Armenian President Steps in to Mediate Political Standoff

(Bloomberg) -- Armenian President Armen Sarkissian said he’s trying to defuse a deepening political crisis by mediating between the ruling party and the opposition ahead of a crucial vote in parliament on a new prime minister.

The May 1 vote will “define the future and there’s no other way” to end the standoff as parliament is the ”supreme power,” Sarkissian said in an interview Friday in the capital, Yerevan. “There’s no way we can afford to open the Pandora’s Box of not respecting the constitution,” he said.

The country’s longtime leader, Serzh Sargsyan, stepped down as prime minister abruptly Monday after nearly two weeks of anti-government demonstrations. The dramatic scenes of protesters in the streets were reminiscent of popular uprisings in other former Soviet republics that ousted entrenched ruling clans. But Sargsyan’s Republican Party is so far showing no sign of giving in to what opposition legislator Nikol Pashinyan calls a “velvet revolution.” The government appears to have the backing of Russia, which has deep economic ties and a military base in Armenia. As a result, the parliamentary vote is turning into a showdown.

“Either I will become prime minister or there won’t be a prime minister in Armenia,” Pashinyan told protesters Thursday. Lacking the majority in parliament needed to win, he’s vowed to call for a blockade of the body if Sargsyan ally Karen Karapetyan, who is selected for the post.

Pashinyan said in an interview Friday that he’ll consider talks with Karapetyan if the president offers to host them. “If there is any real concrete suggestion, we will discuss it,” he said. Two previous attempts at direct negotiations between the rivals this week failed.

‘Constructive’ Talks

Sarkissian, a career diplomat without a history of party affiliation, took over the largely ceremonial presidential post April 9. He said he held “constructive” talks with Pashinyan Thursday and plans to meet Karapetyan later Friday. “I am trying hard to bring all the parties together to convince them to talk to each other,” Sarkissian said.

Amid public anger at widespread poverty and official corruption, the opposition is demanding that Karapetyan’s ruling Republican party cede power to Pashinyan before new parliamentary elections are held. The next regularly scheduled vote isn’t until 2022, but if the parliament fails twice to deliver a majority for a new prime minister, the constitution calls for early elections.

Russia is watching events closely. President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone Thursday with Karapetyan, calling for a resolution “exclusively in the legal field, within the framework of the constitution” and highlighting the importance of respecting the results of the April 2017 parliamentary elections, which gave the ruling party its majority, according to a Kremlin statement.

‘Political Wisdom’

Sarkissian said he’d spoken to Putin and many other heads of state about the situation. While “we have friends in many countries and we listen to them,” Armenia is striving to resolve its own problems and “other states should try to restrain their influence,” he said

Sarkissian said longtime ruler Sargsyan “showed political wisdom” by resigning. The massive street protests in the tiny Caucasus republic of 3 million shows the “general unhappiness there is much bigger than just the resignation of one or another person.”

Amid the tensions, however, Sarkissian said he felt “proud” that the mostly young protesters had shown there was enormous energy to achieve change.

“This is a new Armenia because there’s no way back,” he said. “The task for the moment is to put all this energy on the right track so that there’ll be no disappointment.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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