Armenia turns to Moscow as parliament sets date for new vote

Armenian opposition supporters demonstrate in downtown Yerevan

Yerevan (AFP) – Armenia’s parliament on Thursday set May 1 as the date to elect a prime minister in a bid to defuse rapidly escalating tensions as top officials held talks in Moscow.

An end to a deepening political crisis in Armenia was nowhere in sight, with opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan lacking enough votes to get elected and protesters taking to the streets for a fresh day of rallies.

Russia – which has a military base in Armenia — has pledged it would not intervene but its top officials welcomed counterparts from the South Caucasus nation for talks on Thursday.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with his Armenian counterpart Eduard Nalbandyan while Kremlin officials also held talks with the country’s acting Vice Premier Armen Gevorkyan.

“I announce that the question of choosing a prime minister will be debated on May 1,” parliamentary speaker Ara Babloyan said in the Armenian capital Yerevan.

Eduard Sharmazanov, spokesman for the Republican Party which still has a majority in parliament, said it was “realistic” that a new prime minister would already be elected on May 1.

Armenia is then expected to hold new parliamentary elections.

The country’s leader Serzh Sarkisian stood down Monday from his new post of prime minister after days of largely peaceful protests in the impoverished country of 2.9 million people.

The opposition had accused 63-year-old Sarkisian of wanting to extend his grip on power after serving a decade as president, saying he failed to tackle a litany of problems including poverty and corruption.

–  ‘Unpredictable situation’ –

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed hope that the opposition and the authorities would reach “compromise.”

Peskov reiterated that the crisis was Armenia’s “internal affair” but stressed Russia’s “strong links” with the country. 

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the top diplomats from Russia and Armenia discussed the situation around Nagorny Karabakh, a breakaway statelet with an Armenian ethnic majority that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.

Observers have warned the crisis could destabilise the Moscow-allied nation which has been involved in a decades-long territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.

Putin on Wednesday urged restraint when he spoke by phone to Armenian President Armen Sarkisian, who has no relation to Serzh Sarkisian and is a ceremonial figurehead.

Officials from the Russian embassy in Yerevan have met with Pashinyan, 42.

The Yelk opposition bloc nominated Pashinyan for prime minister, but he was 13 votes short of a majority on Wednesday. A candidate would need 53 votes to get elected. 

“It’s impossible to tell if the country will come out of this chaos on May 1,” analyst Ervand Bozoyan said. 

“The situation is extremely unpredictable,” he said, adding that frantic backdoor negotiations were under way among political parties.

Analyst Stepan Safaryan said that, while the core of the Republican Party has no intention to back down, he did not rule out that some of the party’s lawmakers would vote for Pashinyan. 

– ‘New Armenia’ – 

Protesters said Thursday they would be taking to the streets until the Republican Party hands over power. 

“If the Republicans do not want to leave themselves, we will force them,” Anna Mkrtchyan, a 38-year-old hairdresser, told AFP in central Yerevan.

Pashinyan has warned that the opposition could boycott snap parliamentary elections if the government nominate a Republican Party candidate. 

“In case the Republican party dares to nominate a candidate, the people will immediately surround the parliament,” he said.

He has insisted the new premier must be a “people’s candidate” and said he was himself willing to lead.

In tense scenes on Wednesday, authorities deployed hundreds of police and several armoured personnel carriers but police later abandoned efforts to clear streets, saying it could not take sides in a political crisis.

President Armen Sarkisian said Thursday his country turned “a new page” in its history.

“We live in a New Armenia,” he said. “All political forces, especially the representatives of the National Assembly, should be coordinated to establish this new path, guided by the Constitution of our country.”