Russian strongman Vladimir Putin on Monday pledged to maintain the Kremlin’s influence in the South Caucasus on a trip to Armenia as hundreds of demonstrators protested a decision to join a Moscow-led customs union.
“Russia is not preparing to leave the South Causcasus. On the contrary, we intend to strengthen our presence here,” Putin said in televised remarks from the town of Gyumri, where he was expected to visit a Russian military base. Around 1,000 people opposed to Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian’s decision to spurn an improved relationship with the European Union in favour of closer Kremlin ties earlier Monday marched through the capital Yerevan.
They carried banners reading “Putin go home” and waved Armenian flags, an AFP reporter saw. A heavy deployment of police blocked the march and several small scuffles broke out between demonstrators and security officials. The protest in Armenia comes amid ongoing demonstrations in Ukraine where some 100,000 people on Sunday took to the streets protesting President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to drop plans to sign a key deal with the EU, International News informs.
About 500 people marched through the capital of Armenia on Monday to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin as he visited the country, and protested against plans to join a Moscow-led customs union, witnesses said.
Some of the crowd in central Yerevan held banners declaring “Putin, go home!” or “No to the USSR!”, a reference to Putin’s efforts to bind former Soviet republics together more closely in economic and security alliances.
Putin flew to the southern Caucasus country for talks on its decision in September to join the customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan but began his visit in another city. He was due in Yerevan later on Monday.
The rally followed much larger protests in Ukraine, which suspended plans to sign a trade deals with the European Union last week and rebuild economic ties with Russia instead.
Kremlin critics in the West accuse Putin of putting pressure on Ukraine, Armenia and other former Soviet republics to back away from agreements that would increase their integration with the EU.
Police blocked a central street as the demonstrators headed closer to the headquarters of President Serge Sarksyan’s administration, and protesters handed over a letter urging the government to renounce its decision to join the customs union, Reuters informs.