Just ahead of a parliamentary vote on April 17 that will decide the country’s new prime minister, Armenians have taken to the streets in protest again.
Today, after a 14-day trek starting in Gyumri, the country’s second largest city, Nikol Pashinyan, leader of the Civil Contract party and the Yelq Bloc in parliament and his supporters walked into the capital city and by the end of the day, had shut down a major square.
Pashinyan has been a vociferous opponent of former President Serzh Sargsyan, who is the likely candidate of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) for the office of prime minister. The RPA has said that it will formally announce Sargsyan’s candidacy on Saturday, April 14. Along with their junior coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the RPA, which has been in power since 2007, has enough votes in parliament to secure Sargsyan’s win.
Shortly after arriving in Yerevan, Pashinyan along with several dozen supporters made their way to Yerevan State University where earlier in the day a number of students had staged a strike. They tried to enter the main building of the university to meet with Rector Aram Simonyan. However, the doors to the building were locked and security personnel did not allow their entry. Several dozen students joined Pashinyan and after some pushing and shoving, forced their way into the building. The Rector ultimately refused to meet with them.
After walking through the city and making their way up Northern Avenue, Pashinyan and his supporters entered Liberty Square at approximately 6:30 p.m. where several thousand people had gathered. Addressing the demonstrators, Pashinyan said that they would hold around-the-clock rallies and would bloc several streets of the city to prevent parliamentarians from voting. He called on all opposition forces to join the rallies. After speaking for nearly an hour highlighting the failures of Sargsyan’s administration, Pashinyan led the protesters to France Square, adjacent to Liberty Square effectively paralyzing the city’s downtown core.
At this time, France Square, is completely shut down. Several hundred people continue to remain there. There is no police presence to direct traffic away from the streets leading into the square and the protesters are mostly self-manning the area. They have brought in public benches as barricades to block traffic into the streets. Pashinyan called on citizens to come to France Square on Saturday at 2 p.m. for another mass rally.
Armenian police have issued a statement that blocking major streets in the capital, preventing the movement of vehicles, disrupting the peace between the hours of 11 p.m. – 7 a.m. and not cooperating with the police would be subject to fines and has called on protesters to exercise caution and behave appropriately.
A contested 2015 referendum on a package of Constitutional amendments changed the country’s system of governance from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary one. At the time, opponents of these reforms voiced concern that this change was meant to ensure Sargsyan’s grip on power. In the months leading up to the referendum, Sargsyan had stated that he would not be seeking office but the RPA has cited on numerous occasions that there is no better person to lead Armenia.
Under the new Constitutional arrangements, the office of the prime minister will be the most powerful position in the country. The new president, Armen Sarkissian, was elected on March 2 by a majority vote in parliament. His role under the new Constitution is mostly ceremonial.