Armenia crisis: Civil disobedience call paralyses Yerevan before big breakthrough

Armenia crisis: Civil disobedience call paralyses Yerevan before big breakthrough
An aerial view of protesters on Republic Square in Yerevan.
By Ben Aris in Berlin May 2, 2018

Tens of thousands of Armenians on May 2 responded to protest leader Nikol Pashinian’s call for non-violent civil disobedience in the wake of the ruling party blocking his attempt to become prime minister. The capital Yerevan was paralysed, but Pashinian is now looking likely to make it into office in a second vote.

Key roads were blocked by cars, lorries and garbage bins at intersections, traffic was prevented from reaching Armenia’s Zvatnots International Airport west of Yerevan, border crossings were blocked, rail services were disrupted and metro stations in the capital were closed. Government buildings—including the justice, culture and education ministries—were also blockaded as demonstrators made it clear that they would seek to bring the country to a regular standstill if the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) did not provide the votes to enable Pashinian to become prime minister by popular acclaim.

countrywide strike was called for after Pashinian, following his defeat in an emergency session of parliament late on May 1, urged protesters in the small impoverished country of 2.9mn to help keep up the pressure on the HHK. "I call on you to block all airports and roads across the country starting from 08:15 on Wednesday," he said, addressing a rally in downtown Yerevan following the parliament’s rejection of his bid to become prime minister. "We will not let anyone steal the people’s victory. The Republican Party is dead.”

Mass protests, sometimes referred to as the “Armenian velvet revolution”, on April 23 triggered the resignation of prime minister Serzh Sargsyan. He stepped down after soldiers began joining the protesters on the streets.

As bne Intellinews went to press there were reports on social media that the HHK had agreed to accept any candidate that has a third of MPs' votes in the election for an interim prime minister and that it will not field its own candidate.

Under the Armenian constitution a candidate for prime minister needs half the votes of the 105-seat chamber to be appointed in the first vote. However, if that vote fails and there is a second vote – as is the case here – then a candidate only needs a third of the votes to be appointed, or 35 votes.

Pashinian had 47 votes in the May 1 vote, five less than the 53 he needed to be appointed. But those votes – all three of the opposition parties have united behind Pashinian – are enough to get him elected in the next vote scheduled for May 8, even if HHK abstain again.

If Pashinian is elected then the Armenian 'velvet revolution' would be over and the demonstrators will have carried the day. The only thing that could go wrong is if HHK field a candidate of their own, such as Acting Prime Minister Karen Karepetyan, and force this candidate through using its 58 votes.

Reopening roads at 5pm
In the latest development of the current phase of protests, Pashinian ordered roads to be reopened at 5pm. Presumably the blocking of the capital will be a daily occurrence until a new prime minister is appointed. 

“My only power is my people. We are not going to give up,” Pashinian, a 42-year-old ex-newspaper editor, said in an interview with Reuters, dressed in his trademark camouflage T-shirt and cap. “We will continue our strike and disobedience.”

As the day of disobedience progressed, Pashinian posted a message on social media urging protesters to halt disruption at the airport—where even employees had joined in with the protest, according to local TV station Azatutyun—while other opposition politicians appealed to people to not impede emergency services. Police were seen trying to move protesters off roads, but no signs of violence were reported.

AFP reported that in Yerevan Pashinian supporters waved national flags, blew vuvuzelas and shouted “Free, independent Armenia!”

Pashinian—who spent two years in jail for fomenting unrest when Sargsyan was elected in 2008 for the first of his two terms as president—was eight votes short of the 53 he needed to claim a majority in the 105-seat parliament. He warned the HHK during a marathon nine-hour question-and-answer session of what would occur if they thwarted his candidacy. "Your behaviour, treating the tolerance of the people as a weakness, could become the cause of a tsunami," he said.

Local media reported that as well as in Yerevan there were protests in several other cities in Armenia, a country that is home to Russian military bases.

Second attempt on May 8
The constitution allows for a second attempt to appoint a new prime minister exactly one week after the first vote fails. Parliament will meet again on May 8 to vote again.

The Yelk (“Way Out”) Alliance, a liberal political opposition bloc which includes Pashinian’s own Civil Contract party, will once again nominate Pashinian for the post. In the May 1 vote, he was the only candidate. The HHK, which is accused by the protest movement of tolerating entirely unacceptable levels of cronyism and corruption during Sargsyan’s decade as president, has not suggested a candidate of its own. Pashinian has said that he will rid the country of corruption, poverty and nepotism and has promised snap elections.

"Yes, definitely," Civil Contract party spokesman Tigran Avinyan told TASS on May 2 in response to the question of whether Pashinian would be nominated again.

At the same time, Avinyan answered in the negative when asked if the opposition leader would change his program, taking into account statements HHK members made during the parliamentary debate.

In that debate, Eduard Sharmazanov, deputy speaker of parliament and Republican spokesman, said: "Mr Pashinian, I don't see you at the post of prime minister, I don't see you at the post of commander-in-chief." The latter post is a sensitive issue in Armenia which since the 1990s has been in a standoff with Azerbaijan over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. A war over the enclave took place from the late 1980s to May 1994.

Russia, meanwhile, continues to closely watch developments in ex-Soviet Armenia. The country, located between big energy exporter Azerbaijan and Nato member Turkey, is strategically valuable to Moscow. VOA reported on May 1 that Pashinian met with Russian lawmakers on April 29, telling them his premiership would not threaten Yerevan's close ties with Moscow.

Pashinian has the option of attempting to bypass parliament completely and turning to the crowds on Republic Square for his legitimacy, but it appears that at the moment he intends to exhaust the constitutional route and go through a second round of voting vote on appointing a new PM.

“People are the legitimate force”
"I believe it is the people of Armenia who are eligible to make demands. We will listen to the people’s demands as they are a legitimate force that can make demands, while the Republican Party is not," spokesman Avinyan added.

Pashinian, meanwhile, told the BBC on May 2 that protesters were fighting for their own rights and dignity. He reportedly said: "I want to be clear, it isn't a fight for Nikol Pashinian becoming prime minister, it's a fight for human rights, for democracy, for rule of law and that is why our people aren't tired and won't be tired."

United Nations data shows more than 11% of Armenians live below the poverty line, earning less than 1,530 Armenian drams ($3.20) per day. Bloomberg estimates emigre remittances from Armenia's 8mn-strong diaspora contribute 14% of national GDP. Unemployment stands at around 16%.

Under Sargsyan, Armenia made a very weak recovery from a GDP decline of 14% in 2009, but then saw a 7.5% surge in economic growth last year. But by the end of 2017, deflation and extremely weak domestic demand set in.