Police in Armenia detained three opposition leaders and nearly 200 protesters on Sunday (22 April), drawing a rebuke from the European Union after demonstrators demanded newly appointed Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan quit.
Protesters accuse Sargsyan, 63, of clinging to power after parliament made him prime minister this month following a stint of 10 years as president. In the biggest political crisis in a decade, tens of thousands of his opponents have marched through the capital Yerevan, blocking streets and staging sit-ins.
The protests, though peaceful so far, threaten to destabilise a key Russian ally in a volatile region riven by a long low level conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and would, if successful, be a rare example of people power delivering reform in the former Soviet Union.
Despite the leaders of the movement being under arrest and police threats of a crackdown, tens of thousands of people continue to walk toward Armenia's Republic Square in a mass showing of civil disobedience. Video by Eric Grigorian. #RejectSerzh #YerevanProtests pic.twitter.com/LxAB50Ktd5
— EVN Report (@evn_report) April 22, 2018
Critics accuse Sargsyan of ruling the South Caucasus nation of around 3 million people for too long, of being too close to Russia which has military bases inside Armenia, and of doing too little to root out corruption.
Russia has around 3000 troops in Armenia, mostly stationed in Gyumri which is 100 kilometres north of Yerevan. It also sells arms to Armenia as well as Azerbaijan while regularly presenting itself as a mediator between both sides over the still active Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
— Alexander Clarkson (@APHClarkson) April 22, 2018
Sargsyan says his country needs him and that his party enjoys large-scale popular support.
Under a revised constitution approved in a 2015 referendum, most state powers shifted to the prime minister while the presidency has become a largely ceremonial post.
Police said in a statement that opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan and two other lawmakers had been “forcibly removed” from a protest. A Reuters reporter witnessed the “red berets”, as Armenian special police forces are known, grab one lawmaker by his hands and feet and carry him behind the police cordon.
#UPDATE Armenia's prime minister and ex-president Serzh Sarkisian walks out of a televised meeting with anti-government protest leader Nikol Pashinyan, who tells him "power is now in people's hands" https://t.co/WILCIcJ0pC pic.twitter.com/lfHqoP5Xxg
— AFP news agency (@AFP) April 22, 2018
The public prosecution service confirmed that three opposition leaders had been detained on suspicion of organising an illegal protest.
Almost 200 people have been taken to police stations by law enforcement officers, the Interfax news agency cited police representatives as saying. Seven people had been taken to hospital, the Ministry of Health said in a statement.
According to the law, the detainees must either be released within 72 hours, or a criminal case can be opened against them.
Opposition leader Pashinyan had earlier held talks with Sargsyan, who walked out of the meeting within minutes after accusing his opponents of trying to “blackmail” the authorities.
“This is not talks, not a dialogue, it’s just an ultimatum, blackmail of the state, of the legitimate authorities,” Sargsyan had said.
Demonstrators continued to march in large numbers in the capital, blowing vuvuzelas and sounding car horns, despite earlier attempts by police to break up the march with batons and shields.
The police called on protesters to stop the situation from escalating, the Interfax news agency said, quoting an official statement.
“If these demands are not fulfilled, the police has the right to take demonstrators into custody and to use force,” Interfax cited the statement as saying.
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered on the capital’s central Republic square in the evening, calling for the continuation of peaceful protests.
“I’m asking everyone not to deviate from the declared path and peacefully bring the case of the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan,” Anna Hakobyan, Pashinyan’s wife told the crowd.
In a statement, the EU’s foreign policy arm called for more dialogue and a peaceful resolution.
“All those who have been detained while exercising their fundamental right of assembly in accordance with the law must be released immediately,” it said.
“It is of utmost importance that all parties involved show restraint and act responsibly.”
Parliament voted last Tuesday to allow Sargsyan to become prime minister, angering opposition leaders.
“I am telling you: you have no understanding of the situation in the country. The situation is different to the one you knew 15-20 days ago,” Pashinyan had told Sargsyan on Sunday.
“The situation in Armenia has changed, you don’t have the power of which you are told. In Armenia, the power has passed to the people,” he said.