Political tensions in Armenia further heightened Monday with supporters of the embattled prime minister and the opposition planning massive rival rallies in the capital.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has faced opposition demands to resign since he signed a peace deal in November that ended six weeks of intense fighting with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Russia-brokered 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.
Opposition protests seeking Pashinyan's ouster abated during the winter but intensified again last week amid Pashinyan's rift with the country's top military brass.
The spat was sparked by Pashinyan firing a deputy chief of the military's General Staff who laughed off his claim that only 10% of Russia-supplied Iskander missiles that Armenia used in the conflict exploded on impact.
The General Staff then demanded Pashinyan’s resignation, and the prime minister responded by dismissing the General Staff chief, Col. Gen. Onik Gasparyan. The dismissal is yet to be approved by the nation's largely ceremonial president, Armen Sarkissian, who sent it back to the prime minister, charging that the move was unconstitutional.
Pashinyan quickly resubmitted the demand for the general's ouster, and his allies warned Monday that the president could be impeached if he fails to endorse the move.
Amid the escalating tensions, a group of protesters broke into a government building in central Yerevan on Monday to press their demand for Pashinyan's resignation, but left shortly after without violence. Later on Monday, Pashinyan's supporters and the opposition plan rival rallies in the Armenian capital.
Pashinyan, a former journalist who came to power after leading massive street protests in 2018 that ousted his predecessor, still continues to enjoy broad support despite the country's humiliating defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh and the opposition calls for his resignation.
The prime minister defended the peace deal as a painful but necessary move 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. The fighting with Azerbaijan that erupted in late September and lasted 44 days has left more than 6,000 people dead. Russia has deployed about 2,000 peacekeepers to monitor the Nov. 10 peace deal.
Armenia has relied on Moscow’s financial and military support and hosts a Russian military base — ties that will keep the two nations closely allied regardless of the outcome of the political infighting.
Last week, the Russian Defense Ministry rebuked the Armenian leader for debasing the Iskander missile, a state-of-the-art weapon touted by the military for its accuracy, saying it was “bewildered” to hear Pashinyan’s claim because the Armenian military hadn’t fired an Iskander missile during the conflict.
In a bid to repair the damage, Pashinyan rescinded his statement Monday, acknowledging that he made the statement after being misled.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.