Protesters have returned to the streets in Armenia after its Parliament failed to elect a new prime minister, extending the country’s political turmoil.
Members of the ruling Republican Party blocked a bid Tuesday by opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan – the only candidate – to become prime minister, prompting him to call for a nationwide day of protest Wednesday.
Former leader Serzh Sargsyan resigned last month following days of protests in the small former Soviet Republic, which borders Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Georgia. So what’s it all about?
What action are protesters taking?
Protesters brought roads in the capital, Yerevan, to a standstill Wednesday as they called for the Parliament to back the election of Pashinyan, blocking roads leading to Yerevan’s main airport and forcing some passengers to abandon their cars and continue to the terminals on foot.
They also blocked roads to government buildings, including the Ministry of Defense, demonstrator Marina Gasparyan told CNN. “The protesters’ only demand is that the ruling Republican Party should vote for Nikol Pashinyan as PM on May 8 during the next elections,” she said.
Pashinyan, who joined protesters Wednesday as they marched in Yerevan, told state news agency Armenpress that even if faced with violent provocations they would not respond with violence.
What are the next steps for lawmakers?
Armenia’s Parliament will hold a second round of voting on May 8, in a session starting at midday local time. If Parliament again fails to choose an interim prime minister, there must be new elections.
After nearly nine hours of debate on Tuesday, 56 lawmakers voted against Pashinyan and 45 lawmakers voted in favor, Armenpress reported. He needed at least 53 votes to be elected prime minister.
The chamber is controlled by the Republican Party, which won 58 out of 105 seats in parliamentary elections a year ago.
Pashinyan was nominated by the opposition Yelk faction, which holds nine seats, and was endorsed by the remaining two factions, Tsarukyan, with 31 seats, and the ARF, with seven seats, according to Armenpress. In order the win the vote, he would need several more members of the Republican Party to support him.
Pashinyan told Armenpress that he was not certain to stand in snap parliamentary elections if they arise, saying the political situation was continually changing.
Acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan, of the Republican Party, urged lawmakers in a statement published by Armenpress on Wednesday “to display will, determination and flexibility, and sit around one table” to resolve the situation.
“A prime minister can be elected only in the Parliament, constitutionally. There is no other solution – neither theoretically, nor practically,” he said.
What triggered the protests?
Serzh Sargsyan, who had previously served two five-year terms as president, was appointed prime minister on April 17 – just eight days after his presidency ended. The move prompted thousands to take to the streets of Yerevan to protest what was seen as an unconstitutional power grab.
Under constitutional changes Sargsyan promoted in 2015, the prime minister became more powerful than the president, leading to concern of authoritarian rule descending on the country.
As the protests entered their 11th day, Sargsyan – who had previously said he would not try to become prime minster – stepped down. His deputy, Karapetyan, was then named acting prime minister at an emergency cabinet meeting. Sargsyan’s handpicked successor, Armen Sargsyan (no relation) had been sworn in as President on April 9.
According to Laurence Broers, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank’s Russia and Eurasia program, discontent with Serzh Sargsyan had been brewing for years.
He struggled to gain legitimacy after 10 people were killed as protesters were dispersed following his first, narrow 2008 election win, Broers said. Renewed conflict with Azerbaijan in April 2016 did nothing to help.
Meanwhile, Armenians have seen their country, once the poster child for democratization following the collapse of the Soviet Union, stagnate in the hands of an entrenched oligarchy while many citizens choose to leave, Broers said.
“Serzh Sargsyan has come out as a politician who was not really leading Armenia anywhere it needed to go,” Broers said, adding that Sargsyan deserved credit for standing down rather than using violence to try to cling to power.
Who is Pashinyan?
Pashinyan, who has headed the recent protests, is the leader of the opposition Civil Contract party and a former journalist. He cuts a rebellious figure, with images showing him rallying the crowds last month while dressed in camouflage and with a bandaged hand, reportedly injured on barbed wire.
He has called for a campaign of civil disobedience but has insisted it should remain peaceful.
Pashinyan was briefly arrested last month amid the upheaval but was released just before the April 23 announcement that Sargsyan would resign.
Small, focused protests have been increasing in Armenia in recent years, supported by young people who have no memory of the Soviet era, Broers said. He doesn’t ascribe sole credit to Pashinyan for the latest protests, but said the opposition figure “has been very successful in harnessing that desire and that energy for change.”
The crunch now, Broers said, is whether Pashinyan can turn his hand to coalition-building skills, “because people have got to get off the street and into institutions.”
Violence would destabilize the country and put the vested interests of the Republican Party elite at risk, Broers added – another reason to seek consensus. Armenia’s lawmakers will also be aware of the risk that Azerbaijan could seek to capitalize on any instability, said Broers.
What role does Russia play?
Russia and Armenia maintain close relations. Armenia is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, an international body backed by Russia. Moscow is also an important provider of military hardware to Yerevan.
While Russia does not share a border with Armenia, it wields serious regional influence. When fighting broke out in 2016 between Azerbaijan and the Armenia-backed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Russian government quickly brokered a ceasefire.
Russian officials have been measured in their response to the recent protests. Following the resignation of Sargsyan, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova sent a message of support on Facebook.
“A people that has the strength even in the most difficult moments of its history to maintain unity and respect for each other – despite categorical disagreements – is a great people,” she wrote. “Armenia, Russia is always with you!”
But the Kremlin is also suspicious of what Russian officials describe as “colored revolutions” – democratic uprisings that have led to the ouster of friendly governments in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere – as well as opposition demonstrations at home.
What do other countries say?
The European Union has called on all sides in the standoff to “avoid confrontation and show restraint and responsibility, as has been the case in recent days.”
In a statement released after the failed vote by EU spokeswoman for foreign affairs Maja Kocijancic, the EU said it was continuing to encourage all stakeholders “to engage in a comprehensive dialogue.”
The US State Department on Saturday urged all parties “to engage in good-faith negotiations” on forming a new government in line with the national constitution.
“We continue to commend the peaceful nature of the demonstrations, and trust that the security forces and those exercising their right to peaceful protest will remain committed to nonviolence in the days to come,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
CNN’s Gianluca Mezzofiore, Sheena McKenzie and Nathan Hodge contributed to this report.