Armenia protesters block roads, railways in stand-off with authorities

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YEREVAN (Reuters) – Protesters blocked roads and railways across Armenia on Wednesday, responding to a call from opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan for a campaign of civil disobedience to force the ruling elite to relinquish its grip on power.

Armenia is locked in a political crisis after the ruling party, severely weakened after days of protests that forced its nominee for prime minister to quit, dug in its heels and refused to back Pashinyan to replace him.

The standoff is being watched closely by Russia, which sees Armenia as a close ally and is wary of it going the same way as Ukraine, where an uprising swept to power new leaders who pulled the country out of Moscow’s orbit.

In the capital, Yerevan, all the main streets were blocked by cars, minibuses and garbage bins. The road to the international airport was blocked. A spokesman for the civil aviation authority said one flight had been cancelled.

Reuters reporters in Yerevan said shops and offices were open, and some people were still trying to get to work, despite the roadblocks. Protesters marched through the streets, shouting “Nikol! Victory!”, waving flags and blowing horns.

Police tried to persuade protesters to open roads, but did not use force. Local media reported protests in several other cities in the country of three million people.

The national railways operator said it had been forced to suspend suburban passenger services and all goods services because protesters were blocking tracks.

The speaker of parliament, Ara Babloyan, said protesters had besieged some lawmakers inside their apartments.

Pashinyan, in an interview with Reuters at a protest in Yerevan where he was surrounded by cheering supporters, said he would keep the pressure on the ruling party.

“My only power is my people. We are not going to give up,” said Pashinyan, dressed in his trademark camouflage T-shirt and cap. “We will continue our strike and disobedience.”

STANDOFF

The outcome of the standoff is likely to hinge on who blinks first: the opposition which is able to mobilise tens of thousands of protesters angry at what they see as official cronysim, or a ruling elite that controls parliament and the security apparatus, and has Moscow’s backing.

Russia has a military base in Armenia. The country is strategically valuable, nestled between Turkey and energy exporter Azerbaijan, with which Armenia has been in a state of conflict since both emerged from the Soviet Union’s collapse.

President Armen Sarkissian called for talks to resolve the crisis. The presidency is largely ceremonial, with authority resting with the prime minister under a new system opponents say was devised to let veteran leader Serzh Sarksyan keep power after his second presidential term expired last month.

“I deeply regret that the political crisis continues despite the fact that everyone is talking about how dangerous it is for the future of the country,” Sarkissian said in a statement.

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. But his switch to the new job triggered protests and he stepped down after just a week.

That appeared to signal a shift in power in a country run by the same cadre of people since the late 1990s. But the ruling Republican Party has so far stopped short of handing authority to Pashinyan, a 42-year-old former journalist who spent two years in jail for fomenting unrest after an election in 2008.

Pashinyan was put forward to parliament as the only nominee for the vacant prime minister’s job, but after hours of debate the Republican Party, which controls a majority, withheld support. His backers in the streets on Wednesday said the ruling elite had lost popular support and should now step aside.

“We won’t allow the government to ignore us!” said Mariam Abajyan, a 27-year-old unemployed woman protesting in Yerevan.

“We will paralyse the whole city and the whole country,” said Sargis Babayan, a 22-year-old student wearing a T-shirt with Pashinyan’s portrait.

A resident in the town of Dilijan, in Armenia’s northeast, said parked cars and rocks had been used to block roads. Shops there were open but most schools and kindergartens were shut.

Not all Armenians back the protests. Some see Pashinyan as a demagogue trying to oust democratically-elected leaders by whipping up public anger. Reuters reporters witnessed two incidents in Yerevan when the drivers of vehicles remonstrated with protesters blocking their path.

“The country can’t exist like this. I couldn’t get to work today and called in to say that I wouldn’t come,” said Zhanna Petrosyan, a 56-year-old doctor.

Another attempt to elect a new prime minister is due on May 8, the parliamentary press service said. If parliament fails a second time, the constitution requires early parliamentary elections to be held.