YEREVAN -- Armenia’s ruling party announced on April 28 that it will not nominate a candidate for prime minister in a bid to ease tensions amid the biggest political crisis in the Caucasus nation in years, while the United States urged all parties to engage in "good faith negotiations."
Armenian lawmakers are scheduled to meet on May 1 to vote on a replacement for Serzh Sarkisian, who resigned on April 23 amid massive street demonstrations over his selection as prime minister.
So far, the only candidate to step forward is opposition lawmaker Nikol Pashinian, who was at the forefront of the antigovernment protests that prompted Sarkisian to step down.
A spokesman for the ruling Republican Party (HHK) said the decision not to nominate a HHK candidate was made "to avoid confrontation and destabilization of the country."
The U.S. State Department weighed in on Armenia’s political standoff late on April 28, saying it continues to "closely" monitor the situation.
"As a friend of Armenia, we urge all parties to engage in good faith negotiations on the formation of a new government in accordance with the constitution, and to reach a resolution that reflects the interests of all Armenians."
"We support the ongoing efforts of the office of President [Armen] Sarkissian to facilitate dialogue between all parties. We continue to commend the peaceful nature of the demonstrations, and trust that the security forces and those exercising their right to peaceful protest will remain committed to nonviolence in the days to come," it added.
Instead of nominating their own candidate, Republican lawmakers said they plan to consider all other candidates, then vote as a bloc, according to spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov.
Although the party won't nominate a candidate, individual members apparently could enter the race. Former Prime Minister Karen Karapetian, who was appointed acting prime minister after Sarkisian stepped down, is a party member.
Pashinian told an evening rally on April 28 in Vanadzor, Armenia's third-largest city, that having Karapetian remain in the position would be unacceptable.
"Citizens, the people, must explain to Karen Karapetian that he may not be prime minister of Armenia because the country no longer exists where a Republican can be prime minister or president," he said. "This is another Armenia."
HHK holds 58 seats in the 105-seat parliament, and without its support Pashinian is unlikely to be elected.
However, the second-biggest party in parliament, the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), hinted it might support him.
"My team and I will vote for a people's candidate, whether it's Nikol Pashinian or anyone else nominated by the people," party leader Gagik Tsarukian told Kentron TV.
At an earlier rally on April 28 in the town of Ijevan, Pashinian called on supporters to continue protests and to organize big, nonviolent demonstrations in the capital, Yerevan, on May 1.
"All protest actions, actions of civil disobedience, should be renewed with new force. The victory of the people must be recognized," Pashinian, 42, told a rally.
The current crisis was triggered by Sarkisian's shift earlier this month to the newly powerful post of prime minister after a decade as president -- a move critics charged was a blatant bid to cling to power when he reached the limit of two straight presidential terms.
'No Geopolitical Reversals'
Opposition lawmaker Pashinian, who has been leading the protests for more than two weeks and has emerged as the leader of a popular protest movement, on April 27 promised no "geopolitical reversals" in front of thousands of supporters in Gyumri, the country's second-largest city and host to a large Russian military base.
Russia -- Armenia's main ally and trading partner -- has said it will not intervene in the standoff. However, President Vladimir Putin on April 26 talked on the telephone with Karapetian, a former Gazprom manager, calling for a quick solution to the Armenian crisis -- one that would reflect the outcome of last year's parliamentary elections won by Sarkisian’s HHK, the Kremlin said.
Pashinian on April 28 made stops in several villages and towns before reaching Vanadzor, including a rally in Ijevan, his hometown.
He also wrote on his Facebook page that he held a meeting with the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, on April 27 "to discuss the situation in the country and ways to resolve it."
Pashinian, in his speeches to the local crowds on April 28, repeatedly called on local governments, municipalities, elected representatives in local assemblies, and mayors to publicly announce their joining what he called the "Popular Movement," in an apparent effort to consolidate his public support base.
He also said he was ready to meet with all the ruling party's lawmakers "simultaneously."
“I want to confirm that we are ready for negotiations, and we are interested in resolving these problems as soon as possible," he said in Ijevan.
Late on April 27, Pashinian also told the estimated crowd of 10,000 gathered on Gyumri's main square, "There is one road: choose me as the prime minister of Armenia, as the candidate of you, of the people."
In Gyumri, which hosts 3,000 Russian troops, Pashinian reiterated his position about maintaining good relations with Russia and not dramatically changing Armenia's foreign policy.
"We have said and are saying that after we come to power there will be no geopolitical reversals," he said, vowing that he would keep Armenia in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) -- "not because we love this organization...but because it meets the national interests of the Republic of Armenia."
Pashinian said that, under his stewardship, Armenia would work to make the CSTO "more effective and provide more serious guarantees" for Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh than it has previously.
"Armenia will remain committed to all its international obligations," he said, including its partnership agreement with the European Union and its membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
"This does not mean that we consider that there are no things to improve in that cooperation with the EU and the EEU. And we should seek to make these relations better," he said.
Pashinian was one of seven Armenian lawmakers who voted against the ratification of the EEU treaty in December 2014. Last year, the Yelk opposition alliance that includes Pashinian's Civil Contract and two other opposition parties demanded Armenia's exit from the Russia-led union.
Pashinian's Yelk faction has only nine members in the 105-seat parliament. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), which on April 25 pulled out of the governing coalition with the HHK, has seven.