Armenian protest leader detained shortly after PM walks out of crisis meeting

Armenian protest leader detained shortly after PM walks out of crisis meeting
By bne IntelliNews April 22, 2018

Armenian protest leader Nikol Pashinian was on April 22 detained in Yerevan during an opposition demonstration shortly after talks between him and Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan broke down during the morning. Sargsyan—the target of big protests that have now entered their tenth day—walked out of a televised meeting with Pashinian after just minutes, accusing the protesters of blackmail.

During the meeting, Pashinian had told Sargsyan: “I came here to discuss the terms of your resignation.” “This is not a dialogue, this is blackmail,” Sargsyan responded, before walking out of the meeting room at Yerevan’s Marriott Hotel, where media were present.

Pashinian was confronted by masked police officers and other security personnel as he led a crowd of several hundred supporters marching to the city's southern Erebuni district, RFE/RL reported. The police, its report said, fired stun grenades to stop the march. Its report added that the police later dismissed reports of Pashnian's detention and said in a statement that the opposition leader was “forcibly taken” from a protest rally in the capital. “Despite repeated calls to stop illegal rallies, Pashinian continued leading a demonstration" in Yerevan, police were quoted as saying in a statement, adding that two other opposition lawmakers—Sasun Mikaelyan and Ararat Mirzoyan—“were forcibly taken from the site” as riot police dispersed the rally.

The protests were on April 22 again expected to draw tens of thousands, as they did on April 20 and 21 after a lull earlier in the week. Demonstrators want to force Sargsyan—who was appointed by MPs to the newly powerful prime minister position on April 17 after two terms in the presidency—to step down. 

His opponents say this will effectively give Sargsyan a third term, since many of the powers previously held by the president have now been transferred to the prime minister under constitutional changes that make Armenia a parliamentary republic. They have also slammed government corruption and economic mismanagement in the impoverished country of 2.9mn people and insist it is time for fresh leaders to drive change. Sargsyan's opponents say he is on the record as having said he was not at all planning to become PM after stepping down from the presidency. Sargsyan says his comments were misinterpreted.

Protesters converged on central Yerevan on April 21, blocking some of the main streets in the capital. They chanted, “Make a stand, say no to Serzh,” according to Reuters reports. Some held photographs of Sargsyan upside down or with is face crossed out, while others waved the Armenian national flag. 

According to newswire reports, up to 200 protesters were detained on April 21 amid violent clashes with police, and those present said the situation was “tense”. This follows dozens of arrests in the previous days

The situation is becoming increasingly reminiscent of the events of 2008 when Sargsyan was first elected. The vote, which the opposition claimed was rigged, was followed by mass demonstrations that ended in bloody clashes that claimed the lives of 10 people. Pashinian was jailed for his part in those protests. A decade later, in these new demonstrations, he has talked of mounting a “Velvet Revolution” and has called on supporters to “paralyse the entire state system”.

The new wave of protests started ahead of the parliamentary vote on April 17. Upon the ruling Republican Party's proposal, the country changed its constitution in 2016 to switch away from being a presidential republic. With the presidency now reduced to a largely ceremonial role, Sargsyan is poised to remain the most powerful politician in Armenia for at least another four years. 

An attempt at arranging talks between Sarysyan and Pashinian, an opposition MP and leader of the Civil Contract party, flopped early on April 22. 

Footage from the meeting which Sargsyan walked out of shows a stark contrast between the suited Sargsyan and Pashinian, who appeared fresh from the streets wearing combat gear and backpack, and with his right hand in a bandage. 

"You don't understand the situation in Armenia. The power is now in the people's hands," Pashinian told the prime minister.

Sargsyan responded that a "party that scored 8% in [the last parliamentary] elections can't speak on behalf of the people," the prime minister said. The initiatially uncomfortable but polite exchange became increasingly heated. 

Following the meeting, Pashinian said the opposition would increase the pressure on Sargsyan.

The previous day, Sargsyan insisted he would not step down and wrote in an open letter that the country needed his political experience given the geopolitical situation in the region. 

“With the complex geopolitics in this region and the new challenges, we have to ensure the country's safe development and continue its efforts towards a decent settlement of the [Nagorno-Karabakh breakaway region conflict with Azerbaijan] issue,” the letter said. 

His successor as president, Armen Sarkissian (no relation), took a more conciliatory tone, and went to Republic Square to meet with protesters including Pashinian on April 21, but failed to bridge the rift between the two sides.