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Armenia turns to Russia as political turmoil worsens

© AFP/File / by Mariam Harutyunyan | Armenian opposition supporters demonstrate in downtown Yerevan

YEREVAN (AFP) - 

Armenia's top official was in Moscow for talks on Thursday, his office said, as a political crisis deepened with opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan appearing resolute to force the ruling party in the ex-Soviet republic to cede power.

Armenian acting Vice Premier Armen Gevorkyan's apparent move to secure support from the Kremlin came as protesters in the capital Yerevan took to the streets for a fresh day of rallies.

They want the ruling Republican Party to hand power after the country's former president Serzh Sarkisian, 63, stood down Monday from his new post of prime minister following mass demonstrations.

Observers have warned the crisis could destabilise the Moscow-allied nation which has been involved in a decades-long territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.

Russia has a military base in Armenia and President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday urged restraint when he spoke by phone to Armenian President Armen Sarkisian, who is no relation to Serzh Sarkisian and is a ceremonial figurehead.

Putin called for "all political forces in this country to show restraint and responsibility" in order to end the crisis as soon as possible, the Kremlin said.

The opposition has staged nearly two weeks of protests, forcing Sarkisian to quit as prime minister.

The Russian embassy in Yerevan said Wednesday that its officials had met with Pashinyan.

"The Russian side called on the organisers of the opposition protests and rallies to have a constructive dialogue with the current authorities and other political forces," it said.

Protesters Thursday planned to block traffic in Yerevan and rally throughout the day, responding to Pashinyan's call to pressure the ruling party.

- Threat to 'surround parliament' -

"The Republican Party has to capitulate before the people," Pashinyan told large crowds in Yerevan's central Republic Square on Wednesday evening.

The 42-year-old accuses the authorities of wanting to nominate a Republican Party candidate for prime minister and has warned that the opposition could boycott snap parliamentary elections.

"In case the Republican party dares to nominate a candidate, the people will immediately surround the parliament," Pashinyan said.

He has insisted the new premier must be a "people's candidate" and not a member of Sarkisian's party, and told reporters he was himself willing to lead.

Talks between the protest leader and acting government head Karen Karapetyan to discuss a "peaceful" transfer of power were cancelled this week.

"Karen Karapetyan has to unconditionally and immediately recognise the victory of our revolution and to give up ambitions to become a head of state," Pashinyan told the rally, which dispersed peacefully, late on Wednesday.

The Yelk opposition bloc has said it would nominate Pashinyan for prime minister.

But a lawmaker from the bloc, Edmon Marukyan of the Bright Armenia party, said on Wednesday Pashinyan was 13 votes short of a majority. A candidate would need 53 votes to get elected.

by Mariam Harutyunyan

© 2018 AFP