YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Tens of thousands of opposition supporters surged into the central square of the Armenian capital again on Wednesday, calling for the leader of their protests to become prime minister as the country labored through a dramatic political crisis.
The Kremlin is watching with concern as its small but strategic ally, where Russia has a military base, is wracked by nearly two weeks of enormous demonstrations that prompted its former president-turned-prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan, to resign on Monday.
Talks between opposition leader Nikol Pashinian and Karen Karapetian, the acting prime minister, had been expected in the morning but were called off — a decision that sent thousands of anti-government demonstrators back into the streets.
Pressure on the government increased in the evening when the dominant party’s small coalition partner, Dashnaktsutyun, announced it was withdrawing. The move leaves the governing Republican party with a majority of 58 seats in the 105-member parliament.
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Pashinian had been expected to sit down with Karapetian to discuss the political transition after Sargsyan’s abrupt resignation amid the massive protests of his attempts to cling to power.
Karapetian is an ally of Sargsyan, who served as president for 10 years, then became prime minister as Armenia transitioned to a new form of government. It reduced the president’s powers and gave more authority to the prime minister.
The opposition insists that Karapetian step down soon to make way for a new prime minister appointed by a new parliament. The talks were supposed to discuss that transition.
Karapetian said in a statement that the talks with Pashinian were canceled after the opposition made unspecified “unilateral demands,” and Pashinian urged his supporters to take to the streets.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with his Armenian counterpart Armen Sarkisian; both agreed that the disorder should be met with “restraint and responsibility,” according to a Kremlin statement.
About 5,000 people marched in the center of the capital, Yerevan, blocking traffic and chanting “Join us!” Protesters danced and waved the Armenian flag. Outside of Yerevan, demonstrators blocked several major highways including the road to the airport.
“Authorities won’t step down, they are just dragging their feet,” said 24-year-old protester Garik Migranyan. “But we will make them do that. We are the power.”
Armen Tankyan, who was at the main square with his 11-year-old son, said people have lost trust in the authorities, while “the opposition promises change for the better.”
Pashinian said he and his allies would boycott the snap parliamentary election if a member of the ruling Republican Party remains prime minister.
“We will not allow authorities to steal our victory,” Pashinian told supporters. “There will be more of us here with every day until we take power.”
The opposition insisted that “a people’s candidate” should replace Karapetian. Pashinian told the massive rally Wednesday night that he’s ready for the job.
Armenia’s sports minister on Wednesday sided with the protesters, telling the demonstrators on the Republic Square that he is resigning.
Sargsyan said in a statement he is concerned about the tensions in the country and would launch talks with pro-government and ruling parties in search of compromise.
Analysts warned of escalation as the protesters made it clear that they wouldn’t settle just for the ouster of Sargsyan; instead, they seek a genuine change of the whole political leadership.
“Authorities have been retreating every day,” Yerevan-based political analysts Agarov Adibekian said. “The massive street protests are increasing the opposition’s chances to take power.”
Russia has been cautious about taking a stand on the developments in Armenia, in stark contrast to previous years when Moscow routinely dismissed anti-government protests in other former Soviet nations as examples of hostile Western influence.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed hope Wednesday that “our Armenian friends will manage to solve this situation soon.”
Pashinian has been only mildly critical of Russia, a key ally and economic donor for this landlocked Caucasus Mountains nation.
Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed.