Acting Armenia leader suggests election as protests roll on

YEREVAN (Reuters) - Armenia’s acting prime minister on Wednesday suggested calling a parliamentary election as tens of thousands staged a new protest in the capital against the ruling elite.

Two weeks of demonstrations looked to have peaked on Monday when Serzh Sarksyan quit as prime minister. But the protesters have made clear they consider the whole government tainted by his drive to shift power to the premier from the president.

“The fight is not over!” said 21-year-old Susana Adamyan, clutching a placard calling on others to take a stand.

Although the protests have been peaceful, the upheaval has threatened to destabilize Armenia, an ally of Russia, in a volatile region riven by its decades-long, low-level conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Moscow has two military bases in the ex-Soviet republic, and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Armenian President Armen Sarkissian by phone on Wednesday. They agreed that political forces must show restraint and solve the crisis through dialogue, the Kremlin said.

Hours later, opposition lawmaker Nikol Pashinyan, organiser of the protests, said he had met a Russian official and received an assurance that Moscow would not intervene in the crisis.

Many of the protesters are young, and some held portraits of government officials with faces crossed out with red paint.

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When senior members of the ruling Republican Party appeared nearby, people shouted: “Go home! You’re a disgrace!”

The main opposition bloc plans to nominate Pashinyan to be the next prime minister, opposition lawmaker Edmon Marukyan told Reuters.

“Pashinyan has the people’s trust. I don’t think there will be any problems and, taking this situation into account, lawmakers will vote for his candidacy,” he said.

His campaign received a boost when the second biggest party in parliament said it was joining the protest movement and would support a “people’s candidate”.

In addition, the Dashnaktsutyun party said it was formally leaving the governing coalition and favored an early election.

“Parliament must choose a prime minister who has the people’s trust,” it said in a statement.

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Pashinyan said he had also received promises of support from Republican Party lawmakers.

Ruling party lawmakers in parliament said they were “ready to hold talks with any political forces in the country without preconditions.”

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The legislators also said in a statement that after meetings with Sarksyan, who is still leading the ruling party, and acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan, “the agreement was achieved to replace the leader of the party.”

The demonstrators had accused Sarksyan of manipulating the constitution to cling to power, and celebrated after he quit.

Pashinyan had been due to hold talks on Wednesday with Karapetyan, but they were canceled when the two sides failed to agree an agenda, and Pashinyan declared on Tuesday he was ready to become “the people’s prime minister”.

Karapetyan suggested on Wednesday that a parliamentary election be held to test how much support Pashinyan really had.

“What does ‘people’s candidate’ mean?” he told a news conference. “I don’t know any country where a prime minister is chosen like that. There are elections for that. If he is the people’s choice, that means the people will choose him.”

In response to the statement, tens of thousands of protesters greeted Pashinyan with chants of “Nikol - prime minister!” when he appeared on the central Republic square.

“That is what ‘people’s candidate’ means,” said Gurgen Mkrtchyan, a 24-year-old doctor, as supporters hugged and kissed Pashinyan on his way through the crowd to the stage.

Karapetyan did not specify when an election might be held, but said the economy of the landlocked country of 3 million people would suffer if the crisis continued.

Pashinyan said on Wednesday that protesters had blocked a customs post at the border with neighboring Georgia.

Sarkissian said he would start talks with political forces inside and outside parliament to try to resolve the crisis.

The Kremlin said in a statement that in their call, Sarkissian and Putin had “underlined that all political forces in the country need to exercise restraint and responsibility and a readiness to solve existing problems via constructive dialogue, strictly in the framework of the constitution.”

Reporting by Margarita Antidze and Hasmik Mkrtchyan; Writing by Andrew Osborn and Margarita Antidze; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Peter Cooney