Political tensions in Armenia have intensified, with supporters of the embattled prime minister and the opposition each holding rival rallies in the capital.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has faced opposition demands to resign since he signed a peace deal in November that ended six weeks of intense fighting with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The Russia-brokered agreement saw Azerbaijan reclaim control over large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas that had been held by Armenian forces for more than a quarter of a century.
Opposition protests seeking Mr Pashinyan’s ouster abated during the winter but intensified again last week amid Mr Pashinyan’s rift with the country’s top military.
The spat was sparked by Mr Pashinyan firing a deputy chief of the military’s General Staff who laughed off his claim that only 10% of Russia-supplied Iskander missiles that Armenia used in the conflict exploded on impact.
The General Staff then demanded Mr Pashinyan’s resignation, and the prime minister responded by dismissing the General Staff chief, Colonel General Onik Gasparyan. The dismissal is yet to be approved by the nation’s largely ceremonial president, Armen Sarkissian, who sent it back to the prime minister, claiming that the move was unconstitutional.
Mr Pashinyan quickly resubmitted the demand for the general’s ouster, and his allies are warning that the president could be impeached if he fails to endorse the move.
Mr Sarkissian’s office responded with a strongly worded statement condemning “inadmissible speculation” about his move and emphasising that his decision was “unbiased and driven exclusively by national interests”.
Addressing a rally of thousands of his supporters, Mr Pashinyan voiced hope the president would endorse the dismissal of the General Staff’s chief for meddling in politics.
He blamed the country’s former leader who lost power in the 2018 “velvet revolution” for influencing the military and trying to “set the army against the legitimately elected authorities and the people”.
The prime minister also suggested calling a constitutional referendum in October to ask voters about expanding presidential powers to avoid future crises, although he did not spell out specific changes.
After an hour-long speech, Mr Pashinyan led his supporters on a march across Yerevan under the heavy escort of police and security officers.
Thousands of opposition supporters rallied at a separate location, demanding that the prime minister resign, and some later marched to the president’s residence to support him in the rift with Mr Pashinyan.
The two marches proceeded along separate routes amid tight police cordons. At one point, scuffles broke out between some from the rival camps, but police quickly pulled them apart.
Amid the escalating tensions, a group of protesters broke into a government building in central Yerevan on Monday to press their demand for Mr Pashinyan’s resignation, but left shortly after without violence. Later on Monday, Mr Pashinyan’s supporters and the opposition plan rival rallies in the Armenian capital.
Mr Pashinyan, a former journalist who came to power after leading massive street protests in 2018 that ousted his predecessor, still continues to enjoy broad support despite the country’s humiliating defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh and the opposition calls for his resignation.
The prime minister defended the peace deal as a painful but necessary move to prevent Azerbaijan from overrunning the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region, which lies within Azerbaijan but was under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994.
The fighting with Azerbaijan that erupted in late September and lasted for 44 days has left more than 6,000 people dead. Russia has deployed about 2,000 peacekeepers to monitor the November 10 peace deal.
Armenia has relied on Moscow’s financial and military support and hosts a Russian military base – ties that will keep the two nations closely allied regardless of the outcome of the political infighting.