YEREVAN -- Thousands of Armenians have converged to Yerevan’s central Republic Square, seeking to keep up a protest movement following the election of longtime former President Serzh Sarkisian as prime minister.
The rally followed daylong pickets and marches around the capital on April 18, and police detained dozens of demonstrators as they tried to block streets and interrupt traffic.
Addressing the rally on Republic Square, opposition leader Nikol Pashinian urged people across Armenia to put pressure on local authorities to make statements in support of the protest movement, saying it would help achieve a change of government.
The opposition lawmaker also called for sit-ins inside administrative buildings and government offices across the country "so that even Serzh Sarkisian himself has no place to sit," and reiterated his call on demonstrators to remain peaceful.
Pashinian later called on the protesters to gather in front of the government offices on Republic Square at 8 a.m. local on April 19 to try to prevent ministers from attending Sarkisian's first cabinet meeting.
Earlier in the day, Pashinian led a crowd of hundreds to Sarkisian's office on Marshal Bagramian Avenue, a main thoroughfare near parliament, after pledging to expand daily "blockades" of key government buildings.
Police deployed in force in nearby France Square, where they detained a number of protesters and restored traffic. Riot police with shields stood along the street adjacent to the square to ensure uninterrupted traffic.
In front of government offices, demonstrators called on civil servants to take part in the protest movement "for their future, freedom, and homeland."
They also staged a brief protest in front of the mayor's office, where they clapped their hands and chanted: "Take a step. Reject Serzh."
Protesters also entered the campus of Yerevan State University, where Pashinian called on students to boycott classes and join the protests. Protesters chanted: "Join! Join! Join!"
The national police force issued a statement urging the media to remain "at a reasonable distance" from the protests, where it said police were "stopping violations of public order."
Police told RFE/RL that 66 protesters were detained as of noon Yerevan time.
Sarkisian's ruling Republican Party of Armenia called on Pashinian to engage in dialogue, warning that it would be "politically shortsighted to continue to abuse the government's political will and patience."
"Dialogue can take place in parliament," HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov, who is also deputy parliament speaker, told RFE/RL.
The United States urged both sides to exercise restraint and avoid violence, and Russia said that laws should not be broken.
The fresh protest came a day after parliament voted in Sarkisian as prime minister, cementing his continued dominance of power after a decade as president, and tens of thousands of people protested in central Yerevan.
“A nonviolent, velvet, popular revolution has begun in Armenia,” Pashinian told the crowd in the city's central Republic Square on April 17. He asked supporters to stop spending nights at an intersection they had occupied for four days but urged them to come back out into the streets during the day.
PHOTO GALLERY (click to view): Protests In Armenia (photos by RFE/RL's Amos Chapple)
The demonstrators held Armenian flags and chanted "Armenia without Serzh," and Pashinian told them that "Sarkisian lacks legitimacy and has earned the hatred of Armenians." Protests were also held in other cities including Gyumri and Vanadzor, according to local media.
The national police force issued a statement on April 18 urging the media to remain "at a reasonable distance" from the protests, where it said police were "stopping violations of public order."
Shortly after midnight, a group of men damaged traffic lights, advertisement boards, and traffic signs in downtown Yerevan and threw them on the street.
A video circulated on Facebook appears to show police attempting to disperse them as they resist and throwing metal objects at police vehicles.
Pashinian issued a statement saying that the men were not part of the protests and that their actions could have been a provocation by the authorities. He called on the protesters to avoid the location.
On April 17, parliament voted 76-17 with no abstentions to make Sarkisian prime minister. The vote came eight days after his presidency ended and his hand-picked successor, Armen Sarkisian was elected president by parliament.
Police detained at least 80 protesters on April 17 in Yerevan, where crowds have been rallying for days against what protesters say was a blatant and carefully choreographed plan by Serzh Sarkisian to retain power after hitting his term-limit barrier as president.
President Armen Sarkisian, who is not related to Serzh Sarkisian, issued a statement the same day warning against disturbances.
"The view of every citizen of the Republic of Armenia is important for the country. However, violence, unlawful acts and restrictions of other citizens' rights must be ruled out in the process of a free expression of their will," the statement said.
Dozens of protesters were hurt in clashes with police barring the path to parliament on April 16.
Police said in a statement on April 17 that they will take "legitimate measures dictated by the state to ensure the normal functioning of state structures" after Pashinian called on protesters to block government buildings and agencies as part of the protest.
The United States is "monitoring closely ongoing protests in downtown Yerevan and other cities in Armenia," the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
"We encourage both government authorities and the protesters to exercise restraint and avoid any escalatory or violent actions," the statement posted on the U.S. Embassy's Facebook page on April 18 said.
Human Rights Watch urged the Armenian authorities to refrain from the use of force against demonstrators, noting that in the past few years police have repeatedly used violent force in Yerevan, mainly to disperse peaceful rallies.
"Any response from the police should be proportionate and comply with UN standards," the New York-based rights watchdog said. "It's never too late for the Armenian police to abandon the disproportionate force of their traditional bad practices."
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that the Kremlin was following the situation in Yerevan and hoped developments will remain "within the framework of the law."
Former President Robert Kocharian had a telephone conversation with Serzh Sarkisian during which he congratulated him on his election, Kocharian's office said.
Kocharian, who was president between 1998 and 2008, in the past has publicly criticized the constitutional reform initiated by Sarkisian.
Serzh Sarkisian was first elected in 2008 in the South Caucasus country of about 3 million people and served two terms. He has maintained warm ties with Russia, which Armenia relies on for aid and investment more than a quarter-century after the Soviet collapse.
Under a shift that was approved in a 2015 referendum and is now in place, Armenia changed its form of government and handed more powers to the prime minister, downgrading the president -- now also elected by parliament -- to more of a figurehead. Sarkisian had promised in the past that would not seek to be prime minister, and Pashinian and other opposition leaders accuse him of breaking that pledge.
Sarkisian disputed those accusations in a speech to parliament ahead of the vote on April 17, saying that his previous statements were taken “out of context” and that in a parliamentary republic, the leader of the ruling party should also serve as prime minister.
He contended that if someone else were to become prime minister, it could lead to to the appearance of a “shadow” government situation in which the ruling party leader governs de facto, instead of the prime minister, but is able to evade responsibility for developments in the country.
The ruling Republican Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) factions, which together have a majority in parliament, unanimously chose Sarkisian as the nominee for the prime minister's post earlier in April, and the protests began on April 13.