May 8, 2018 / 8:43 AM / 15 days ago

Armenia opposition supporters prepare to fete "revolution"

YEREVAN, May 8 (Reuters) - Thousands of supporters of Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan gathered in the capital on Tuesday in anticipation of a vote in parliament set to install him as prime minister.

The vote follows days of mass protests by Pashinyan’s supporters that forced Armenia’s veteran leader, Serzh Sarksyan, to step down as prime minister and set the scene for a dramatic change in power in the former Soviet state.

“We made a revolution in our country,” said Karine Balayan, a 19-year-old who was wearing a T-shirt bearing Pashinyan’s portrait. “The whole world will respect us.”

The tumultuous events have been watched warily in Moscow, which sees Armenia as a strategic ally and does not want a change of rulers that pulls it out of its orbit. Moscow has a military base in Armenia. Pashinyan has said he will keep close ties with the Kremlin.

Armenia’s ruling Republican Party, closely allied to the ousted Sarksyan, holds the majority in parliament.

In a concession to the strength of the protests, which for a day last week brought the country to a virtual standstill, the party has signalled that it will put its votes behind Pashinyan’s candidacy when parliament votes later on Tuesday.

“By the end of the parliamentary session, Armenia will have a prime minister. The Republican Party’s votes will go towards making up for any votes missing from the 53 needed for the election of a prime minister,” Republican Party lawmaker Samvel Farmanyan said.

Pashinyan, a former journalist who spent time in jail on charges of fomenting unrest, is the only candidate.

His election as prime minister would mark a rupture with the cadre of leaders who since the late 1990s have controlled Armenia, a country of about three million people nestling in mountains between Turkey and Iran.

Crowds of Pashinyan supporters were gathering on Republic Square, in the capital Yerevan, in anticipation of their leader becoming prime minister.

“It’s a great day in the history of Armenia...We will live in a free and democratic country,” said one of them, Mger Abramyan, a 69-year-old pensioner.

Pashinyan’s protest movement was sparked when Sarksyan, barred by the constitution from seeking another term as president, became prime minister instead. Many Armenians saw that as a cynical ploy by Sarskyan and his associates to extend their hold on power.

The protests led by Pashinyan, wearing his trademark camouflage T-shirt and military-style cap, channelled a sense among many Armenians that corruption and cronyism was rife in the ruling elite. (Reporting by Margarita Antidze and Hasmik Mkrtchyan, Writing by Christian Lowe, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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