Yerevan (AFP) – Tens of thousands rallied in the Armenian capital on Tuesday after ex-president Serzh Sarkisian was elected prime minister by the country’s parliament despite several days of protests, an AFP journalist reported from the scene.
Opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan -– who organised the protest -– said “tens of thousands” gathered in Yerevan’s Republic Square to denounce Sarkisian’s efforts to extend his chokehold on power after he stepped down as president last week.
Holding Armenian flags and chanting “Armenia without Serzh!” protesters filled Yerevan’s main square after lawmakers backed the candidacy of the Kremlin-supported veteran politician with 77 to 17 votes.
His second and final term as president ended last week.
The opposition denounced the vote — which made Sarkisian Armenia’s top leader under a new parliamentary system of government — saying the 63-year-old lacked popular support.
“Sarkisian lacks legitimacy and has earned the hatred of Armenians,” Pashinian told the rally.
Earlier in the day he announced “the start of a peaceful velvet revolution in Armenia,” and called on supporters to “paralyse the work of all government agencies.”
“We must not allow Armenia’s transformation into an autocratic country where the same man remains in power for an indefinite time,” 23-year-old student Karen Mirzoyan, told AFP at the rally.
Another protester, 38-year-old Roza Tunyan, said Sarkisian “lied to Armenians and broke his earlier promise not to become prime minister after his presidential term expires.”
– ‘Extinct volcano’ –
On Tuesday morning, several thousand demonstrators marched through the centre of the capital Yerevan and staged sit-in protests outside government buildings.
They blockaded the entrances to about a dozen government buildings, including those housing the foreign ministry and the central bank.
Sarkisian blamed the opposition for the unrest.
“Extinct volcanoes should not wake up if we want to live in a prosperous Armenia, in a country with the rule of law. And volcanoes will not awake if no one provokes them.”
Rallies were also held in the country’s second and third largest cities of Gyumri and Vanadzor.
Police said 80 demonstrators were briefly detained.
On Monday police used stun grenades as protesters sought to break through a barbed wire cordon in the centre of Yerevan in an effort to get to the parliament building.
Authorities said 46 people including six police and opposition leader Pashinyan required medical help.
The spokesman for the ruling party, Eduard Sharmazanov, has dismissed the protests as “the opposition’s artificial and fake agenda”.
– ‘Perpetual rule’ –
Sarkisian, a shrewd former military officer who also held the office of prime minister in 2007-2008, has been in charge of the landlocked South Caucasus nation of 2.9 million since winning a presidential vote in 2008.
The country’s new president, Armen Sarkisian, was sworn in last week but his powers will be weaker under the new system of government.
Even though the two men share the same surname, they are not related.
The constitutional amendments were passed after a referendum in December 2015, with some 63 percent of the voters backing the changes.
After the plebiscite, thousands of opposition supporters rallied in protest against alleged mass violations at polling stations.
Council of Europe observers have said the referendum was marred by allegations of large-scale vote-buying and multiple voting, among other irregularities.
Opposition politicians say the shift to a parliamentary republic with a powerful prime minister has been designed to increase Serzh Sarkisian’s grip on power in the impoverished Moscow-allied country.
“Sarkisian wants to perpetuate his rule,” the leader of the opposition Heritage party, Raffi Hovannisyan, told AFP.
After Sarkisian was first elected in 2008, 10 people died in bloody clashes between police and supporters of the defeated opposition candidate.
He won a second presidential term in 2013.