Tens of thousands of Armenians shut down capital in show of defiance

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Supporters of Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan react, after his bid to be interim prime minister was blocked by the parliament, during a rally in central Yerevan, Armenia on May 1, 2018. (REUTERS)
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Armenian opposition supporters ride on a truck at Republic Square after protest movement leader Nikol Pashinyan announced a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience in Yerevan, Armenia, on May 2, 2018. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)
Updated 03 May 2018

Tens of thousands of Armenians shut down capital in show of defiance

  • The poor, Moscow-allied nation was plunged into its most serious political crisis in years last month when mass demonstrations forced the resignation of longtime leader Serzh Sargsyan
  • Armenians’ famed good humor and temperament were on full display as they turned the general strike into a colorful spectacle

YEREVAN: Tens of thousands of Armenians converged on the capital Wednesday, blocking key transport links and government buildings, as popular anger exploded over the ruling party’s rejection of opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan’s bid to become prime minister.

In an unprecedented show of defiance, protesters including elderly people, pupils and even housewives paralyzed Yerevan, with streets closed to traffic, and the subway and numerous stores shut.

The poor, Moscow-allied nation was plunged into its most serious political crisis in years last month when mass demonstrations led by Pashinyan forced the resignation of longtime leader Serzh Sargsyan.

Crowds of protesters across the city Wednesday waved national flags, blew vuvuzelas and shouted “Free, independent Armenia!,” turning a new day of rallies into a street carnival.

Leading supporters on a march, Pashinyan pledged to ramp up pressure on the authorities.

“Various scenarios are under discussion; under each scenario, the people will win,” said Pashinyan who was wearing his trademark khaki-colored T-shirt and a baseball cap.

Suburban train services were disrupted and the road linking Yerevan with its airport was blocked, forcing travelers to drag their luggage on foot.

The central bank warned Armenians against a run on banks, saying it was capable of ensuring the “stability of the country’s financial system.”

Protesters said they would persist for as long as it takes to oust the ruling elites from power to rid the country of poverty and corruption.

“The people will not give up, protests will not subside,” said Sergey Konsulyan, a 45-year-old businessman.

Student Gayane Amiragyan, 19, added: “We will win because we are united, the whole Armenian people are united.”

On social media, Armenians launched a “name and shame” campaign against lawmakers, forcing the Parliament speaker to ask them to stop harassing MPs.

“I urge a halt to the persecution of lawmakers, stop insulting them on social media, on the streets and public places and publishing their addresses and phone numbers,” said Ara Babloyan.

In Parliament, lawmakers could not convene for a session due to the absence of a quorum, with the Prosperous Armenia party declaring a boycott over “an emergency situation in the country.”

Lawmakers will try to elect a prime minister next Tuesday, Babloyan said. If they fail again, the legislature will be dissolved and early elections called.

In the second city of Gyumri — which hosts a Russian military base — and the smaller town of Maralik, demonstrators burst into the mayor’s offices, demanding the local authorities join the protest movement.

Acting head of government Karen Karapetyan urged talks to end the crisis.

“A prime minister should only be elected in parliament according to the constitution,” he said.

Armenians’ famed good humor and temperament were on full display as they turned the general strike into a colorful spectacle, performing the country’s national dance at the roadblocks and grilling meat.

A photo of a little boy blocking a street with his tiny toy cars went viral, as did a picture of a coffin outside the offices of the ruling party in the small town of Artik.

Pashinyan urged Armenians to launch a general strike after the ruling Republican Party on Tuesday shot down his bid for prime minister following weeks of protests against Sargsyan and Armenia’s corrupt elite.

Parliament voted 45 in favor to 55 against Pashinyan, with Sargsyan’s Republican Party saying he was not a suitable candidate for the top job.

Pashinyan — who was the sole candidate in the running for prime minister— was widely expected to get elected.

But his failure has plunged the Moscow-allied nation into uncertainty, with observers expressing concern that the turmoil could destabilize the country and the wider region.

Pashinyan has ruled out any possibility of clashes between protesters and police but the risk of violence has not been lost on politicians in a country locked in a decades-long territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.

Pashinyan’s protest movement had accused Sargsyan and his party of a power grab, saying the former leader wanted to extend his grip on power by becoming premier after serving as president for a decade, despite failing to tackle a litany of problems.

France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

Updated 19 May 2019

France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

  • His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent
  • In his country, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron sees himself as Europe’s savior and next week’s European Parliament elections as a make-or-break moment for the beleaguered European Union.
But Macron is no longer the fresh-faced force who marched into a surprising presidential victory to the rousing EU anthem two years ago. His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent. And at home, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies.
Macron wanted the May 23-26 European Parliament elections to be the key moment that he could push his ambitions for a stronger Europe — but instead, nationalists and populists who criticized the 28-nation bloc could achieve unprecedented success.
They argue that EU leaders have failed to manage migration into the continent and remain out of touch with ordinary workers’ concerns.
“We have a crisis of the European Union. This is a matter of fact. Everywhere in Europe, when you look at the past five to six years, in our country but in a lot of countries, all the extremes, extreme-rights, are increasing,” Macron said Thursday, making an unexpected appeal for European unity on the sidelines of a technology trade show.
“On currency, on digital, on climate action, we need more Europe,” he said. “I want the EU to be more protective of our borders regarding migration, terrorism and so on, but I think if you fragment Europe, there is no chance you have a stronger Europe.”
In person, the 41-year-old Macron comes across as strikingly, sincerely European. A political centrist, he’s at ease quoting Greek playwrights, German thinkers or British economists. France’s youngest president grew up with the EU and has been using the shared European euro currency his whole adult life, and sees it as Europe’s only chance to stay in the global economic game.
Macron has already visited 20 of the EU’s 28 countries in his two years in office, and while he acknowledges the EU’s problems, he wants to fix the bloc — not disassemble it.
Macron won the 2017 presidential election over France’s far-right, anti-immigration party leader Marine Le Pen on a pledge to make Europe stronger to face global competition against the Unites States and China. Since then, he’s had to make compromises with other EU leaders — and clashed with some nations where populist parties govern, from Poland to neighboring Italy.
Four months after his election, Macron outlined his vision for Europe in a sweeping speech at Paris’ Sorbonne university, calling for a joint EU budget, shared military forces and harmonized taxes.
But with Brexit looming and nationalism rising, Macron has had to reconsider his ambitions. He called his political tactics with other EU leaders a “productive confrontation.”
“In Europe, what is expected from France is to clearly say what it wants, its goals, its ambitions, and then be able to build a compromise with Germany to move forward” with other European countries, Macron said last week.
Macron stressed that despite her initial reluctance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed last year to create a eurozone budget they hope will boost investment and provide a safety mechanism for the 19 nations using the euro currency.
In March, Macron sought to draw support for a Europe of “freedom, protection and progress” with a written call to voters in 28 countries to reject nationalist parties that “offer nothing.”
And he proposed to define a roadmap for the EU by the end of this year in a discussion with all member nations and a panel of European citizens.
“There will be disagreement, but is it better to have a static Europe or a Europe that advances, sometimes at different paces, and that is open to all?” he asked.
France and Germany are the two heavyweights in Europe, and Macron can also count on cooperation from pro-European governments of Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and others.
He has made a point, however, of not yet visiting Hungary or Poland, two nations led by populist leaders whom Macron accused last year of “lying” to their people about the EU.
France has also been entangled in a serious diplomatic crisis with Italy over migration into Europe. Italy’s anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has repeatedly criticized Macron and is backing his rival Le Pen’s National Rally party in the election this week that aims to fill the European parliament’s 751 seats.
Macron has little chance to repeat Europe-wide what he did in France: rip up the political map by building a powerful centrist movement that weakened the traditional left and right.
The campaign for Macron’s Republic on the Move party is being led by former European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau under a banner called “Renaissance.” The party wants to associate with the pro-market ALDE alliance to create new centrist group at the European Parliament.
But across the continent, the centrists are not expected to come out remotely on top but rank third or even lower behind the parliament’s traditional two biggest groups, the right-wing European People’s Party and the left-wing Socialists and Democrats group.
Even at home, Macron is far from certain of being able to claim victory in the European vote. Polls suggest his party will be among France’s top two vote-getters in the election, which takes place in France on May 26.
But its main rival, the far-right National Rally party, is determined to take revenge on Macron beating Le Pen so decisively in 2017.
Macron’s political opponents across the spectrum are calling on French voters to seize the European vote to reject his government’s policies.
While he won 64% of the presidential vote in 2017, French polls show that Macron’s popularity has been around half that for the past year.
It reached record lows when France’s yellow vest movement broke out last fall, demanding relief from high taxes and stagnant wages for French workers, then slightly rose as extensive violence during yellow vest protests, especially in Paris, dampened support for the movement’s cause.
Still, the yellow vests are not going away. New protests against Macron and his government are planned for the EU election day.