Massive rallies against Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian intensified on Sunday evening, with tens of thousands of people filling Yerevan’s largest square in the absence of Nikol Pashinian, the protest leader arrested earlier in the day.
The arrests of Pashinian and several of his close associates led other, younger members of his Civil Contract party to organize and address what was the biggest rally held since the start of the daily protests on April 13.
Lena Nazarian, the sole parliament deputy from Civil Contract not detained yet, read out an online statement by Pashinian calling on Armenians to continue to demand Sarkisian’s resignation with peaceful acts of “civil disobedience.” Pashinian also urged them to avoid any violent clashes with security forces. The crowd repeatedly burst into “Nikol!” chants.
“Everything must remain peaceful,” said Ruben Rubinian, a Civil Contract activist who moderated the rally.He said people must continue to block streets, hold marches and sit-ins, boycott classes and rally at Republic Square on a daily basis.
Citing safety concerns, Rubinian also made clear that all kinds of protest must end at 10 p.m. “He who stays and acts on the street after 10 o’clock has nothing to do with our movement,” he said.
Pashinian’s wife, Anna Hakobian, also spoke at the rally. “We must demonstrate until Serzh Sarkisian signs his resignation letter,” she said. “Serzh Sarkisian, please do that quickly.”
Sarkisian, who took over as prime minister on April 17 after serving as president for ten years, rejected the demands for his resignation at a televised meeting with her husband held in the morning. Pashinian was detained more than an hour later.
As of Sunday night, the authorities refused to specify where Pashinian is being held. Opposition lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to visit him in custody. They were only allowed to see two other Civil Contract lawmakers detained in the morning.
Throughout the day the Armenian police again described the protests as “illegal” and threatened to disperse them. Both the United States and the European Union urged the authorities in Yerevan to avoid using force against peaceful protesters.
“We urge the government to show restraint to allow for peaceful protest and we urge those exercising their freedom of assembly to do so responsibly, to avoid violence, and to prevent an escalation of tensions,” the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan said in a statement. It expressed concern over “reports of violence against journalists and demonstrators.”
Echoing the EU’s appeals, the U.S. mission also advocated a “peaceful resolution” of the crisis through “meaningful political dialogue.”
First Deputy Prime Minister Karen Karapetian said it is still “not too late” to start such a dialogue. “I think it wouldn’t hurt if political forces gathered [for talks,]” he told reporters.
At the same time, Karapetian defended Pashinian’s arrest and accused the opposition leader of intransigence. He also dismissed Pashinian’s calls for fresh parliamentary elections, saying that the last legislative polls held in April 2017 were legitimate.
Virtually all major opposition forces, including businessman Gagik Tsarukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party, strongly condemned the arrest of Pashinian and other protest organizers and demanded their immediate release.
The Armenian National Congress (HAK) led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian also voiced “unconditional support for the people fighting for the establishment of democracy in a peaceful and constitutional manner.”