YEREVAN -- Armenian President Armen Sarkisian met protest leader Nikol Pashinian on April 21 in Yerevan's central Republic Square, where thousands demonstrated for a ninth consecutive day against the country’s newly elected prime minister.
Flanked by bodyguards, Sarkisian shook hands with the opposition lawmaker, and the two men spoke for around 10 minutes, before the president left the square.
The president has earlier called for a dialogue to end street protests as demonstrators demand the resignation of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who was named premier after his 10-year stint as president ended two weeks ago.
Opponents says the shift effectively makes Serzh Sarkisian a leader for life. In a 2015 referendum, backed by Serzh Sarkisian, Armenia transitioned to a new system of government that reduces the presidency's power and bolsters the prime minister’s role.
Demonstrators in Republic Square chanted “President, reject Serzh!” as President Armen Sarkisian – who is not related to Serzh Sarkisian – spoke with Pashinian.
Addressing the rally later in the evening, Pashinian said that during the brief conversation with the president he reiterated the demand of protesters for the prime minister’s resignation.
Pashinian said he told the president that he would only negotiate with the government “the terms of Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation and a peaceful transition of power.”
Amid a slow drizzle and cooler temperatures, demonstrators flooded into the streets on April 21, chanting slogans such as “Make a stand, say no to Serzh.”
Pashinian again rejected calls from Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian for immediate talks to end the protests, as police made dozens of arrests and threatened further action.
Earlier on April 21, Prime Minister Sarkisian sought a "political dialogue" with the protest leader.
“I am deeply concerned about the inner-political developments. In order to avoid irreparable losses, I urge Nikol Pashinian to sit at the political dialogue and negotiations table. It should be done immediately,” he said in a statement posted on his website.
Pashinian, however, said that protesters were ready to discuss the terms of Sarkisian’s dismissal.
“We do not want vendettas, we do not want revenge. We want the transfer of power to the people,” Pashinian said.
Police said that by mid-afternoon, 70 people had been detained in different parts of the capital, while the Justice Ministry warned that officials have the right to disperse the protesters.
Hundreds have been detained in Yerevan in recent days as police seek to stop opposition supporters from blocking streets and paralyzing the capital.
Protesters also rallied in Armenia's second-largest city, Gyumri, and in Vanadzor, the third-largest city in the country of about 3 million people. Several protesters were detained in Vanadzor on April 21.
In Artashat, a town about 30 kilometers south of Yerevan, Arus Hakobian, a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Armenian service, was assaulted while streaming live video of an argument between government loyalists and opposition supporters.
Hakobian said that police officers present during the attack, which left the correspondent with a bloody mouth, did nothing to prevent the violence:
Armenian authorities have repeatedly warned journalists to stay “at a reasonable distance” from the sites where police are “carrying out their lawful actions.”
On April 19, Tirayr Muradian, a reporter for the website of the Union of Informed Citizens, an NGO, was beaten up by unknown men and hospitalized with head injuries while covering the protests near the government building, despite identifying himself as a journalist.
The following day, Muradian was forcefully removed from the scene of a protest on a highway outside Yerevan where he said he was covering the event.
Police warned in a statement on April 21, as they have in previous days, that they would “no longer tolerate the unlawful behavior of the organizers of the unlawful gathering and the persons guided by them.”
PHOTO GALLERY by RFE/RL's Amos Chapple: Marches, More Arrests On Ninth Day Of Protests In Yerevan (click to view)
“During illegal assemblies, including marches, Nikol Pashinian and his instructors periodically and grossly violate some provisions of the RA Law on Freedom of Assembly,” the statement said.
Video footage from April 20 showed men in plainclothes shoving protesters into unmarked cars. It was unclear whether they were police officers and whether those they apprehended were counted among those officially detained.
The United States has urged both the authorities and protesters to exercise restraint and avoid violence, and Russia has said that laws should not be broken.
The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) urged the Armenian authorities to protect and ensure the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in the country.
Serzh Sarkisian stepped down as president when Armen Sarkisian -- his handpicked successor -- was sworn in on April 9 after being elected by parliament. On April 17, parliament elected Serzh Sarkisian as prime minister -- a post that is more powerful than the presidency following the referendum.