Opposition leader Nikol Pashinian and his associates began touring Armenia’s northern and central regions on foot at the weekend in preparation for street demonstrations in Yerevan aimed at preventing President Serzh Sarkisian from extending his rule.
A backpack-wearing Pashinian began the two-week walking tour from the central square of Gyumri. He was joined by a group of activists and supporters of his Civil Contract party outside the country’s second largest city.
They planned to walk around 200 kilometers through several other Armenian towns and arrive in Yerevan on April 13 in time for their first major anti-government protest. Pashinian said they will hold rallies in the city’s Liberty Square for at least four consecutive days.
The Armenian parliament dominated by Sarkisian’s supporter is scheduled to elect on April 17 a new prime minister, who will be the country’s most powerful official because of its ongoing transition to a parliamentary system of government. The outgoing president, whose second term expires on April 9, is widely expected to take up the post.
Sarkisian promised in 2014 that he will not seek to become prime minister if Armenia becomes a parliamentary republic as a result of his controversial constitutional changes. His political opponents now accuse him of reneging on that pledge. Sarkisian’s allies claim, however, that he never explicitly pledged to quit power and is better equipped to govern Armenia than anyone else.
Pashinian says that Sarkisian’s continued rule would also lead to the “Azerbaijanization” of Armenian politics, a reference to the authoritarian rule of Azerbaijan’s current and former longtime presidents.
“Our action plan includes blocking roads, blockading buildings and generating the kind of civic activity that would enable us to go to the National Assembly and halt the work of the deceitful state and deceitful regime created by Serzh Sarkisian,” he told reporters in Gyumri.
“We want to enable Armenia’s citizens to speak up against Serzh Sarkisian’s and the [ruling] Republican Party’s perfidy,” he said.
The outspoken oppositionist is heavily using his Facebook page to provide live video and photo updates of their long march. In particular, he and his mostly young loyalists have been shown pitching tents to spend a night by a roadside in the northern Shirak province.
Pashinian , who is highly critical of the Armenia’s president’s decade-long tenure, again stressed on Saturday that his team favors solely peaceful methods of political struggle and will not resort to violence even if the authorities use force against it.
The 42-year-old former journalist also acknowledged that the success of his anti-Sarkisian campaign named “My Step” depends on the scale of attendance at its upcoming rallies in Yerevan.
Two other opposition parties allied to Pashinian’s Civil Contract, Bright Armenia and Republic, are very skeptical about his ability to attract large crowds. They have cited this as the main reason for their refusal to join his campaign.
The three parties make up the Yelk alliance which finished third in last year’s parliamentary elections. The bloc holds 9 seats in the 105-member parliament.