More Arrests In Yerevan As Armenian Opposition Protests Resume

YEREVAN -- More than 180 people were detained in the Armenian capital, authorities said, as police tried to stop opposition supporters from blocking streets in protest against the election of former President Serzh Sarkisian as prime minister.

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of the capital for an eighth straight day on April 20, opposing what they say is Sarkisian's attempt to maintain his grip on power after his 10-year stint as president ended two weeks ago.

Rallies continued in the evening with thousands of opposition supporters gathered in Yerevan’s central Republic Square.

Opposition lawmaker Ararat Mirzoyan told the gathering that government officials have been offering dialogue with the opposition in recent days.

Addressing the rally, opposition lawmaker Nikol Pashinian, who is leading the protests, called for Sarkisian’s resignation as prime minister. He said it was too late for dialogue with the government.

“Now it’s late for dialogue…but it does not mean that we are not ready to have any discussion. We, of course, are ready to discuss the terms [dates] of Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation and certain conditions in that regard,” Pashinian said, adding the opposition doesn’t “want vendettas and revenge.”

“If Serzh Sarkisian resigns as soon as possible, it will only be beneficial for himself and for the Republic of Armenia,” he said.

Earlier, opposition lawmaker Ararat Mirzoyan told the gathering that government officials have been offering dialogue with the opposition in recent days.

“We are ready to have dialogue with them only on one issue: the capitulation of Serzh Sarkisian and the [ruling] Republican Party of Armenia,” he said.

During the day, Pashinian marched through downtown Yerevan in a crowd of demonstrators, while other protesters gathered at several sites.

Dozens of Yerevan streets and several major roads connecting regional cities to the capital have been blocked by crowds of protesters. In some cases, police abandoned the streets and protesters were regulating traffic themselves.

Truck drivers also joined the protesters, blocking three intersections with their vehicles.

Protesters also rallied in Armenia's second largest city, Gyumri, where they attempted to block a highway leading to Yerevan, and in Vanadzor, the third largest city in the country of about 3 million people.

Police warned in a statement that they would “resort to adequate measures, up to using special means” if needed.

The number of those detained grew steadily throughout the day, according to figures relased periodically by the national police.

"As of 3:30 p.m. local time, 183 people have been taken to police stations," police spokesman Ashot Agaronian told the media.

Video footage showed men in plainclothes shoving protesters in unmarked cars. It was unclear whether they were police officers and whether those they apprehended were counted among those officially detained.

In an interview with Current Time TV, Pashinian rejected the accusation that protesters were committing offenses against public order.

"This is a completely peaceful [protest], but there is a new element to it," Pashinian told Current Time, a project of RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, as he marched in a crowd.

"We are calling on the police not to protect Serzh Sarkisian, because they are not Serzh Sarkisian’s police, but the police of the Republic of Armenia and its people," he said.

Sarkisian wants to "see Armenia either through barbed wire or through the slots in riot shields," Pashinian said, suggesting that the longtime leader is hiding behind the police.

Throughout the city, groups of young activists, students, and other opposition supporters organized marches and blocked streets, interrupting traffic, and forcing police to respond by deploying units in various parts of Yerevan.

Mikayel Ghukasian, a 23-year-old student from Yerevan State University, told RFE/RL that the Armenian “people want changes.”

“People come here because they are unhappy about the situation in the country, unhappy about the developments in the country over the past 10 years, and do not want the country to continue in the same direction,” he said. “People want changes and they want the government to hear their voice and make good on its promises.”

Another protester, Mikayel Nazarian, said that he has seen protesters with a wide range of social and political backgrounds.

“The uniqueness of [these protests] is that everyone is here – rightists, leftists, centrists. From anarchists to nationalists – all are here. This is a situation when a conservative society and a more progressive society or, putting it more bluntly, traditionalists and LGBT community people can sit together in one place,” Nazarian said. "This already means that there is a great change in this society."

Tirayr Muradian, a journalist working for the website of the Union of Informed Citizens nongovernmental organization, was forcefully removed on April 20 from a site of protest on Yerevan-Sevan highway, where he says he was covering the event.

Authorities have been warning members of the media to stay “at a reasonable distance” from the sites where police are “carrying out their lawful actions.”

What appeared to be plainclothes policemen shoved Muradian in a car and drove him away from the protest site before letting him go.

A day earlier, Muradian was beaten up by unknown men and hospitalized with head injuries while covering the protests near the government building, despite identifying himself as a journalist.

President Armen Sarkisian -- who is not related to Serzh Sarkisian -- called for dialogue on April 19 after a full day of scuffles between protesters and riot police which resulted in some 120 demonstrators being detained in downtown Yerevan.

The protesters' actions apparently forced Serzh Sarkisian to put off his first cabinet meeting for several hours, prompting President Sarkisian to call for dialogue.

"I'm confident that the only solution is a dialogue and mutual respect," Armen Sarkisian said in a statement on April 19.

"As a leader of the country, I'm calling on the sides to hold a dialogue in order to find the best solution in the current situation," added the president, who is not related to Serzh Sarkisian.

Serzh Sarkisian’s junior coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) factions, on April 19 urged Armenia’s leading political groups to try to “jointly find solutions” to end stalemate.

The United States urged both sides to exercise restraint and avoid violence, and Russia said that laws should not be broken.

In Warsaw, Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), urged the Armenian authorities to protect and ensure the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in the country.

She also expressed concern over “reported instances of the disproportionate use of force by Armenian police against peaceful protesters, including minors, as well as indiscriminate arrests in Yerevan and other cities.”

The protests erupted on April 13 after parliament voted in Sarkisian as prime minister, consolidating his continued dominance of power after a decade as president.

On April 17, eight days after his presidency ended and his handpicked successor was elected president by parliament, Serzh Sarkisian was voted prime minister in a 76-17 vote.

Sarkisian was first elected in 2008 in the South Caucasus country of about 3 million people and served two terms. He has maintained warm ties with Russia, which Armenia relies on for aid and investment more than a quarter-century after the Soviet collapse.

In 2015, Armenia held a referendum to change its form of government and hand more powers to the prime minister, downgrading the president -- now also elected by parliament -- to more of a figurehead. Sarkisian had promised in the past that would not seek to be prime minister, and Pashinian and other opposition leaders accuse him of breaking that pledge.

Sarkisian, in a speech to the lawmakers ahead of the April 17 vote, claimed that if someone else were to become prime minister, it could lead to the appearance of a “shadow” government situation in which the ruling party leader governs de facto, instead of the prime minister, but is able to evade responsibility for developments in the country.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP