Armenia opposition leader halts protests after day of civil disobedience

Nikol Pashinyan asks supporters to remain vigilant as parliament prepares for new vote to elect PM

 

Anti-government protesters in Armenia heeded a call from opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan for a campaign of civil disobedience on Wednesday, closing highways across the country and urging workers to come out on strike.

In Yerevan, the Armenian capital, the atmosphere was festive as people danced, played volleyball or simply lay down to halt traffic, and blocked highways with cars and rubbish trucks. Tourists arriving at the city’s international airport had to make their way into town on foot dragging their suitcases behind them.

Protesters were also active in other Armenian cities, laying siege to government buildings in Gyumri and Vanadzor and shutting transport arteries across the country.

Mr Pashinyan, who has been leading massive rallies across Armenia for more than two weeks, stepped up his call for civic activism after the ruling Republican Party rejected his bid to become interim prime minister at a vote in the National Assembly on Tuesday. No other candidates stood for the post.

Armenia has been without a leader since April 23rd, when Serzh Sargysan, bowing to pressure from the streets, resigned as prime minister, a post he had assumed just days before after serving for ten years as Armenian president.

Following the failure of Tuesday’s vote, the National Assembly must, according to the Armenian constitution, meet again within a week to choose a prime minister.

During a frenetic round of negotiations with fellow parliamentarians on Wednesday Mr Pashinyan won a commitment from all opposition groups to support his candidacy at the May 8th vote. But he still needs the backing of at least some Republican deputies to win a mandate to head the government.

Civil disobedience

As the campaign of civil disobedience gathered steam throughout the day, the Republican Party appeared to ready to compromise to end the political stand off. In a statement issued on Wednesday evening the party said it was prepared to vote for “a peoples’ candidate” – without mentioning Mr Pashinyan by name.

Mr Pashinyan appeared to be sensing victory on Wednesday night as he told a jubilant crowd packed into Yerevan’s central square that “we already live in a free and happy Armenia”.

Calling off the civil disobedience campaign, he sounded a note of caution about the Republicans change of heart, saying talks were still needed with party members to clarify their position. “We need to remain vigilant,” he said. “Things might happen that make it necessary to gather here again tomorrow.”

Political commentators said Republican deputies would drive a hard bargain with Mr Pashinyan, demanding influential government posts in the new administration in exchange for supporting him at the vote.

However, Mr Pashinyan, who called the Republican Party a political corpse this week, is likely to be reluctant to compromise.

Instability

With his charismatic smile and trademark camouflage T-shirt and cap, he cuts an unusual figure in Armenian public life where most politicians,as he puts it, view the country from the windows of their plush official cars. Supporters chant “Nikol, Nikol”, when he appears at rallies and jostle to shake his hand.

However, in the National Assembly on Tuesday speakers cast doubt on the former newspaper editor’s ability to lead a country that is surrounded in the volatile South Caucasus by Azerbaijan, Turkey, Georgia and Iran, and faces formidable economic and security challenges.

A major concern is that Azerbaijan might take advantage of the instability in Armenia to launch a military attack on the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been controlled by Yerevan since a war in the 1990s.

For Mr Pashinyan and his tens of thousands of supporters the greatest risk has been that law enforcers could lose patience with the disruption of the last few weeks and crack down with force.

That danger seemed to be receding on Wednesday night as Mr Pashinyan told the crowds to go home and take a well earned rest. The next major rally would be on May 8th, when parliament voted for a new prime minister, he said.