Armenia’s Opposition, Blocked in Parliament, Raises Pressure in the Streets
Posted May 2, 2018 10:53 a.m. EDT
Protesters in Armenia, frustrated by Parliament’s refusal to elect the opposition leader as prime minister, heeded his call for widespread civil disobedience Wednesday, fanning out across the country to close major squares, roads and schools.
In Yerevan, the capital, demonstrators used vehicles, trash dumpsters and themselves to block streets including the six broad arteries leading to the central Republic Square, as well as the highway to Zvartnots International Airport and the main railroad station.
The overall mood was peaceful, with groups of protesters taking advantage of the empty streets to dance the Kochari, a traditional Armenian dance. But the capital and the country slowed to a crawl, with passengers trying to reach the airport on foot, dragging their luggage down a highway.
“Clearly the demonstrations and protests are more than an expression of anger and activity, but are also rooted in a popular wave of expanding activism,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan.
Nikol Pashinyan, the opposition leader who has led the protests since they started April 13, called for a nationwide strike after Parliament rejected his bid to become prime minister during a marathon session Tuesday. The governing Republican Party led the 56-45 vote against making Pashinyan the country’s leader.
On April 23, nationwide demonstrations forced the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan, the Republican Party politician who had been president since 2008. He tried to skirt the presidential term limit by becoming prime minister, after a new constitution made the office of prime minister the most powerful in the country.
On Tuesday, during a parliamentary session that lasted about nine hours, Pashinyan warned the governing party that political change was “unavoidable and irreversible.”
A second vote is to take place next Tuesday. If a new leader — officially, an interim prime minister, but with all the powers of the office — is not elected then, the constitution requires that parliamentary elections be held in 30 to 45 days.
Moving the showdown back to the streets pushed Armenia, a tiny nation of about 3 million people in the Caucasus, onto an uncertain, unstable path. There are concerns that its neighbor Azerbaijan could exploit instability to reignite the decadeslong war over the ethnically divided enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia, which maintains a military base in Armenia, has called the protests an internal affair, with President Vladimir Putin urging all sides to resolve their differences legally. The Kremlin shows no signs of planning to interfere militarily, as it did after similar upheavals in Ukraine and Georgia.
On Tuesday, members of the Republican Party repeatedly belittled Pashinyan, a 42-year-old former journalist, as unfit for the job of prime minister. They suggested he did not have the experience required to run the military, with one saying mockingly that it required more than his standard attire of a camouflage T-shirt. Others clearly found galling the idea that he was trying to leverage the threat of further street protests to push them into voting for him as prime minister.
Many members called for further dialogue and negotiation with Pashinyan, so there were different theories about the strategy behind the stance of the Republican Party, whose members have held a virtual monopoly over political and economic power in Armenia since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
First, Pashinyan most likely worried members of the elite with his vow to dismantle political and economic monopolies, prompting them to seek negotiated guarantees before making him prime minister next week. Rejecting him put them in a better bargaining position.
Second, party members might reject him again Tuesday, figuring that even with their prospects damaged by the protests, they might as well take their chances in snap elections while they are still in power and in control of the electoral process.
The party did not put forward Karen Karapetyan, the acting prime minister and a Sargsyan ally, as a candidate for prime minister. Pashinyan was the only nominee, but anyone who garners support from one-third of lawmakers in Parliament can run next week. That opens the path for all kinds of bargaining and horse-trading among political factions.
In the meantime, Pashinyan vowed to keep up the pressure by taking the showdown to the streets. He has called for demonstrations every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Wednesday, protesters spread across Yerevan, with people blocking not just roads but also the subway, universities, schools and government institutions. A group of lawyers blocked the entrance to the Ministry of Justice with three cars, according to local news reports. Workers at the airport also joined the strike, although Pashinyan urged them to return to work to avoid inconveniencing international travelers.
One resident walking to work in the early morning described Yerevan as a city on “lockdown,” although offices and shops were still operating.
Protesters roaming the city to the beat of drums and flutes occasionally broke into chants like “Nikol — Victory!” Pictures from around the country showed that the general strike was attracting support in other large cities and villages.
“The Republicans are already ‘feeling the heat’ and sensing the pressure in general,” but they will not concede right away, said Giragosian, the analyst, answering questions on Twitter. “With six days until the second ballot for interim premier, there is ample time for them to back down and or cut deals individually, but each passing day will test their resolve to stand firm.”