Armenian authorities deployed snipers in the parliament building as thousands of protesters rallied nearby, and launched a criminal investigation against a top opposition leader amid the country’s spiralling political crisis.
Thousands of opposition supporters rallied in the Armenian capital on Wednesday to demand the prime minister’s resignation, amid a heavy presence of security forces.
Nikol Pashinyan has faced opposition demands to step down since he signed a November peace deal that ended fierce fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, in which Azerbaijan routed the Armenian forces.
The political tensions escalated last week when the military’s General Staff demanded Mr Pashinyan’s resignation, and he responded by firing the chief of the General Staff, Colonel General Onik Gasparyan.
About 10,000 opposition demonstrators rallied outside the parliament building on Wednesday as Mr Pashinyan arrived to attend a session.
As part of tight security measures, security agents armed with sniper rifles took positions in the building’s windows and on its roof and remotely controlled stun grenades were placed in a park outside.
Vazgen Manukyan, a veteran politician who the opposition named as a prospective caretaker prime minister, denounced the security measures as an attempt by Mr Pashinyan to scare his opponents.
The country’s top investigative agency said on Wednesday it had accused the 75-year-old Mr Manukyan – who served as prime minister between 1990 and 1991 when Armenia was still part of the Soviet Union and served as defence minister when it became independent – of making calls for the seizure of power and violent change of the constitutional order.
The prime minister’s order to dismiss the chief of the General Staff is subject to approval by Armenia’s largely ceremonial president, Armen Sarkissian, who has refused to endorse it.
Some legal experts argued that the order would take effect automatically following Mr Sarkissian’s failure to contest it in the nation’s high court, but others pointed to legal caveats that could allow the top military officer to stay on.
Mr Manukyan, the opposition leader, warned that if Mr Pashinyan managed to force the military chief out, the army would be likely to disobey the prime minister.
As part of manoeuvring to defuse the political crisis, Mr Pashinyan offered to hold a snap parliamentary vote later this year but rejected the opposition’s demand to step down before the poll and let a caretaker successor take the helm.
Mr Pashinyan has faced opposition demands to resign since November 10 when a Russia-brokered peace deal ended six weeks of intense fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The 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.
Mr Pashinyan, a 45-year-old former journalist who came to power after leading large street protests in 2018 that ousted his predecessor, still enjoys wide support despite the defeat in the fighting that lasted 44 days and killed more than 6,000 people.
He has argued that the peace deal was the only way 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.
Russia has deployed about 2,000 peacekeepers to monitor the peace deal.