Tens of thousands protest as Armenia crisis deepens

Armenia’s anti-government protest leader Nikol Pashinyan leaves after a televised meeting with Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian who left shortly after it began in an hotel in Yerevan on April 22, 2018, denouncing the opposition’s “blackmail” after 10 days of mass demonstrations against an alleged power grab by Sarkisian. (AFP/Vano Shlamov)
Updated 26 April 2018

Tens of thousands protest as Armenia crisis deepens

  • Russia — which has a military base in Armenia — earlier said it was watching the situation “very closely” but reiterated it would not interfere
  • Demonstrators marched through Yerevan against the ruling Republican Party’s unwillingness to transfer power after its leader and former president Sarkisian stood down from his new post of prime minister

YEREVAN: Armenia’s political turmoil deepened with fresh protests set for Thursday after the opposition accused the ruling party of refusing to cede power following the resignation of veteran leader Serzh Sarkisian.
Protesters clapped, whistled, beat drums, banged pots and tooted car horns in demonstrations that underscored the political crisis gripping the impoverished former Soviet republic.
Many raised their hands in the air — a sign that the protest movement led by opposition lawmaker Nikol Pashinyan is peaceful — and robed priests joined the rallies in an apparent attempt to prevent possible clashes.
Led by 42-year-old Pashinyan, thousands of demonstrators earlier in the day marched through Yerevan against the ruling Republican Party’s unwillingness to transfer power after its leader and former president Sarkisian stood down Monday from his new post of prime minister.
Pashinyan sported his trademark khaki-colored T-shirt and clutched a megaphone as protesters chanted “Nikol for prime minister” and “We are the masters of our country.”
Stepan Grigoryan, a political analyst who joined the rallies, said it was a do-or-die situation, describing the current system as “criminal.”
“The head has been chopped off,” he said, referring to Sarkisian’s resignation Monday, “but the body — the Republican Party — remains and it needs to be removed.”
In a surprise move, Sarkisian, who served as president for a decade, stood down as prime minister just a week after being elected by parliament, following days of protests by demonstrators who accused him of a blatant power grab.
Pashinyan, leader of the Civil Contract Party, had been due Wednesday to hold talks with acting government head Karen Karapetyan to discuss a “peaceful” power transfer. But the negotiations were canceled late Tuesday.
Addressing supporters on Wednesday night, he called on Karapetyan to “immediately recognize our revolution’s victory and abandon his ambitions.
“If the Republican Party dares to present a candidate the people will surround the parliament and government buildings,” he said.
Pashinyan has insisted the new premier must be a “people’s candidate” and not a member of Sarkisian’s party, and has said he is willing to lead the impoverished country.
“We need the Republicans to leave, or else nothing will change,” said Varazdat Panoian, 28, who joined the crowds gathered in the capital.
The Yelk opposition bloc said Wednesday it would nominate Pashinyan for prime minister. But a lawmaker from the bloc, Edmon Marukyan of the Bright Armenia party, said Pashinyan was currently 13 votes short of a majority. A candidate would need 53 votes to get elected.
A small member of the current ruling coalition, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, said it was leaving the coalition on Wednesday evening calling for a new prime minister to be elected to “overcome the political crisis.”
But the move posed no immediate threat to the Republican Party’s rule as it still held 58 seats in parliament.
On Wednesday, Serzh Sarkisian called a meeting with Republican MPs to explain the reasons for his resignation and discuss the party’s future in a statement reported by Armenian media.
“As much as I am determined not to interfere in political processes after my resignation, I now believe that I must do this,” Sarkisian said.
“I invited you to talk about peace and stability,” he said.
Karapetyan, who has accused Pashinyan of promoting his own agenda, proposed holding a snap election so voters themselves could decide on the new leader under a parliamentary system of government.
Armenia’s President Armen Sarkisian, who is no relation to Serzh Sarkisian, and is a ceremonial figurehead, urged compromise.
The Kremlin on Wednesday said Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke to Armen Sarkisian, urging “all political forces in the country to show restraint and responsibility.”
Russia — which has a military base in Armenia — earlier said it was watching the situation “very closely” but reiterated it would not interfere.
Russia hopes that a “stable solution” can be found, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov, stressing that it was however an “internal matter” for the country to deal with.
The opposition had accused 63-year-old Serzh Sarkisian of wanting to extend his grip on power under a new parliamentary system, saying he failed to tackle a litany of problems including poverty and corruption.


In protest clouds, Hong Kong tourists see silver lining

Updated 9 min 19 sec ago

In protest clouds, Hong Kong tourists see silver lining

  • The demonstrations have made it tough for local businesses
  • Tourists are enjoying emptier ques at places like Disney
HONG KONG: No tiresome wait for hugs and kisses from Mickey and Minnie Mouse. No queue at all for Hyperspace Mountain, where thrill-seekers are so scarce that Star Wars’ Admiral Ackbar speaks to himself in the dark.
Tinker Bell gazes out over rows of empty seats on the train to Hong Kong Disneyland that was far busier before tourists were scared off by anti-government protests shaking this international hub for business and fun.
That’s tough for local business but great for Disney fans like Yunice Tsui and her 7 and 4-year-old daughters, adorable in Minnie headbands. With an annual pass to the park she’s already toured nine times, Tsui is better placed than most to size up the body-blow to Hong Kong visitor numbers from the often violent demonstrations, now in their fifth month.
“Before June, you’d generally queue for more than 30 minutes for each ride. For the last few times since July, we’ve been here about two-to-three times, every time it’s about a five-to-six minute wait to queue up for a ride. There are certainly less people, I would say 60% less. Kids are very happy because after a ride, they can go queue up for another one and play again.”
The impact of the protests on tourism is verging on catastrophic for Hong Kong, one of the world’s great destinations and geared up to receive 65 million visitors a year.
On Victoria Peak, restaurants with knock-out nighttime views of the city’s neon-lit skyscrapers stand empty. The snaking lines of tourists for the clicketty-clacketty 19th-century tram to the top are now just a memory.
The Dragon Boat Carnival in June, when protests started: canceled. A Wine & Dine Festival scheduled for the end of this month: scrapped, too. Hong Kong received 2.3 million fewer visitors in August compared with a year earlier, largely trips that people from elsewhere in China are no longer making to the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. September visitor numbers, due Oct. 31, are unlikely to be any better, given recent protest-related violence and chaos.
“It’s deserted,” said Dyutimoy Chakraborty, who runs the Gordon Ramsay Bread Street Kitchen & Bar opposite the Peak Tram. The tram now closes at 10 p.m. instead of midnight, because of “potential demonstrations and protests in the nearby area.”
“Normally, there would be a huge queue,” Chakraborty said on a recent weeknight. “Since the protests started, it has been like this.”
The eatery has lost almost half of its weekday business, he added.
“You think of what you could have made and what you are making at the moment,” he said. “That difference, yes, it hurts.”
Protester leaflets advise, “You’ve arrived in a broken, torn-apart city,” and the protests have at times caused monumental disruptions of traffic and public transport.
But even when the protests have involved hundreds of thousands of people, they’ve generally been confined to only a few areas in this semi-tropical former British colony of 7 million.
And the tourists who come anyway are finding bargain-basement hotel rates, two-for-one deals, easy late checkouts and other sweeteners.
Visiting this month from Taiwan, where he works as a teacher, South African traveler Winand Koch paid the equivalent of just $65 per night for a room in a comfy hotel that was charging nearly quadruple that rate when he first checked a few months back. Of all his trips to Hong Kong, the two-day stay with his sister, Betro, was “one of the best,” he said.
“I’ve never seen Hong Kong this quiet before,” he said. “We didn’t have to queue anywhere. We could get in everywhere.”
Trundling along with suitcases through crowds of demonstrators, hoping to catch a train to the airport a day after protest violence shut down the entire rail network, Koch said he’d enjoyed being “part of history.”
“By accident ran into the protest today,” he said. “But it was fun, actually, the people were all friendly, helping us through ... they even gave us masks.”
Aside from the risk of stumbling unawares into street battles and clouds of police tear gas — as some tourists have to their coughing, spluttering dismay — Hong Kong remains a pleasant city. Visitors of either sex needn’t think twice about venturing out late at night or while wearing valuables. For the moment, the US State Department still only recommends that visitors exercise extra caution. A similarly worded travel advisory from the British government says, “most visits are trouble free.”
Edgar Ruiz said he flew from Mexico “just to see the protests.”
“I wanted to experience it firsthand. This is big!” he said. “I want to be telling people that I was here when this happened, because it is going to be major in history.”
Even some Hong Kong residents are enjoying a respite from the usual floods of visitors, mainly from mainland China. The number of total arrivals has almost doubled over the past decade, from 36 million in 2010 to 65 million last year.
Up on the Peak, Hong Kong-born Isaac Mercado, a 26-year-old banking analyst, was luxuriating in the unusual emptiness.
“We used to have a quiet city,” he said. Now, with fewer visitors, “I get the chance to explore more a bit on my own, and not be crammed with loads of tourists. So, it’s getting more like my home, rather than a tourist city.”