Tens of thousands of Armenians shut down capital in show of defiance

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YEREVAN, May 3, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Tens of thousands of Armenians on Wednesday converged on the capital, blocking key transport links and government buildings, as popular anger exploded over the ruling party’s rejection of opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan’s premiership bid.

In an unprecedented show of defiance, protesters including many elderly people and housewives paralysed Yerevan, with nearly all streets closed to traffic and numerous stores shut, AFP correspondents reported.

Officials said that suburban train services were disrupted and the road linking Yerevan with its airport was blocked.

Crowds of protesters across the city of one million people waved national flags, blew vuvuzelas and shouted “Free, independent Armenia!”.

Leading supporters on a march through the city, Pashinyan pledged to ramp up pressure on the authorities.

“Various scenarios are under discussion, under each scenario the people will win,” said Pashinyan who was wearing his trademark khaki-coloured T-shirt and a baseball cap.

The subway and railroads have been paralysed and a number of universities and schools have joined the protest movement, he added.

In parliament, lawmakers could not convene for a session due to the absence of a quorum, with the Prosperous Armenia party declaring a boycott.

“There is an emergency situation in the country. Our faction declares a political boycott,” said Prosperous Armenia lawmaker Vahe Enfiajyan.

According to legislation, parliament should again gather in a week to try and elect a prime minister. If it fails, the legislature will be dissolved and early elections called.

In the second city of Gyumri — which hosts a Russian military base — and the smaller town of Maralik, demonstrators occupied the mayor’s offices, demanding the local authorities join the protest movement.

– ‘We will win’ –

Pashinyan urged Armenians to launch a general strike after the ruling Republican Party on Tuesday shot down his bid for prime minister following two weeks of anti-government protests that ousted veteran leader Serzh Sarkisian.

Protesters said they would stay on the streets for as long as it takes to oust the ruling elites from power and get Pashinyan elected premier.

“The people will not give up, protests will not subside,” Sergey Konsulyan, a 45-year-old businessman, told AFP.

Student Gayane Amiragyan, 19, added: “We will win because we are united, the whole Armenian people are united.”

Parliament voted 45 in favour to 55 against Pashinyan, with the Republican Party headed by Sarkisian saying he was not a suitable candidate for the top job.

Pashinyan’s failure to get elected has plunged the Moscow-allied nation of 2.9 million people into uncertainty, with observers expressing concern that the turmoil could destabilise the country and the wider region.

Pashinyan has ruled out any possibility of clashes between protesters and police. But the risk of violence has not been lost on politicians in a country locked in a decades-long territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.

Pashinyan — who was the sole candidate in the running for prime minister — had been thought to be just a handful of votes short of a majority in parliament and was widely expected to get elected.

– Political U-turn –

Ahead of the vote, the Republicans said they would not stand in the way of his candidacy but they withheld their support during Tuesday’s vote, excoriating Pashinyan during the nail-biting extraordinary session.

Pashinyan’s protest movement had accused Sarkisian and his party of a power grab, saying the former leader wanted to extend his grip on power by becoming premier after serving as president for a decade, despite failing to tackle a litany of problems like corruption and poverty.

Russia had urged compromise while the United States had called for “a resolution that reflects the interests of all Armenians”.

Armenia is dependent on Russia economically and militarily.

Armenia has for decades been locked in a bitter row with Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh, a breakaway statelet with an Armenian ethnic majority that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has closely watched the political crisis, with analysts warning Armenia’s arch-foe could use the turmoil to its advantage.

One Azerbaijani lawmaker, Gudrat Gasanguliyev, called on Tuesday for a special session of parliament, citing the prospect of “civil war” in Armenia.

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