standards,” the New York-based rights watchdog said. “It’s never too late for the Armenian police to abandon the disproportionate force of their traditional bad practices.”
The developments raised tensions ahead of the parliament session that government critics say will cap a “power grab” by Sarkisian, enabling him to retain control despite leaving the presidency less than two weeks ago.
Sarkisian was first elected in 2008 in the South Caucasus country of about 3 million people and served two terms. He has maintained warm ties with Russia, which Armenia relies on for aid and investment more than a quarter-century after the Soviet collapse.
Under a shift that was approved in a 2015 referendum and is now in place, Armenia changed its form of government and handed more powers to the prime minister, downgrading the president — now also elected by parliament — to more of a figurehead.
Sarkisian had promised in 2014 that he would “not aspire” to be prime minister if Armenia switched from a presidential to a parliamentary system as a result of the referendum.
Pashinian and other opposition leaders now accuse him of breaking that pledge but in his speech in parliament on April 17, Sarkisian downplayed those words, implying that critics are taking it “out of context” and stating that in a parliamentary republic he considers it only right that the leader of the ruling party should also serve as prime minister.
Otherwise, he said, if someone else were to become prime minister, it could lead to a situation of a “shadow” government where the leader of the ruling party would govern instead of the formal prime minister but effectively shun political responsibility.
The ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) factions, which together have a majority in parliament, unanimously approved Sarkisian as the nominee for the prime minister’s post.
At least 46 people, including six police officers, sought medical assistance in connection with the April 16 clashes between protesters and riot police, according to the Health Ministry.
Pashinian himself was taken to a hospital with cuts and an eye injury after police moved in to stop the opposition lawmaker and others from entering parliament.
But he left the hospital and returned to the demonstration in Yerevan, where he urged the crowd to continue the protest the following day. “We should block all entrances into the parliament,” he said.
Thousands of Armenians have been rallying since April 13. The protesters, many waving Armenian flags, clogged Marshal Bagramian Avenue, which leads to the National Assembly building, stopping traffic in the process.
Lines of riot police stopped the crowd from advancing further toward parliament on April 16.
They later rolled out razor wire to hold the surging crowd back, with some local media reporting the use of tear gas and stun grenades as well.
“Something unprecedented is happening in Armenia: the same person wants to become the country’s leader for a third time. We cannot let this happen,” Pashinian, a lawmaker and the outspoken head of the opposition group Civil Contract, said.
“The time has come to liberate Armenia’s citizens. With this minor inconvenience we are trying to save you from a greater inconvenience called Serzh Sarkisian,” Pashinian shouted repeatedly through a megaphone to the crowd.
In a statement issued early on April 16, police said the protests were illegal and warned that law enforcement had the authority to forcibly “discontinue” street gatherings accompanied by “collective breaches of public order.”
The Prosecutor-General’s Office said it had opened a criminal investigation in connection with alleged violations of a law on public gatherings.
Sarkisian has also faced criticism from opponents who accuse the government of Armenia of corruption and economic mismanagement.
Many members of the ruling party contend that the 63-year-old Sarkisian is the best candidate for prime minister given his lengthy experience, especially when it comes to talks over neighboring Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Clashes over control of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is in Azerbaijan but is controlled by ethnic Armenians, have intensified in the past three years and there was a flare-up in violence there in April 2016.
“I am standing here today as a leader of the party which can ensure a harmonious cooperation between the executive and legislative branches of power,” Sarkisian told lawmakers on April 17 in a speech ahead of the vote.