YEREVAN (Reuters) - Armenia will get a new prime minister next week after nearly two weeks of street protests, with opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan, who has led the demonstrations, emerging as the protesters’ unequivocal favourite.
Although the demonstrations have been peaceful, the upheaval has threatened to destabilise Armenia, an ally of Russia, in a volatile region riven by Armenia’s decades-long, low-level conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan.
Moscow has two military bases in the ex-Soviet republic, and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Karen Karapetyan, the acting prime minister, on Thursday and made it clear Moscow was watching and did not want mob rule.
“It was emphasised that resolving the political crisis in Armenia must take place exclusively through legal means in the framework of the current constitution,” the Kremlin said.
Its statement also appeared to suggest that Putin wanted the next prime minister to come from the ruling party, which has been the focus of popular anger, saying he thought the crisis needed to be addressed on the basis of what he said were legitimate parliamentary elections in 2017.
That appeared to conflict with the demands of protesters who have said they want Pashinyan to be the new interim prime minister and for him to organise fresh parliamentary elections.
Protest leader Pashinyan said that results of 2017 election could not be regarded as legitimate.
“It’s a misunderstanding,” Pashinyan told reporters commenting on Putin’s statement. “I think it’s a wrong interpretation as Russia as well as other countries does not intervene in Armenia’s internal affairs.”
The situation in Armenia is awkward for the Russian leadership. It has kept a tight lid on protests in its own country, but is now watching as demonstrations in a close ally are forcing the ruling Armenian elite to make concessions, setting a regional precedent it is unlikely to welcome.
The demonstrations, driven by public anger over perceived political cronyism and corruption, looked to have peaked on Monday when Serzh Sarksyan, a close Putin ally, quit as prime minister, a post he had held for just six days after serving for a decade as president.
Demonstrators have made clear they view the whole system as tainted after Sarksyan’s sought to shift power to the office of premier from that of president. They want a sweeping political reconfiguration before ending their protests, which continued on Thursday.
In a further sign of growing Russian interest in the crisis, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks in Moscow on Thursday with his Armenian counterpart Edward Nalbandian, while Armenia’s acting vice premier, Armen Gevorkyan, met Russian presidential administration officials.
Pashinyan said on Wednesday he had received assurances from Russian officials that Moscow would not intervene in the crisis.
Earlier this week, Pashinyan ruled out challenging the presence of Russian military bases in Armenia or its membership in Russia-led military and economic alliances.
Armenia’s ruling elite has been scrambling to try to appease the protesters for days. The parliamentary speaker said on Thursday parliament would elect a new interim prime minister on May 1.
Pashinyan, a former journalist turned lawmaker who has been instrumental in organising the protests, has demanded the job.
“We expect that all forces in the parliament will recognise the people’s victory .... Either I will be elected as prime minister or there will be no prime minister elected in Armenia,” Pashinyan told protesters gathered in Republic square in central Yerevan.
He offered to meet acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan on Friday.
Pashinyan, if elected, wants to reform the electoral system to ensure it is fair before holding new parliamentary elections.
“We will have a people’s prime minister and after the election a people’s government and parliament,” said Anna Agababyan, a 38-year-old teacher who was protesting in Yerevan, the capital, on Thursday, holding a small national flag.
Armen Sarkissian, the president, on Thursday hailed what he called “a new page” in Armenia’s history and called on lawmakers to help forge a new country while respecting the constitution.
Pashinyan and his allies have been busy trying to build support for him with the ruling Republican Party and other parties in parliament where Pashinyan, before the protests, was part of a small opposition bloc with no chance of power.
Writing by Andrew Osborn and Margarita Antidze,; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Peter Graff