Police have detained hundreds of protesters during ongoing mass rallies demanding the resignation of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and warning against the concession of Artsakh to Azerbaijan.
Over 10,000 people attended a demonstration at France Square in Yerevan on May 1, launching a week-long series of protests in the capital city and across the country. Sunday’s rally was the culmination of a series of smaller-scale protests organized by the opposition last week. Armenia’s opposition parliamentary factions—the Armenia Alliance and I Have Honor Alliance—launched the protests on April 25 to demand Pashinyan’s resignation.
Following a rally in France Square on Wednesday, opposition deputies, who have been boycotting parliament, marched to the National Assembly to present their demand for Pashinyan’s resignation.
“He implements the ‘Karabakh is Azerbaijan’ propaganda and supports lowering the bar on the status of Artsakh, which reflects the Turkish-Azerbaijani perspective of recognizing Artsakh as part of Azerbaijan,” Armenia Alliance MP Armen Rustamyan said, reading from the written demand.
The opposition deputies started chanting “Armenia without Nikol” and left the chamber, while Pashinyan and the other members of the Civil Contract Party applauded their exit.
Earlier that day, the National Security Service (NSS) said it had received “reliable information” that the protesters intended to seize the National Assembly during Wednesday’s parliamentary sitting. The NSS warned the organizers and participants of the protests to refrain from taking illegal actions, or else the organizers would bear full responsibility for what would follow.
National Assembly Vice President and chair of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Supreme Council of Armenia Ishkhan Saghatelyan denied that the protesters planned to occupy the parliamentary building or stage any provocations.
The opposition movement emerged in response to a controversial speech delivered by Pashinyan at the Armenian National Assembly on April 13. Pashinyan received widespread criticism from political figures and civic activists from Armenia and Artsakh for his call to “lower the bar” regarding the status of Artsakh in negotiations on a peace deal with Azerbaijan. The opposition says that Pashinyan is prepared to cede Artsakh to Azerbaijan.
“Today, the international community again tells us to lower the bar a bit regarding the question of the status of Artsakh, and you will ensure a great international consolidation around Armenia and Artsakh,” Pashinyan said during his address. “Status in the current situation is not a goal, but rather a means to guarantee the security and rights of the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh.”
Police officers have been criticized by human rights defenders and civil society groups for the violent crackdown on the opposition protests. Police arrested at least 244 protesters on Monday and 169 protesters on Tuesday.
Head of the State Protection Service Sargis Hovhannisyan attacked two journalists from news website Mediahub.am covering the protests on Monday. A video circulated online shows Hovhannisyan shouting at the reporter, Nare Gnuni, and hitting her microphone, then kicking the cameraman, Arman Gharajian.
Ombudswoman Kristine Grigoryan released a lengthy statement on Monday condemning the unlawful actions by the police officers. Grigoryan’s office, which has been visiting detainees in jail, recorded that the police have been apprehending citizens without presenting any demands and holding them beyond the legal minimum time limit. The Ombudswoman denounced the “use of disproportionate force” by the police against protesters and specifically called Hovhannisyan’s attack on the Mediahub.am reporters “unacceptable and condemnable.”
President of the National Assembly Alen Simonyan said he deems the actions of the police in response to the demonstrations “proportionate.”
“I thank them for protecting the rights of other citizens and not allowing the various small activities taking place to disturb the rights of other civilians,” he told reporters on May 3.
He also said that he does not believe the country is facing a domestic political crisis.
“Those forces that lost the 2021 elections are now trying to promote themselves with the same actors, same phrases, same aggression, without presenting any concrete propositions to the people of Armenia. Yet it is clear that the people have made their decision and are trying to avoid such steps,” he said.
Journalist Tatul Hakobyan has also criticized the violent crackdown on the protests. “Today’s violence is just as unacceptable as it was in 2016, 2008, 2004, and so on until 1991,” he wrote on Facebook.
One day ahead of the mass rally on May 1, the NSS of Armenia released a statement warning of a “real danger of mass riots.” It said it would neutralize “any kind of actions destabilizing Armenia’s internal stability.”
Saghatelyan announced the start of a “large-scale campaign of disobedience” to topple Pashinyan and his administration during his speech at Sunday’s rally. He called on workers to go on strike and students not to attend classes.
“Our struggle will take place by peaceful means, but we will be decisive to the end. The primary threat to the nation is sitting in the government building,” Saghatelyan said.
Saghatelyan, who has emerged as a protest leader, appealed to the members of parliament representing the Civil Contract Party to use their “last chance to correct their mistake and stand by the people.” He also appealed to the armed forces not to follow the “instructions and illegal decisions of that crazy man.”
“Nikol does not have a mandate to lead the country to new concessions,” Saghatelyan said. “We need to subject the capitulator to capitulation.”