Tens of thousands defy warning not to reassemble in Yerevan

Tens of thousands defy warning not to reassemble in Yerevan
There was no let-up in the demonstrations following the arrest of protest leader Nikol Pashinian.
By bne IntelliNews April 22, 2018

Tens of thousands of Armenian anti-government demonstrators on the evening of April 22 defied a police warning and reassembled on Yerevan's Republic Square after officers earlier in the day detained protest leader Nikol Pashinian shortly after talks between him and Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan got nowhere. The capital on April 23 was bracing for another big day of protests. 

Ten days of demonstrations have taken aim at the appointment of Sargsyan as prime minister of the newly constituted parliamentary republic of Armenia following his two presidential terms which were marked in the eyes of many critics by unreasonable levels of corruption and economic mismanagement in the impoverished nation.

Analysts were split on how concerned the Kremlin might be by the latest tumult on Russia’s doorstep, particularly should it turn into a colour revolution. Armenian affairs analyst Richard Giragosian posted comments on social media saying the crisis “is not about Russia and not about Europe. It is local politics and economics". He added: "The real question now is what lies ahead. After such polarisation and dissent, the launch of parliamentary politics seems destined to fail, undermined by an inherent lack of trust or public confidence."

However, Timothy Ash, an analyst at BlueBay Asset Management, said the crisis “needs watching as could be another stress point between the West and Russia”.

He added: “Putin will be watching this carefully—and his conspiracy instincts will be saying that this is another Western plot attempting a colour revolution on his doorstep. Armenia is part of the Moscow dominated Eurasian Economic Union, and relies on Russia for a strategic umbrella in its own longstanding dispute with Azerbaijan over [breakaway republic] Nagorno-Karabakh. It has also benefitted from cheap financing, energy and investment from Russia. There are also 5,000 Russian troops in Armenia, helping defend its borders.”

Despite these facts, Ash said, Yerevan has maintained decent relations with the West—albeit spurning joining neighbouring Georgia’s bid for Nato membership and the EU’s Eastern Partnership project AA/DCFTA at the last minute for Eurasian Economic Union membership. “I think the West realised Armenia had little choice given its location and strategic challenges with Turkey. Azerbaijan and Iran. There is also a very sizeable and vocal Armenian diaspora in France and California which will be monitoring all this closely and any heavy-handed Russian intervention could grate,” he added.

Afte the detaining of Pashinian and two other detained opposition lawmakers, Sasun Mikaelyan and Ararat Mirzoyan, the Interior Ministry said in a statement that it had taken the decision to "disperse demonstrators". Police, it added, were entitled to carry out arrests and use force.

The Prosecutor-General's Office said the tree detainees would be held for 72 hours. They are accused, it stated, of organising unsanctioned rallies and telling supporters to block streets and state building entrances. Assaults on police officers by some of those who attended the rallies were being investigated, the office added.

The three lawmakers are protected by parliamentary immunity. They can only be prosecuted if parliament removes that immunity.

As police tried to disperse crowds in Yerevan on April 23 there were clashes between officers and some protesters, local media said. More than 200  protesters were reportedly detained by early evening.

Four priests in clerical outfits led one march in Yerevan with thousands of people chanting Pashinian’s name.

The US Embassy in Armenia put out a statement saying police and protesters should avoid violence. It added: "We are concerned over reports of violence against journalists and demonstrators; we emphasise the need for those responsible for violence against police or demonstrators to be held accountable under the law."

The spokeswoman of Foreign Policy of the EU Federica Mogherini said the EU expected the Armenian authorities to "apply the law in a fair and proportionate manner." "All those who have been detained while exercising their fundamental right of assembly in accordance with the law must be released immediately," Maja Kocijancic added.