Thousands of people occupied a key street junction in the center of Yerevan late on Friday at the start of nonstop opposition demonstrations against former President Serzh Sarkisian’s apparent plans to continue to govern Armenia.
The main organizer of the protests, Civil Contract party leader Nikol Pashinian, said he will block more streets in the coming days in a bid to prevent Sarkisian from becoming prime minister.
“This is a campaign again Serzh Sarkisian’s third term in office and against the [ruling] HHK. This is a campaign against hopelessness and for dignity,” Pashinian declared in a fiery speech delivered at nearby Liberty Square earlier in the evening.
“We will blockade everything that is possible to blockade,” he said. “Our actions will be taken around the clock.”
Immediately after his hour-long speech the protesters marched to the intersection of three avenues forming Yerevan’s sprawling France Square and blocked traffic through it. Pashinian urged them to stay there through the night, saying that riot police will not attempt to disperse them in that case.
Pashinian told the crowd to occupy the square despite being warned by a senior police officer not to block streets. He at the same time urged his supporters to avoid any violent actions even if security forces move to break up the protests.
“We must rule out violence not only as action but also as counteraction,” he said.
There was little police presence in and around the occupied area. But large numbers of riot police were deployed several hundred meters away, on a street leading to Sarkisian’s private residence and the former presidential palace.
The HHK’s governing Council is expected to meet and formally nominate Sarkisian for prime minister on Saturday. Armenia’s HHK-controlled parliament is due to vote for the next premier on Monday.
In his speech, Pashinian said the protesters will march to the HHK headquarters and try to disrupt that meeting. He also called for a march to the parliament building that will be aimed at preventing lawmakers from appointing Sarkisian as prime minister.
“He must feel besieged in Yerevan,” Pashinian said of Sarkisian, who completed his second and final presidential term on Monday.
Pashinian voiced a damning indictment of Sarkisian’s presidency, alleging widespread corruption, economic mismanagement and a failure to meet security challenges facing Armenia. And he again accused Sarkisian of breaking his 2014 pledge not to extend his rule if Armenia becomes a parliamentary republic.
The ex-president’s allies claim that he never explicitly pledged not to become prime minister. They also say the HHK has a popular mandate to pick the next premier because it won the parliamentary elections held in April 2017.
Sarkisian offered similar arguments last month. He cited the increased risk of renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh and other security challenges facing the country.
Other major opposition groups have so far declined to join the anti-Sarkisian campaign spearheaded by Pashinian. They include the Bright Armenia and Hanrapetutyun parties that make up, together with Civil Contract, the Yelk alliance, the third largest force in the parliament. Bright Armenia and Hanrapetutyun leaders have been skeptical about the opposition’s ability to pull large crowds.
Pashinian reached out to these and other opposition forces when he addressed the demonstrators in Liberty Square. He urged them to put aside their differences and join his movement.