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Saying 'I was wrong,' Armenia's prime minister resigns amid large-scale protests

Saying 'I was wrong,' Armenia's prime minister resigns amid large-scale protests
A man with a national flag around his shoulders brandishes a bottle of sparkling wine in Yerevan to celebrate the resignation of Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan on April 23, 2018. (Hrant Khactaryan / Associated Press)

Serzh Sargsyan, who ruled Armenia for 10 years, resigned Monday as prime minister after thousands of people poured into the streets to protest his political maneuvering to cling to power in this former Soviet republic.

The stunning development touched off jubilation in the capital, Yerevan, with car horns blaring and people dancing, hugging and waving the tricolor Armenian flag. The opposition called for a meeting with the acting prime minister to discuss a "peaceful transfer of power."

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Sargsyan, 63, was president of the Caucasus nation from 2008 until term limits forced him out in March. But parliament, which is controlled by his party, voted to reduce the powers of the presidency and give them to the prime minister, ultimately installing Sargsyan in that post last week.

The move echoed a maneuver a decade ago by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Armenia's closest ally. Leaders of other former Soviet republics, from Belarus to Central Asia, have similarly extended their terms.

The parliament's action had triggered massive anti-government protests in Yerevan since April 13, with demonstrators blocking government buildings and facing off with police. A rally on Sunday attracted about 50,000 people, and about 200 soldiers joined the protesters on Monday.

Protest leader Nikol Pashinian met Sunday with Sargsyan, who walked out of the session after Pashinian refused to talk about anything but the prime minister's resignation. Pashinian was later arrested but released Monday.

In his surprise resignation announcement posted on his website, Sargsyan said he should not have resisted the opposition's demands.

"Nikol Pashinian was right. I was wrong," Sargsyan said. "The movement on the streets is against my rule. I'm complying with their demands."

The government quickly named former Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan as acting prime minister. A Sargsyan ally, he also was mayor of Yerevan and worked in Russia for five years as a top executive of the state-controlled gas giant Gazprom.

Pashinian told an evening rally of tens of thousands of people at Republic Square in Yerevan that opposition activists want to meet with Karapetyan on Wednesday to discuss a "peaceful transfer of power."

The opposition will push for an early parliamentary election to prevent Sargsyan from running Armenia from behind the scenes, Pashinian said.

Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, said the protests pushed Sargsyan into a corner:

"The protests in the past couple of days have swelled to a point that you either had to use violence or find another way out," Iskandaryan told the Associated Press.

UPDATES:

6:55 p.m.: This article was updated with background and comments from Serzh Sargsyan.

This article was originally published at 7:10 a.m.

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