May 3, 2018 / 11:03 AM / 8 months ago

Signs of political deal emerge in Armenia after weeks of crisis

YEREVAN (Reuters) - Signs of a tentative deal to end Armenia’s political crisis emerged on Thursday after the ruling party said the country would get a new prime minister next week and a lawmaker who has led street protests said he was on track to be elected.

People celebrate after Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarksyan resigned following almost two weeks of mass street protests, in central Yerevan, Armenia April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure/Files

Armenia, a close Russian ally, has been shaken by nearly three weeks of demonstrations fuelled by public anger over perceived political cronyism and official corruption, prompting the prime minister, who led the country as president for a decade until earlier this year, to resign.

The Kremlin, which has troops in the landlocked ex-Soviet state, said on Thursday it was watching closely and hoped that whatever the outcome the two countries would remain firm allies.

Moscow has exercised restraint so far. But it is wary that Armenia could go the same way as Ukraine in 2014, where an uprising swept to power new leaders who moved their country closer to the West.

Signs of a compromise that pointed to a peaceful resolution of the political crisis began to emerge on Thursday.

Vahram Baghdasaryan, head of the ruling Republican Party in parliament, held talks with protest leader Nikol Pashinyan, a bearded 42-year-old former journalist who sports camouflage T-shirts with a black baseball cap while rallying supporters.

After the talks, Baghdasaryan said his party was ready, at least in principle, to back Pashinyan for the job of premier next week.

The apparent climb down — the Republican Party on Tuesday blocked Pashinyan’s candidacy despite previously saying it would not stand in his way — came after a day of civil disobedience on Wednesday which brought parts of the country to a standstill.

Baghdasaryan told Reuters after the talks that his party would support anyone on May 8 - including Pashinyan - if the candidate enjoyed the backing of one third of lawmakers, something Pashinyan secured on Thursday.

“We will provide support to the candidate put forward by one third of parliament’s deputies whether it’s Pashinyan or someone else, and on May 8 Armenia will have a prime minister,” said Baghdasaryan.

Pashinyan is the only candidate to have declared he is running and it was unclear whether another candidate might emerge.

May 8 is when parliament plans to elect Armenia’s next premier. If it fails to do so at what would be its second attempt, the legislature will be dissolved and early parliamentary elections called.

‘PEOPLE’S CANDIDATE’

Pashinyan confirmed in a video he posted to social media that the ruling party had agreed to back what he called “the people’s candidate” for the prime minister’s job, a phrase he has repeatedly used to describe himself.

He had agreed on Wednesday to pause his campaign of civil disobedience while he sought assurances that the Republican Party would support him, stoking speculation that the ruling elite had agreed to back him on condition he ended the protests.

Pashinyan said in the same video that his own candidacy for the premiership had garnered the necessary number of signatures and was being officially registered with the authorities.

In a move that looked calculated to keep up pressure on the authorities, he called on his supporters to gather in the centre of Yerevan, the Armenian capital, on May 8 and to stand by for further announcements.

Later on Thursday, he issued a statement saying he had met the Russian, U.S., EU and Georgian ambassadors.

“I informed the ambassadors about the agreements which have been reached on resolving the domestic crisis,” he said.

Armenian opposition supporters ride on a truck along a street after protest movement leader Nikol Pashinyan announced a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience in Yerevan, Armenia May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

The crisis was sparked when Armenia’s veteran leader Serzh Sarksyan, forbidden by the constitution from standing for a third term as president after a decade in office, tried to become prime minister last month.

His switch to the new job triggered protests by people who saw it as a cynical ploy to hang onto power, and he stepped down after just a week. The ruling elite has since dug in its heels and resisted ceding power to Pashinyan.

Not all Armenians back the protests. Some see Pashinyan as a demagogue who is trying to oust the country’s democratically elected leaders by whipping up public anger.

Additonal reporting by Masha Tsvetkova in Moscow; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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