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Armenian Protest Leader Pashinian Says He's Ready To Rule If Country Wants It

Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinian walks before a ceremony to commemorate the 103rd anniversary of mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, in central Yerevan, April 24, 2018
Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinian walks before a ceremony to commemorate the 103rd anniversary of mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, in central Yerevan, April 24, 2018

YEREVAN -- Armenian lawmaker Nikol Pashinian, the leader of opposition protests that pushed longtime leader Serzh Sarkisian to abruptly step down as prime minister, says he is ready to step in and lead the country if people want.

After leading thousands of supporters in a procession to a hilltop memorial complex in Yerevan to mark the anniversary of the World War I-era massacre of their ancestors in Ottoman Turkey, Pashinian told reporters on April 24 that the rule of Sarkisian’s Republican Party is over.

After the pause for the memorial ceremonies, high politics were expected to begin again on April 25, when Pashinian, 42, was set to meet with acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetian to discuss what comes next for the South Caucasus country of some 3 million.​

However, a leader of his Civil Contract party, Tigran Avinian, later told RFE/RL that the meeting will not take place. He declined to elaborate.

​The planned talks on April 25 "should be about the transfer of power without any shocks," Pashinian said, adding that he plans to give supporters a progress report at a rally on Yerevan's central Republic Square that evening.

"Today we will use the opportunity and have certain political discussions to clearly state what stage we are at and what specific steps we should take to ensure the people's victory," Pashinian said in a video posted on Facebook.

Pashinian said on April 23 that he plans to discuss the "peaceful transfer of power” with Karapetian, who is a member of Sarkisian's long-ruling Republican Party, and that snap parliamentary elections should be held "within a reasonable time frame."

"I hope that the leaders of the Republican Party will unequivocally and unconditionally recognize the victory of the people's velvet, nonviolent revolution," he said.

Pashinian Says Armenia's 'Revolution' Not Over Yet
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Pashinian's remarks suggested that he wants to serve as prime minister for a transitional period, followed by elections that could reduce the Republican Party's dominance and bolster the position of his own party -- which now holds four mandates in the 105-seat National Assembly.

Under Armenia's constitution, when the prime minister leaves office political factions in parliament have seven days to put forward the name of a new one for a vote in the legislature. But new parliamentary elections do not necessarily follow, and it was not immediately clear whether the Republican Party will support Pashinian's plans.

Sarkisian's resignation came shortly after talks between Pashinian and Karapetian -- who was prime minister from September 2016 until early April -- but the details of the discussion have not been revealed.

That has left questions about what the future holds for the former Soviet republic, where Sarkisian's resignation was a relatively rare case in which street protests prompted a longtime leader to step down.

'I Got It Wrong'

The catalyst for the protests was Sarkisian's shift to the newly powerful post of prime minister after a decade as president -- a move critics charged was a blatant bid to cling to power when he reached the limit of two straight presidential terms.

Sarkisian was elected prime minister by parliament on April 17, eight days after his presidency ended on April 9.

Under constitutional changes that he pushed through in 2015, the prime minister is now more powerful than the president, who is more of a figurehead.

Protesters charged that Sarkisian violated previous pledges not to seek to become prime minister under the new system, claiming the shift threatened to make the 63-year-old the leader for life.

Sarkisian's resignation came one day after he suggested that he would not step down, telling Pashinian that demands for him to do so were "blackmail."

But in the statement on April 23, Sarkisian acknowledged that "the street movement is against me" and suggested that he did not want to resort to disperse protesters.

"Nikol Pashinian was right. I got it wrong," he said in the statement. "The situation has several possible solutions, but I will not take any of them. That is not my way. I am leaving the office of the country's leader, of prime minister."

Balancing Act

Armenia has pursued a delicate balancing act over the past decade, maintaining strong ties with Moscow while also developing relations with European Union.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on April 24 that Russia hopes order and stability will be maintained in Armenia as politicians work on a new political configuration, which he said should be based on "consensus."

"We see at this point that the situation is not heading toward destabilization. We are satisfied with that," Peskov told reporters in Moscow.

He said that any comparisons between the events in Yerevan with the upheaval in 2014 in Ukraine -- where Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was pushed out by pro-European protests -- were "inappropriate."

Russia seized Crimea and backed antigovernment forces in eastern Ukraine after Yanukovych's downfall, contributing to a conflict that has killed more than 10,300 people, badly damaging relations with Ukraine, and prompting Kyiv to seek closer ties with the West.

Armenia hosts a large Russian military base and is a member of regional economic and security organizations dominated by Moscow.

Ahead of Pashinian's planned procession to the memorial complex, thousands of others streamed to the site and laid flowers around a flame at the center of a stark, towering monument.

Armenia Marks Anniversary Of Massacre
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On April 24, Armenians around the world commemorate the killings of up to 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during the World War I era.

Twenty-seven other countries and the majority of U.S. states have joined Armenia in formally considering the killings to be genocide.

Turkey rejects the term, claiming that the death toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest rather than a systematic plan to exterminate the Armenian population in Ottoman Turkey.