Armenia opposition leader in crunch talks ahead of PM vote

Observers have expressed fears that the turmoil could destabilise the Moscow-allied nation

Yerevan (AFP) – Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan on Monday was engaged in high-stakes talks with the ruling party ahead of a key parliamentary vote, inching closer to taking power after two weeks of protests that transformed the country’s political landscape.

Pashinyan swapped his trademark khaki-coloured T-shirt for a smart business suit to hold negotiations with all political forces, including the ruling Republican Party whose support is paramount for his bid to get elected Armenia’s next prime minister on Tuesday.

“Our goal is to draw a line under animosity and create an atmosphere of solidarity,” Pashinyan said in parliament.

The head of the protest movement that ousted the country’s veteran leader Serzh Sarkisian last week, Pashinyan is the only candidate in the running for the premiership and insists that only he can rid Armenia of corruption and poverty and conduct free and fair legislative elections.

However, the 42-year-old former newspaper editor still needs a handful of votes from the Republican Party to seal his victory.

The party headed by ousted prime minister Sarkisian has yet to announce its official stance on the vote, even though a senior lawmaker, Vahram Baghdasaryan, has said it would not stand in the way of Pashinyan’s candidacy.

“Today’s process is very positive, it was unimaginable just a couple of days ago,” a senior Republican lawmaker, Armen Ashotyan, told AFP.

“Both sides have demonstrated a constructive approach.”

Earlier in the day Pashinyan was formally nominated for the post of prime minister by his Elk coalition.

– ‘Influencing politics’ –

Many political observers said it was highly likely that the hugely popular protest leader would be elected prime minister, in a whirlwind development that was unimaginable just two weeks ago in the poor South Caucasus country of 2.9 million people.

“I see practically no obstacles to Pashinyan becoming a prime minister tomorrow,” political analyst Hakob Badalyan told AFP.

“There is political consensus including among the Republicans that the settling of the crisis in this way would serve the interests of the country.”

Speaking to AFP in an interview, Pashinyan said Armenians themselves wanted to determine the future of their country and an explosion of tensions was just a matter of time.

“People should have genuine possibilities to influence the political situation and political decisions,” Pashinyan said on Monday.

“It was clear that Armenia is in the grip of a deep political crisis. For me it was obvious that the Armenian people waited for the right moment to speak up.”

Observers have expressed fears that the turmoil could destabilise the Moscow-allied nation which has been locked in a territorial dispute with Azerbaijan for decades.

The European Union expressed support to Armenia in “its efforts to build a prosperous and democratic society.”

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

Pashinyan said on Monday he discussed a “peaceful and legal settlement” of the crisis with US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell.

– ‘Revolution of love’ –

Tens of thousands of opposition supporters rallied in the capital Yerevan on Sunday, hoping that a massive show of strength would propel their leader to power.

“Looking into your eyes, I can say that yes, I am ready — with a great sense of responsibility — to assume the prime ministerial duties,” Pashinyan told the ecstatic crowd Sunday evening.

On Saturday, after days of frantic negotiations, two major parties including the Prosperous Armenia — which has 31 seats in parliament — said they would back Pashinyan.

Pashinyan is still six votes short of the 53 he needs from the 105-seat legislature. 

Last week, Sarkisian resigned from his new post of prime minister after serving as president for a decade in the face of peaceful protests some dubbed a “revolution of love.”

The protest movement had accused him of a power grab, saying he had failed to tackle a litany of problems like corruption, poverty and the influence of oligarchs.

Observers said Sarkisian’s resignation sounded the death knell for the seemingly unshakable rule of the Republican Party which dominated the ex-Soviet republic’s politics for over a decade, unchallenged by weak and divided opposition forces.