Armenians block streets, halt train service in mass protest over government standoff

Protesters blocked roads across Armenia on Wednesday, responding to a call from opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan for a civil disobedience campaign to force the ruling party to make him prime minister.

Nikol Pashinyan, backed by many protesters, was rejected for PM despite being only candidate

Supporters of opposition lawmaker Nikol Pashinyan shout while protesting in Republic Square in Yerevan on Wednesday. Protesters opposed to the government blocked roads, railway stations and airports after the governing Republican Party voted against Pashinyan's election as prime minister. (Sergei Grits/Associated Press)

Protesters blocked roads across Armenia on Wednesday, responding to a call from opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan for a civil disobedience campaign to force the ruling party to make him prime minister.

Armenia is locked in a political crisis after the ruling Republican Party, severely weakened after days of protests that forced veteran leader Serzh Sargsyan to quit as prime minister, 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 Armenian capital of Yerevan, all main streets were blocked by cars, minibuses and garbage bins. Protesters marched shouting "Nikol. Victory," waving flags and blowing horns. Police tried to persuade them to open roads, but did not use force.

In a sign of cracks appearing in the ruling elite, acting Culture Minister Armen Amiryan resigned, according to his spokesperson. She said protesters came to his ministry, and after meeting them, he came outside and announced he was quitting.

By evening, blockades on roads outside the centre of the capital had been lifted in line with instructions from Pashinyan to his supporters to suspend their action once darkness fell.

Opposition lawmaker Nikol Pashinyan addresses his supporters in Republic Square in Yerevan on Wednesday. Pashinyan encouraged civil disobedience after Tuesday's vote result. (Sergei Grits/Associated Press)

For most of the day, roads leading in and out of the capital were blocked, including the road to the international airport. A spokesperson for the civil aviation authority said one flight had been cancelled. Residents and local media reported protests in several other cities in the country of three million people.

The national railway operator said it was forced to suspend suburban passenger services and all freight trains because tracks were blocked. Parliament Speaker 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: "My only power is my people. We are not going to give up," he said, dressed in his trademark camouflage T-shirt and cap. "We will continue our strike and disobedience."

Pashinyan not universally loved

Armenia hosts a Russian military base and is nestled strategically between Turkey and energy exporter Azerbaijan, with which it has been in a state of conflict since both emerged from the Soviet Union's collapse.

The outcome of the standoff is likely to hinge on who blinks first: the opposition, which is able to mobilize 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.

Protesters block a road in Yerevan on Wednesday. (Karen Minsasyan/AFP/Getty Images)

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 Sargsyan 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.

Sargsyan, forbidden by the constitution from standing for a third term 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 Republicans have 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 paralyze 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. 

"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 elections.