Armenian Protestors Demand Pashinyan’s Resignation
Since March 9, thousands of opposition supporters have surrounded government buildings and blocked access to the parliament building in Yerevan calling for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation. Police officers dressed in riot gear have not attempted to disperse the crowd, although some altercations have occasionally broken out between police and protestors. Some opposition members of parliament have stood between the demonstrators and police to prevent violence. Since the conclusion of the ceasefire to the November 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War that resulted in Azerbaijan reclaiming parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent previously Armenian-occupied territories, members of Armenia’s opposition have called for Pashinyan’s resignation. The prime minister has defended the November ceasefire as the only option to prevent the complete Azerbaijani takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh.
On February 25, former Chief of the General Staff Onik Gasparyan and other top military officials called for Pashinyan’s resignation over the concessions made in the ceasefire. On March 10, tensions mounted after Pashinyan dismissed Gasparyan and accused him and other high-ranking military officers of attempting a coup by calling for his resignation. Since then, both sides have held rallies in Yerevan, and Pashinyan has suggested holding snap parliamentary elections later in the year but has refused to step down.
On March 11, Pashinyan proposed appointing Atrak Davtyan as the new Chief of the General Staff. However, Prime Minister Armen Sarkisyan refused to accept the new appointment, and also refused to approve the firing of Gasparyan. Pashinyan claimed that Gasparyan’s removal as the Chief of the General Staff was automatic because Sarkisyan did not attempt to appeal the dismissal in the Constitutional Court. Sarkisyan held talks on March13 with Pashinyan, the leader of the My Step party in parliament Lilits Makunts, and the leader of the opposition party Bright Armenia Edmon Marukyan. They discussed the possibility of holding early parliamentary elections, however, other opposition party and group leaders such as the Prosperous Armenia Party and the Homeland Salvation movement refused to attend the meeting but, rather, demanded Pashinyan’ s removal from office.
Continued protests and calls for Pashinyan’s resignation coincided with the European Union-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement coming into force. The Agreement, which was signed in November 2020 and took effect on March 1, aims to bolster relations in the areas of the economy, transportation, digitalization, and green energy. High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell, stated the agreement demonstrated the strong mutual commitment to supporting democratic principles, the rule of law, and broad reforms. Because Armenia still maintains close economic ties with Russia as part of the Eurasian Economic Union, and as Russian troops serve as a peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh, the current political situation will serve as the first test of the strength of new the EU-Armenian Agreement.
With growing protests against Pashinyan and disappointment in the Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement, Armenia announced on March 12 that it would hold military exercises next week, coinciding with the Azerbaijani military drills scheduled to take place March 15-18. The Armenian Defense Ministry said that 7,500 troops, 200 missile and artillery units, about 100 armored vehicles, over 90 anti-aircraft units, and various aircraft would be engaging in tactical and professional maneuvers. Similarly, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry announced that their exercises would include up to 10,000 troops, about 100 tanks and other armored vehicles, up to 200 missile and artillery units, up to 30 aircraft units, and various drones. The Spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova said that the exercises were “planned beforehand” and do not threaten the security or stability of the region.
Although the fighting has ended in Nagorno-Karabakh, discontent with Pashinyan and the ceasefire’s outcome have emphasized Armenia’s political divide. Though Pashinyan remains in power for the time being, Armenia’s political crisis has the potential to change rapidly. The United States and European Union should remain vigilant as the situation progresses. Political instability in Armenia could present Russia with an opportunity to expand its already robust influence in the South Caucasus country.