Armenian Mass Protests Paralyze the Capital, Pressuring Ally Russia

Armenian Mass Protests Paralyze the Capital, Pressuring Ally Russia
YEREVAN, Armenia—Demonstrations intensified around the country over the government’s refusal to hand over power, which will likely test the will of the ruling Republican Party and the patience of Russia, Armenia’s biggest ally.

Weeks of on-and-off-again mass protests, which brought the capital Yerevan and other cities to a standstill on Wednesday, are aimed at forcing the ruling party to install opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister. They flared up again late Tuesday after the Republican Party refused to vote for him as premier.

“Our tactic is to increase pressure until [there is] a change of power,” Russian news agencies reported him as saying. “We are ready for any scenario. Now it’s not important what’s happening in government cabinets. What’s important is what happens in the street.”

Mr. Pashinyan emerged in April as a leader among demonstrators angry over a decision by former President Serzh Sargsyan to go back on his word and try to retain power by standing for prime minister. Since then, Mr. Sargsyan has resigned, but the protests have continued amid anger about chronic economic problems and perceived arrogance by the ruling elite. Acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan, a former Gazprom official, has largely laid low during the protests.

In an attempt to avoid the violence that has rocked Armenia before, Mr. Pashinyan has warned supporters against confrontation. He has also emphasized Armenia’s strategic partnership with Russia in an attempt to keep suspicions down in Moscow that his movement, as with protest movements in Ukraine and Georgia, could be used to push Armenia toward a more Western-oriented foreign policy.

Russia considers the protest movement a domestic dispute and doesn’t see it as a threat to its influence in Armenia. It has remained nearly silent since a delegation of Armenian government figures visited Moscow last week while protests continued in Yerevan.

“Russia will do little more than call for a peaceful solution and be ready to work with whoever ends up victorious,” said Anton Lavrov, visiting fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies policy-research group, who has written about Russia’s military presence in the region in the book “Waiting for the Tempest—South Caucasus.”

Nonetheless, Russia is reluctant to see groundswells of popular politics in a region it considers within its sphere of influence, something Russian opposition politicians say the Kremlin fears could come to Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly criticized protesters at home and abroad as being unconstructive and dangerous.

Protesters on Wednesday stood in roads blocking traffic or erected makeshift barricades to cut off main highways and railroads, while some workers at the country’s main airport joined in the protest, Russian new agencies reported.

Roads leading to land borders with Georgia and Iran were also blocked, as was the road leading to the city of Gyumri, where Russia has a military base, Russian news agencies reported.

Armenia’s defense ministry warned protesters to free roads to traffic and allow military vehicles to pass unhindered “out of the necessity to guarantee security,” Interfax reported.

By the end of the day, Mr. Pashinyan called for protesters to free up roads and return to the city center, where demonstrators rallied late into the evening, holding flags and cheering.

The European Union, which has low but rising support in Armenia, called on all sides to avoid confrontation.

The government has said it is open to dialogue, but Mr. Pashinyan has said he is only willing to discuss a timetable for the current acting prime minister’s resignation.

In 2008, rallies against Mr. Sargsyan’s first electoral victory as president turned violent, with army and police units beating protesters camped out in a main square with truncheons and electric-shock devices, killing 10 people. Mr. Pashinyan was also part of those protests.