Armenian opposition leader says ‘ready to lead’ country

Memorials marking the anniversary of the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman forces in 1915 took place a day after Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian resigned
AFP KAREN MINASYAN

Yerevan (AFP) – Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan on Tuesday said he was ready to lead the country after the shock resignation of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian following eleven days of protests against his rule.

“Yes of course we are ready to lead our country,” Pashinyan said at a news conference in Yerevan, after being asked whether he was ready to steer the government of the ex-Soviet South Caucasus country.

“If people will bestow on me this responsibility, I’ll assume the responsibility,” Pashinyan said.

Sarkisian on Monday stunned the country by standing down from his new post as prime minister. He had previously spent a decade in power as president and was accused of a blatant power grab by the opposition, who staged days of rallies in protest.

On Wednesday Pashinyan, the 42-year-old leader of the Civil Contract party, is set to meet the acting head of government Karen Karapetyan to discuss the transfer of power.

According to Armenian law, lawmakers in the parliament, where Sarkisian’s Republican Party have a majority, have a week to propose new candidates for PM and could hold a vote on May 2.

Pashinyan said Tuesday that he is not ready to “negotiate” with Karapetyan and insisted that the only topic for talks was a “full and peaceful transfer of power.”

The new prime minister must be a “people’s candidate” and not a member of Sarkisian’s ruling Republican Party, he stressed.

After this, “early parliamentary elections will be held with the shortest possible delay,” Pashinyan said, promising that they must be “absolutely free and democratic.”

Earlier Tuesday Pashinyan led tens of thousands of Armenians on a march to honour 1.5 million of their kin killed by Ottoman forces during World War I in commemorations that are a hugely emotional event.

Clutching a purple rose, the bearded Pashinyan, 42, led a huge crowd of supporters to a hilltop memorial, wearing his trademark khaki-coloured T-shirt and with a bandaged hand.

The acting head of government, Karapetyan, has appealed for unity after the wrenching political turmoil in a country locked in a simmering territorial conflict with Azerbaijan.

Russia — which has a military base in Armenia — appealed for stability but said it would not interfere. 

Pashinyan on Tuesday said that Russia and Armenia are “friendly, brotherly countries, but that doesn’t mean there are no problems between us.”

– ‘Difficult phase’ –

Karapetyan thanked all political forces for heeding his call for unity.

“We are going through a difficult new phase in our history,” he said in a statement. 

“Today we show the world that despite difficulties and unresolved domestic issues we are together and united. This is our duty to the genocide’s innocent victims.”

Earlier in the day he also held official commemorations at the hilltop Tsitsernakaberd memorial, with thousands laying flowers at the monument.

– ‘Will there be new shocks?’ –

Many Armenians said they felt mixed emotions because the impoverished country’s future was uncertain.

“I’ve been thinking from the start of the day that everything is just beginning,” said Asya Bagdasaryan, 43. 

“What awaits us in the future? Will there be new shocks?”

Armenia — which depends on investment and aid from Russia — has been hit hard by economic troubles in its former Soviet master. 

Unemployment stood at 18 percent last year. The opposition says some 290,000 people have left the country since Sarkisian came to power in 2008.

Political turmoil enveloped the landlocked country of 2.9 million people after Sarkisian was elected prime minister by lawmakers after serving two successive presidential terms.

The opposition charged that the 63-year-old wanted to extend his grip on power under a new parliamentary system of government, saying he failed to tackle poverty and corruption.

Protests broke out several days before his expected election, with tens of thousands of people eventually taking to the streets of Yerevan and other cities in largely peaceful protests.

Sarkisian initially refused to resign but quit on the 11th day of demonstrations after a number of serving servicemen joined the marches.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed hope that the country’s new leader would suit “all forces representing the Armenian people”.

A spokesman for Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said he hoped that new Armenian authorities would adopt a “constructive” approach over the breakaway region of Nagorny Karabakh.

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