Opposition groups in Armenia have rallied in response to the deadly shooting of two men, which law enforcement authorities deny was politically motivated.
The 27-year-old Hmayak Mikaelyan and Tigran Harutyunyan were killed during a quarrel in Nigavan village in the Aragatsotn province on June 19. Opposition political parties and the police have presented vastly different explanations for the motivation behind the shooting.
According to an official report by Armenia’s Investigative Committee, the shooting followed a road rage incident.
A 32-year-old resident of Yerevan and his brother entered into an argument with another driver on the road while passing through the town of Aparan on June 18, according to the police report. A group of local residents got involved in the dispute. The following day, the 32-year-old and his brother met with one of the men who had intervened in the argument at a gas station and allegedly assaulted him.
The group met again that evening near a landfill in Nigavan, where a conversation about the “same issue” continued. Officials say the 32-year-old fired a rifle, killing two people and critically injuring five.
The man suspected of the shooting has been arrested, and a criminal case has been initiated on charges of murder and illegal possesion of weapons.
Local pro-opposition media outlets say the quarrel was instigated after the residents of Aparan made critical remarks about Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
Citing anonymous sources, Politik.am reported that the men responsible for the shooting are the relatives of Civil Contract Party MP Matevos Asatryan and the cousin of deputy governor of the Aragatsotn province Edgar Parvanyan.
These allegations have not been independently verified.
The Armenia Alliance and the I Have Honor Alliance—the two opposition parliamentary factions—organized street protests in the capital city Yerevan blaming the ruling Civil Contract Party for the shooting.
Followers of the two opposition parties gathered in France Square on June 20 and marched to the police department, the National Security Service building and the office of the Civil Contract Party. Demonstrators held signs reading “Stop terrorism,” “Stop the killer” and “We are all victims of Nikolism.” They poured red paint outside the Civil Contract Party office and left toy guns on the street.
“Yesterday another bloody incident took place with the participation of the ruling authorities of Armenia,” read a statement by the Armenia Alliance calling people to the rally. “Those responsible for creating this atmosphere of permissiveness must be removed,” the statement continued.
Armen Ashotyan, vice president of the Republican Party, which is part of the I Have Honor Alliance, said that the ruling party has become a gang.
“Yesterday’s bloody events proved that the Civil Contract Party has turned into a gang. After the regime change in Armenia, the activities of the Civil Contract Party must be banned, as well as their leaders from holding public office,” Ashotyan wrote on Facebook.
Secretary of the Civil Contract Party Artur Hovhannisyan denied that the shooting was politically motivated. He said that the protests outside of the Civil Contract Party office were of the “absurd genre.”
“To connect any unfortunate accident that takes place in this country to political processes is, at the very least, immoral,” Hovhannisyan told reporters.
Civil Contract Party MP Matevos Asatryan, who local media outlets say was related to the murderer, has denied any family connection to the shooting.
“The news spread in the press and by some immoral political actors for several hours now that members of my family or I participated in the tragic incident hours ago are absolutely false and have nothing to do with reality,” Asatryan wrote on Facebook.
“It is clear that those who have made murder a cherished belief are trying to cast us as equal to them with these false reports. It won’t succeed,” he continued.
The Armenia Alliance and I Have Honor Alliance had organized daily protests for one and a half months to demand the removal of Pashinyan and his administration from power. On June 14, the opposition movement announced that it would change its tactics.
The protests began on April 25 and increased in momentum on May 1, when the opposition set up a tent camp in France Square in central Yerevan. The movement responded to Pashinyan’s call to “lower the bar” regarding the status of Artsakh in negotiations on a peace deal with Azerbaijan, which the opposition saw as Pashinyan’s preparedness to cede Artsakh to Azerbaijan.
On June 15, the movement dismantled its tent camp in France Square.
Vice president of the National Assembly from the Armenia Alliance Ishkhan Saghatelyan, who emerged as the protest leader, said in a speech on June 14 that the movement had not succeeded in attracting many of the people who are dissatisfied with Pashinyan’s administration.
“There are still people who think this is a fight for power, for the return of former rulers to power,” Saghatelyan said. “We have not yet managed to get all those people to the streets and to bring them to this square.”
Saghatelyan said that the opposition MPs would end their weeks-long boycott of parliament while holding less frequent rallies.
“We will definitely oust Nikol, but we will do that bloodlessly,” he said.