Armenian protest leader pauses strike for talks with ruling party

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Margarita Antidze, Hasmik Mkrtchyan

YEREVAN (Reuters) – The leader of a protest movement that has rocked Armenia on Tuesday called a pause in a campaign of civil disobedience while he seeks assurances that the ruling party will back him to be the next prime minister.

Nikol Pashinyan announced the one-day timeout in the ex-Soviet country after a day of protests against the ruling elite that blocked roads and railways and brought parts of the country to a standstill.

With tens of thousands of Pashinyan’s supporters gathering for a rally in the capital, Yerevan, the head of the ruling Republican Party in parliament, Vahram Baghdasaryan offered what appeared to be an olive branch.

He told reporters that when parliament votes on who will fill the vacant prime minister’s post, his party will not put forward its own candidate and will back whoever is nominated. So far, Pashinyan is the only nominee.

Baghdasaryan did not say explicitly, though, that this meant his party would back Pashinyan, a 42-year-old former journalist who has spent time in jail for fomenting unrest and accuses the ruling elite of corruption and cronyism.

If the Republican Party does back Pashinyan in the vote, due to take place on May 8, it would mark a dramatic shift in power in Armenia, where the same cadre of people have dominated since the late 1990s.

The standoff is being watched closely by Russia, which sees Armenia as a close ally and is wary that it could go the same way as Ukraine in 2014, where an uprising swept to power new leaders who pulled the country out of Moscow’s orbit.

In the capital, Yerevan, all main streets were blocked by cars, minibuses and garbage bins. Protesters marched shouting “Nikol! Victory!”, waving flags and blowing horns. Police tried to persuade them to open roads, but did not use force.

In a sign that cracks are appearing within the ruling elite, acting Culture Minister Armen Amiryan resigned, according to his spokeswoman. She said protesters came to his ministry, and after meeting them he came outside and announced he was quitting.

By evening, blockades on roads outside the center of the capital had been lifted in line with instructions from Pashinyan to his supporters to suspend their action once darkness fell.

For most of the day, roads leading in and out of the capital were blocked, including the road to the international airport. A spokesman for the civil aviation authority said one flight had been canceled. Residents and local media reported protests in several other cities in the country of three million people.

The national railway operator said it was forced to suspend suburban passenger services and all freight trains because tracks were blocked. Parliament Speaker Ara Babloyan said protesters had besieged some lawmakers inside their apartments.

Armenia hosts a Russian military base and is nestled strategically between Turkey and energy exporter Azerbaijan, with which it has been in a state of conflict since both emerged from the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Writing by Margarita Antidze and Christian Lowe; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg

 

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