Opposition in Armenia maintains blockade of parliament

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Police wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus, block opposition demonstrators during a rally to pressure Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign in Yerevan, Armenia, Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Thousands of opposition supporters blockaded the Armenian parliament building and engaged in occasional scuffles with police on Tuesday to press a demand for the country's prime minister to step down. (Stepan Poghosyan/PHOTOLURE via AP)

YEREVAN – Hundreds of opposition supporters maintained the blockade of the Armenian parliament for a second straight day Wednesday demanding the resignation of the country’s embattled prime minister.

Nikol Pashinyan has rejected the opposition’s pressure to step down over a November peace deal that ended six weeks of fierce fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh by allowing Azerbaijan to reclaim control over lands that had been held by Armenian forces for decades.

Political tensions spiked last month when the military’s General Staff demanded Pashinyan’s resignation, and he responded by firing the chief of the General Staff, Col. Gen. Onik Gasparyan. Pashinyan on Wednesday named a successor to Gasparyan and met with the top military brass.

Gasparyan denounced his ouster as unconstitutional and reaffirmed the call for the prime minister's resignation.

Another senior officer, Maj. Gen. Grigory Khachaturov, who is the commander of the 3rd Army Corps, backed Gasparyan in a strongly-worded statement Wednesday, saying that “every day and hour Pashinyan remains on the job of prime minister erodes Armenia's security and raises doubts about its future.”

As part of efforts to raise pressure on Pashinyan, opposition supporters surrounded the parliament building on Tuesday. Hundreds of demonstrators maintained the blockade on Wednesday amid a heavy police presence.

They later expanded their action to block a nearby street leading to Pashinyan's residence.

Speaking at the opposition rally, one of the protest leaders, Ishkhan Saghatelyan, accused the government of violating the constitution, charging that it has given people the right to rebel against it.

Pashinyan has sought to defuse the political crisis by offering to hold an early parliamentary vote later this year, but he has staunchly rejected the opposition’s demand to step down before the vote.

The country's president, Armen Sarkissian, on Wednesday called for Pashinyan, opposition leaders and the heads of parliamentary factions to meet Saturday at the presidential residence to seek a resolution to the crisis. It was not immediately clear whether the prime minister or his opponents would attend.

"If Sarkissian invited Nikola to discuss the roadmap for his removal, then we can talk,” said Saghatelyan.

Pashinyan has faced opposition demands to resign since Nov. 10 when a Russia-brokered peace deal ended 44 days of intense fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh that killed more than 6,000 people. 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-century.

Pashinyan, a 45-year-old former journalist who came to power after leading large street protests in 2018 that ousted his predecessor, has defended the peace deal as the only way to stop the Azerbaijani army from sweeping over 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.


Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.