Amid Protests, Armenian Lawmakers Preserve Ex-President's Place In Power

7 minutes ago

Updated at 1:28 p.m. ET

In Armenia, demonstrators have gathered by the thousands in the city of Yerevan as lawmakers elected former President Serzh Sargsyan to be the country's new prime minister Tuesday. But they have not descended on the country's capital to congratulate the longtime leader on his new role.

The massive demonstration has another goal: Led by opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan, protesters are condemning what they see as a power grab — a bid by Sargsyan, who was elected president in 2008 and re-elected in 2013, to maintain authority at the cost of the country's democratic institutions.

What has assembled in Yerevan — and is being live-streamed on YouTube — constitutes a "nonviolent velvet revolution," Pashinyan said Tuesday, referencing the peaceful 1989 uprising that ousted the Communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia. He is calling for a widespread strike and blockades of government buildings.

"We must paralyze the entire state system and the power should pass to the people," he told the crowd, according to the BBC. "Serzh Sargsyan must see that he has no Armenia to rule in and no people to rule over."

Those sentiments are not shared by lawmakers in the Armenian parliament, who voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to elect the former president as prime minister. Observing the country's term limits on the chief executive, Sargsyan had already stepped down from the presidency earlier this month with the conclusion of his second term.

Yet years before the conclusion of that second term, in 2015, Armenian voters approved a constitutional referendum that made a significant change to the country's national power structure. With the change, the office of the president was stripped of many of its powers, even as the power of the prime minister was given a substantial boost.

Under the terms of the amendment, in Reuters' words, the presidency would "become largely ceremonial."

Many in the opposition read in the referendum's terms the tea leaves of Sargsyan's future political aspirations, viewing his push for the measure as a means for him to evade limits on his time in power. The BBC notes that some, including independent European observers, alleged election irregularities and even vote-rigging — an accusation that also dogged his winning presidential bids in 2008 and in 2013.

In fact, The Guardian explained in 2016 that large-scale demonstrations against Sargsyan's government became something of a yearly exercise — each year with new demands, from scrapping public transit price hikes to outright regime change.

This time around, the focus is squarely on Sargsyan himself, who, as Reuters notes, had denied any designs on the premiership — until March, when he expressed new openness to the proposition.

The protests, which opened last week, saw clashes Monday between police and the protesters seeking to break through their barbed wire barrier around the parliament building in order to surround it, as they had several other government buildings in the area. Local media reported several dozen people were injured in the spasm of violence, including Pashinian.

The clashes raised concerns from the Human Rights Watch on Monday.

"Armenia's authorities should protect people's right to peaceful assembly. Any police response needs to be proportionate and in line with United Nations law enforcement standards," the group said in a statement. "It is never too late for Armenia's police to turn around their poor record on using excessive force."

Armen Sarkissian, the politician recently sworn in as Sargsyan's handpicked successor in the presidency, reaffirmed to local media the protesters' rights to gather peacefully in opposition.

"The right to freedom of speech and expression of will is one of the most important values of democracy. The opinion of every citizen of the Republic of Armenia is important for the country," Sarkissian said.

"At the same time," he added, "violence, illegal actions and restriction of the rights of others must be ruled out during free expression of will."

Per Armenia's constitutional process, Sarkissian signed a decree Tuesday certifying Sargsyan's election as prime minister.

Still, demonstrations showed no signs of abating by Tuesday night local time — as Pashinian, gripping the microphone with white-bandaged hand, spots of blood soaking through, delivered a long and fiery speech to protesters packing a central square beneath the city lights.

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