Thousands protest as Armenia political crisis deepens

Yerevan (AFP) –


Armenia's crisis deepened Wednesday as thousands took to the streets after the opposition accused the government of refusing to negotiate a transfer of power following the resignation of veteran leader Serzh Sarkisian.

Authorities dramatically beefed up security in the capital Yerevan, deploying hundreds of police in the city centre as well as several armoured personnel carriers.

Led by the 42-year-old protest leader Nikol Pashinyan, thousands of demonstrators marched through central Yerevan in protest against the ruling Republican Party's unwillingness to facilitate the transfer of power after former president Sarkisian stood down from his new post of prime minister earlier this week.

Pashinyan sported his trademark khaki-coloured T-shirt and clutched a megaphone as protesters chanted "Nikol for prime minister" and "We are the masters of our country".

Demonstrators warned of the prospect of clashes with the authorities if a solution to the crisis was not found quickly.

"There is a danger that riots, clashes could start if the republicans do not leave in a calm manner," Ruzanna Vartanyan, a 40-year-old lawyer, told AFP.

"The people want the republicans to leave."

- 'People's candidate' -

Sarkisian, who had previously served as president for a decade, stood down on Monday from his new post as prime minister after days of protests by demonstrators who accused him of a blatant power grab.

Pashinyan, the leader of the Civil Contract Party, had been due Wednesday to hold talks with acting head of government Karen Karapetyan to discuss a "peaceful" power transfer. But the talks were cancelled at the last minute, plunging the impoverished country of 2.9 million people into fresh turmoil.

Pashinyan accused the authorities of wanting to nominate a Republican Party candidate for prime minister, warning the opposition would boycott snap parliamentary elections in that case.

"I want to tell Karen Karapetyan: I want you to understand that we will of course not allow you to implement such steps and the sooner you understand this the better it will be for everyone," he said.

Pashinyan has insisted the new premier must be a "people's candidate" and not a member of Sarkisian's ruling party. He told reporters he was ready to lead the Moscow-allied country.

Karapetyan for his part proposed holding snap parliamentary election so that people could themselves decide who will be the country's leader under a parliamentary system of government.

He earlier accused the protest leader of putting forward "new demands" concerning the proposed talks.

"This not a negotiation, a dialogue but simply promoting his own agenda," Karapetyan said late Tuesday.

- 'Dialogue extremely important' -

Armenia's President Armen Sarkisian, who is no relation to the former leader and is a ceremonial figurehead, urged compromise.

"It's extremely important to begin dialogue," he said in a statement.

Last week Sarkisian was elected prime minister by lawmakers, triggering political turmoil in the South Caucasus country which is locked in a simmering territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.

The opposition charged that the 63-year-old wanted to extend his grip on power under a new parliamentary system of government, saying he failed to tackle a litany of problems including poverty and corruption.

Protests broke out several days before his expected election, with tens of thousands of people eventually taking to the streets of Yerevan and other cities in largely peaceful rallies.

Russia -- which has a military base in Armenia -- has appealed for stability but said it would not interfere.

Armenia's arch-foe Azerbaijan has expressed the hope that new Armenian authorities would adopt a "constructive" approach over the breakaway region of Nagorny Karabakh.