YEREVAN, Armenia — Carnivalesque street parties filled the center of Yerevan on Wednesday as university students went on strike amid fresh protests, after the government scrapped talks with the opposition aimed at resolving the political uprising.
The setback in negotiations to form a new government put the onus on the opposition’s charismatic leader, Nikol Pashinyan, to keep the pressure up.
As Pashinyan pushed to complete the bloodless revolution that aims to shake off decades of authoritarian rule and widespread corruption in the tiny country, jubilant young protesters danced in triumph before columns of riot police who had closed the main streets. In the blazing sunshine, people clambered on top of honking cars in excitement, while shopkeepers came out on the streets to wave and cheer in solidarity. Demonstrations continued as well in villages and towns across the impoverished country.
Time is likely on Pashinyan’s side. By constitutional law, Armenia’s parliament must put forward the name of a new prime minister by Monday, which will mark one week since Serzh Sargsyan was ousted from the post.
Taking to a stage to address huge crowds Wednesday evening, the 42-year old Pashinyan called for a nationwide workers’ strike on Thursday, and a 20-minute halt in traffic in the middle of the day.
“We have won and there is no one who can undermine this fact,” he told an ecstatic mass of mostly young people.
By Pashinyan’s reckoning, it is only a matter of time before acting prime minister Karen Karapetyan, a close Sargsyan ally, steps down. “We’re just waiting,” he told The Washington Post, his voice hoarse from delivering rousing speeches, between meetings with the ambassadors of Russia and the United States. “Maybe one, maybe two days more.”
In the past two weeks of unrest, Moscow and Washington have been assiduously watching events unfold in the former Soviet country of 3 million. The Kremlin said Wednesday it would “keep a wary eye on this situation,” while Washington urged “all sides to engage constructively, within the legal framework of the Armenian constitution, to ensure a peaceful transition of power,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday.
Should Pashinyan succeed in his quest, Armenia will join a small group of former Soviet republics, notably Ukraine and Georgia, to hold pro-democracy revolutions since the collapse of the Soviet Union just over a quarter-century ago. But, unlike those countries, the thrust of the Armenian uprising is not shaped by a desire to be free from Russian influence.
A former newspaper journalist, Pashinyan became an opposition activist as a young man, and entered parliament last year. He says he takes inspiration from the peaceful transitions of power under Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. And, like both men, Pashinyan has run into trouble with the authorities for encouraging dissent, even spending a year in hiding a decade ago.
Persuasive and intense, he dresses in a uniform of sorts: a camouflage-print T-shirt, black baseball cap and backpack. Sporting a scruffy beard, and with his right hand wrapped in gauze bandages from a run-in with barbed wire at the beginning of the protests, he cuts a figure of a rebel, far removed from the typically buttoned-up men who have filled the ranks of Armenian government.
Key to Pashinyan’s vision for Armenia are the elimination of widespread graft and the establishment of a transparent electoral system. He has repeatedly addressed the need to boost the country’s economy, by reducing the culture of easy (and questionable) loans and investing in trade with other countries
He was first drawn to politics “as a schoolchild, when I was 13 years old, and the Karabakh movement began,” he told The Post, referring to the peaceful, pro-Armenian uprising of the late 1980s, preceding the bloody war in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region from Azerbaijan, a conflict still simmering today. “That’s when I became interested in democracy,” he said.
One of his mentors, political analyst and former government adviser Stepan Grigoryan, described how once Pashinyan emerged from the shadows, he was unstoppable. “If the government doesn’t let him become prime minister, he will go there himself and force them to vote him in.”
Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.