Armenia to pick new PM next week, Moscow keeps wary eye

0
73

YEREVAN: Armenia will get a new prime minister next week after nearly two weeks of street protests, with opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan, who has led the demonstrations, emerging as the protesters’ unequivocal favorite.

Although the demonstrations have been peaceful, the upheaval has threatened to destabilize Armenia, an ally of Russia, in a volatile region riven by its decades-long, low-level conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Moscow has two military bases in the ex-Soviet republic, and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Karen Karapetyan, the acting prime minister, on Thursday and made it clear Moscow was watching and did not want mob rule.

“It was emphasized that resolving the political crisis in Armenia must take place exclusively through legal means in the framework of the current constitution,” the Kremlin said.

Its statement also appeared to suggest that Putin wanted the next prime minister to come from the ruling party, which has been the focus of popular anger, saying he thought the crisis needed to be addressed on the basis of what he said were legitimate parliamentary elections in 2017.

That appeared to conflict with the demands of protesters who have said they want Pashinyan to be the new interim prime minister and for him to organize fresh parliamentary elections.

The situation in Armenia is awkward for the Russian leadership. It has kept a tight lid on protests in its own country, but is now watching as demonstrations in a close ally are forcing the ruling Armenian elite to make concessions, setting a regional precedent it is unlikely to welcome.

The demonstrations, driven by public anger over perceived political cronyism and corruption, looked to have peaked on Monday when Serzh Sarksyan, a close Putin ally, quit as prime minister.

But demonstrators have made clear they view the whole system as tainted by his drive to shift power to the premier from the president. They want a sweeping political reconfiguration before ending their protests, which continued on Thursday.

In a further sign of growing Russian interest in the crisis, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks in Moscow on Thursday with his Armenian counterpart, while Armenia’s acting vice premier, Armen Gevorkyan, met Russian presidential administration officials.

Protest leader Pashinyan said on Wednesday he had received assurances from Russian officials that Moscow would not intervene in the crisis.

Earlier this week, Pashinyan ruled out challenging the presence of Russian military bases in Armenia or membership of Russia-led military and economic alliances.

Armenia’s ruling elite has been scrambling to try to appease the protesters for days and the parliamentary speaker said on Thursday parliament would elect a new interim prime minister on May 1.

Protest leader Pashinyan, a former journalist turned lawmaker who has been instrumental in organizing the protests, has said he wants the job.

Pashinyan, if elected, wants to reform the electoral system to ensure it is fair before holding new parliamentary elections, the result of which would in turn help determine who becomes permanent prime minister.

“We will have a people’s prime minister and after the election a people’s government and parliament,” said Anna Agababyan, a 38-year-old teacher who was protesting in Yerevan, the capital, on Thursday, holding a small national flag.

Armen Sarkissian, the president, on Thursday hailed what he called “a new page” in Armenia’s history and called on lawmakers to help forge a new country while respecting the existing constitution.

Pashinyan and his allies have been busy trying to build support for him with the ruling Republican Party and other parties in parliament where Pashinyan, before the protests, was part of a small opposition bloc with no chance of power.