Armenia protests: New election date set in bid to defuse crisis

Armenia's parliament on Thursday set May 1 as the date to elect a prime minister in a bid to defuse rapidly escalating tensions, with protest leader Nikol Pashinyan locked in a battle of wills with the ruling party.

But an end to the political crisis was nowhere in sight, with the protest leader lacking enough votes to get elected in a
parliament still controlled by the ruling Republican Party.

Several top Armenian officials turned to Russia for help as protesters in the capital Yerevan took to the streets for a fresh day of rallies.

"I announce that the question of choosing a prime minister will be debated on May 1 ... at a special session of the National Assembly," parliamentary speaker Ara Babloyan said.

Republican Party spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov said it was "realistic" that a new prime minister would already be elected on May 1.

Serzh Sarkisian stood down Monday from his new post of prime minister after mass protests. He had served for a decade as president before that.

The opposition had accused 63-year-old Sarkisian of wanting to extend his grip on power under a new parliamentary system, saying he failed to tackle a litany of problems including poverty and corruption.

- Armenian officials in Moscow -

Armenian acting Vice Premier Armen Gevorkyan was in Moscow for talks on Thursday, his office said, in an apparent move to secure support from the Kremlin. The country's foreign minister Edward Nalbandyan was also believed to be in the Russian capital.

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

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

The Russian embassy in Yerevan said Wednesday that its officials had met with Pashinyan.

The protest movement headed by opposition lawmaker Pashinyan, 42, wants the Republican Party to hand power after Sarkisian quit.

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.

- 'People do not want them' -

Protesters said Thursday they would be taking to the streets until the ruling elites were ousted.

"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.

"The people have already shown their force," she said.

Levon Babayan, a 47-year-old engineer, added: "We came for them to realise that the people do not want them," he said.

Pashinyan accuses authorities of wanting to nominate a Republican Party candidate for prime minister and has warned that the opposition could boycott snap parliamentary elections.

He has insisted the new premier must be a "people's candidate" and not a member of Sarkisian's party, and said he was himself willing to lead.

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

Talks between Pashinyan and acting government head Karen Karapetyan to discuss a "peaceful" transfer of power were cancelled this week.

In tense scenes on Wednesday, authorities cordoned off buildings housing government and ruling party offices and deployed hundreds of police and several armoured personnel carriers.

But police later abandoned efforts to clear streets in the centre, 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."


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