Armenians urged to stay on streets in push for full ‘Velvet Revolution’

Armenians urged to stay on streets in push for full ‘Velvet Revolution’
PM Serzh Sargsyan resigned on April 22 not long after members of the armed forces joined protesters at the head of their latest march in Yerevan.
By Ben Aris in Berlin April 25, 2018

Tensions remain high in Armenia where MP and de facto leader of the opposition Nikol Pashinian appears to be pushing for a full “Velvet Revolution”. Not satisfied with the April 23 resignation of prime minister Serzh Sargsyan brought about by massive protests, he on April 24 made it clear that he sees the rule of the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) as over and that if the people demand it he is ready to lead the country.

The 42-year-old, who leads the small Civil Contract party, called on demonstrators not to leave the streets until the government has replaced acting Prime Minister Karen Karepetyan within the next week.

Pashinian called for another rally of demonstrators on Yerevan’s Republic Square and told the government that no one from the HHK could stand for the office of prime minister, repeating warnings that the ruling elite should not try to hang onto power. Sargsyan resigned after fury erupted over what was seen as his power grab, transferring from the office of president to the newly-empowered office of prime minister.

Asked if he was ready to take over as PM himself, Pashinian replied: “I have said that if the people want me to be PM, I will take on that responsibility… Today, we are talking about a provisional government and the most important role that this government should have is to ensure fair and free elections.”

In a sign of a possible renewed clash between the government and protestors, Karepetyan cancelled a meeting scheduled to take place with Pashinian on April 25, according to unconfirmed reports. The two men were set to discuss the details of the transition of power, the appointment of a new prime minister and near-term plans for a general election. The acting government has yet to say publicly that it will step aside.

“The Republican party is thinking about taking advantage of Serzh Sarksyan’s resignation and wants to keep power,” Pashinian said in a video appeal posted on Facebook on April 24. “We can’t agree on the appointment of this party’s representative as prime minister and we can’t allow this corrupted system to continue to exist,” he said, urging supporters “to come to the square and finish the Velvet Revolution.”

According to the Armenian constitution, if a prime minister resigns political groups in parliament have seven days (until April 30 in this case) to nominate candidates before a vote in the legislature. However, general elections do not follow automatically if the prime minister is changed.

Demonstrators were out in force for a sombre Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day procession to the genocide memorial on Yerevan's Tsitsernakaberd Hill that commemorates the slaughter of 1.5mn Armenians under Ottoman government rule between 1915 and 1917 during WWI.

Later in the afternoon, Pashinian held a press conference with the international media, where he gave more details of his programme.

Russia’s role
On the sensitive issue of Russia’s role in the uprising, he repeated his earlier statement that Moscow played no role and will play no role in what is an internal affair.

“I’m not pro-Russian. I’m not anti-Russian,” Pashinian told journalists. “We are going to deepen and develop our relationship with Russia, with the EU, the US, and with Georgia. We will not do one at the expense of any other relationship,” Pashinian said.

Protestors marched passed the Russian embassy in Yerevan on several occasions in the last week without paying it any attention. For its part Moscow has remained very quiet throughout the protests.

Russia’s foreign ministry issued a statement on April 22 welcoming the change of order and saying it backed the will of the “great people” of Armenia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on April 24 that Russia, which has a military base in the country, hopes order and stability will be maintained in Armenia as politicians work on a new political configuration, which should be based on "consensus".

"We see at this point that the situation is not heading toward destabilisation. We are satisfied with that," Peskov told reporters in Moscow, reported RFE/RL.

Whoever comes in to replace ousted Sargsyan will likely maintain good relations with Moscow, as Armenia remains heavily dependent on the Kremlin to guarantee the country’s security in the face of Azerbaijan’s aggression.

The two neighbours are bitter enemies and have been in a tense stand-off ever since they went to war following the collapse of the Soviet Union over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Fighting flared up again last year and there were reports of new fighting during the revolutionary events in Armenia of the last two weeks.

With its copious oil money, Azerbaijan has been rearming and bought over $4bn of weapons from Russia last year. The much poorer Armenia joined the Russian-led Eurasia Economic Union (EEU) partly as it brings it under Russia’s security umbrella in the region.

Fear remains in some quarters that the Kremlin will try and take advantage of the situation and install its own puppet as PM. When asked if Russia is supporting acting prime minister Karapetyan, Pashinian replied: "The formation of the government in Armenia is a domestic issue. The Armenian people will decide who will be its government… and we hope that Russia will respect the will of the Armenian people."

Pashinian called for sweeping economic reforms that will benefit the people.

“The best result of the Velvet Revolution will be increasing economic productivity in Armenia. We need to create jobs and this can be done through sound investments; eradicating poverty is the most important task," Pashinian, a former newspaper editor, said during the press conference, reports EVN Report.

The country of 3mn people has been held back by endemic corruption and the lack of functional institutions. However, Pashinian promised a gradual approach to making over the machinery of government.

“The provisional government must work efficiently; I don't think the current government, especially mid-level officials, are effective. However, we are not going to fire people en masse; they will have the opportunity to continue serving the people," Pashinian said continuing with the theme of trying to achieve a smooth, non-violent transition of power.

Fresh elections
Pashinian says fresh parliamentary elections should be held as soon as possible. Despite being a member of parliament he has no experience of high office and is a member of the Yelq Bloc that won only 7% in the last elections in 2017.

Asked if he was worried by his party’s low numbers he replied that his party now has the support of the majority, adding: "There was never the free expression of the will of the people, including during the 2017 parliamentary elections.”

“People have lost hope in the electoral process. The regime has always used tools and mechanisms to impact the outcome of elections in Armenia,” Pashinian said. “The only goal is the national interest of Armenia, and I want to include also the interests of the Republic of Arsakh: WE have defended, we are and always will defend the national interests of Artsakh and Armenia,” Pashinian said, referring to a new name for the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that existed after the war with Azerbaijan from 1991 until it changed its name in 2017.

Pashinian would not be drawn on who would join his cabinet if elected, saying that first the country needed to concentrate on organising “real and fair” elections. In earlier, remarks Pashinian said he would include people from civil society and possibly from other parties if he were to take over.