Armenian PM Sarkisian Resigns After Protest Leader Pashinian Released

Armenian PM Sarkisian Resigns After Protest Leader Pashinian Released

Armenian PM Sarkisian Resigns After Protest Leader Pashinian Released

The FINANCIAL -- YEREVAN. Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian has resigned from his post, according to a statement on his website.

The statement was posted on April 23 as crowds in Yerevan and other cities protested for an 11th straight day, calling for his resignation, and followed shortly after the release of protest leader Nikol Pashinian from custody, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service.

It came less than a week after Sarkisian took office following his election as prime minister by parliament on April 17, eight days after his two-term presidency ended. His handpicked successor, Armen Sarkisian -- who is not related, was sworn in as president on April 9 after being elected by parliament.

But under constitutional changes that Serzh Sarkisian pushed through in 2015, the prime minister is now more powerful than the president, who is more of a figurehead.

Sarkisian had previously said he would not seek to become prime minster, and protesters accused him of violating that pledge in order to cling to power.

Pashinian "was right. I was wrong," the statement quotes Sarkisian as saying. He said there were other possible solutions to the confrontation with protesters but that he would not resort to them.

"I am leaving the post of prime minister," he said.

Earlier, opposition lawmaker Pashinian rejoined jubilant demonstrators at protests calling for Sarkisian's resignation as prime minister.

Thousands of antigovernment protesters defied a police warning and renewed marches through the streets of the capital on April 23, blocking streets and paralyzing traffic in some areas.

They were joined for the first time by scores of men in military uniforms, whose presence drew swift condemnation from the Defense Ministry.

Upon his release after about 24 hours in custordy, Pashinian renewed his call for Sarkisian to step down and told RFE/RL he would speak further about his detention at a large rally to be held at 7 p.m. (1500 GMT/UTC) in the capital's central Republic Square.

Tens of thousands rallied the previous evening and vowed to repeat their protest every day until their demands are met.

The protests, which started mainly among younger Armenians, have been gaining in size and intensity.

About 200 men wearing army uniforms linked arms and joined in the march on April 23, prompting a quick and stern response from the Defense Ministry, which promised harsh punishment for those involved in the protest.

Their actions "are not only viewed as a violation of order in a military unit...but also grossly violate a fundamental principle of democracy" under which the military must not be involved in politics," the ministry said in a statement.

The new rally came a day after Pashinian was detained by police following failed talks with Sarkisian, who walked out of the meeting after the opposition lawmaker said the only thing to discuss was his resignation.

​The peaceful protests have roiled the former Soviet republic of about 3 million, a Russian ally in a volatile region plagued by the persistent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

If the demonstrations succeed, it would be a relatively rare example of civil protest effecting major political change in the former Soviet Union.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement that it was monitoring the activities of the protesters and "will not allow intentional closure of the traffic and cases of apparent disobedience to police officers."

Protesters have also rallied in Gyumri and Vanadzor, the second and third largest cities in the country, which borders Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran. ​

Local news agency Armenpress quoted Georgy Kutoian, the director of the country’s National Security Service, as saying the events "are already a serious challenge to our statehood."

Until his release Pashinian's whereabouts had been unknown following his arrest on April 22 after he was confronted by masked police officers and other security personnel as he led a crowd of several hundred supporters marching to the city's southern Erebuni district. The police fired stun grenades to stop the march.

Police later tried to disperse crowds gathered in various parts of Yerevan and there were clashes between officers and some protesters.

The Prosecutor-General's Office had said on April 22 that Pashinian, along with opposition lawmakers Sasun Mikaelian and Ararat Mirzoian, would be held for 72 hours for organizing unsanctioned rallies and urging supporters to unblock streets and entrances to state buildings. It claimed that participants in those gatherings assaulted police officers.

Shortly before his detention, Pashinian had met with Sarkisian, but the meeting ended quickly, with the prime minister accusing his opponents of "blackmail" and walking out after about three minutes.

"I came here to discuss your resignation," Pashinian, in a camouflage T-shirt and an Adidas cap, told Sarkisian after taking off his backpack and sitting in a chair next to the prime minister on a podium as cameras rolled.

"This is not a dialogue, this is blackmail," Sarkisian said before walking out of the meeting at Yerevan's Marriott hotel.

Pashinian said that Sarkisian had lost touch with reality and urged his supporters to turn out in larger numbers for peaceful civil-disobedience protests across the country.

He said that he told the president he would only negotiate with the government "the terms of Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation and a peaceful transition of power." He also said that as long as the protests were peaceful, the police should not break them up.

Before walking out, Sarkisian said that Pashinian's political alliance had "only six or seven percent of the vote" in parliamentary elections, and that he should not to speak on behalf of the people or issue ultimatums to the government.

Following Sarkisian's statement, protesters called on residents of the capital to join in the protest by banging their pots and pans for five minutes at 11 p.m. to show Sarkisian that the opposition has broad support.

In many districts of Yerevan, banging could be heard after 11 p.m. In one district -- Shengavit -- the banging lasted for half an hour.

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

His handpicked successor Armen Sarkisian -- who is not related -- was sworn in as president on April 9 after being elected by parliament.

But under constitutional changes that Serzh Sarkisian pushed through in 2015, the prime minister is now more powerful than the president, who is more of a figurehead.

Sarkisian had previously said he would not seek to become prime minster, and protesters say he violated that pledge. Opponents say the shift threatens to make the 63-year-old the leader for life.

Critics say Sarkisian has also brought Armenia too close to Moscow and President Vladimir Putin, with whom he has a close relationship. Armenia is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), two regional groupings that observers say Russia is using to try to maintain influence in the region and keep members from forging closer ties with the West.

Putin also switched between the positions of president and prime minister to remain in power, becoming head of government in 2008 when he faced a limit of two straight terms, and then returning to the presidency in 2012.

Another regional leader, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also changed positions, becoming head of state after years as prime minister. Erdogan also beefed up the powers of the presidency to tighten his grip on power.

In a statement on April 22, the U.S. Embassy in Armenia urged police and protesters to "avoid violence" and to "prevent an escalation of tensions."

"We are concerned over reports of violence against journalists and demonstrators; we emphasize the need for those responsible for violence against police or demonstrators to be held accountable under the law," it also said.

Meanwhile, European Union foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini’s spokesperson said the EU expects the Armenian authorities to "fully respect this right and to apply the law in a fair and proportionate manner."