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Opposition Groups Rally with Archbishop Galstanyan Against Demarcation

Thousands protest in Yerevan against Armenia-Azerbaijan border demarcation, led by Archbishop Galstanyan, demanding PM Pashinyan's resignation.

Bagrat Galstyan rally

Image: rg.ru video screengrab

Thousands of protestors rallied in Yerevan on Thursday against the demarcation process on the Gazakh-Tavush border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Led by Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan, a senior member of the Armenian Apostolic Church, around 20-30,000 assembled on Republic Square, demanding a halt to the delimitation and demarcation process and the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Galstanyan, head of the Tavush diocese, vehemently opposes moves to normalize relations between the two countries.

For weeks, residents from Armenian villages in the Tavush region have raised concerns regarding the process, but Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has made regular visits to reassure them. But for Galstanyan, the process is seen as a unilateral concession by Yerevan. He has already travelled an unknown part of the 170 km route to Yerevan on foot, accompanied by some residents and members of opposition parties such as the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation—Dashnaktsutyun (ARF-D) and the ultra-nationalist National Democratic Pole.

Galstanyan claims that he is non-partisan and not against border demarcation, only against the way the demarcation is being conducted. He even went so far as to wear a white robe for Thursday’s demonstration, which, he says, represents “reconciliation, peace, and victory.” However, in a fiery sermon last month, he also spoke of fighting against the return of any land. Some believe that his involvement in the protests has been instigated by the parliamentary opposition.

In February 2022, former President Robert Kocharyan had already spoken of having a ‘respected clergyman’ as president. The government alleges that Kocharyan or opposition forces supporting him are behind the current protests, possibly abetted by “foreign powers.” Several ARF-D (Dashnaktsutyun) parliamentarians have consistently accompanied the Archbishop.

The Archbishop was involved in similar protests in 2022 when Dashnaktsutyun attempted to scupper any potential deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as force Pashinyan’s resignation. “I consider myself a revanchist, and I will stick to this belief until the end of my life,” Galstanyan said in December. Among others marching with him this week were members of paramilitary and terrorist groups, including Harry ‘Hampig’ Sassounian, convicted for life for the assassination of Turkish Consul General Kemal Arikan in Los Angeles in 1982 until his controversial parole in 2021.

Prior to Thursday’s demonstration, the Armenian National Security Service had warned Galstanyan and his supporters that violence and any disruption of public order would not be tolerated. Meanwhile, Pashinyan, who rose to power on the back of similar protests and tactics in early 2018, has raised serious questions about the church becoming involved in politics.

"[…] a cleric cannot say a political text without the permission or instructions of the Catholicos of All Armenians,” said Pashinyan in a live televised interview on 7 May. “It is obvious that the leader of the process is the Catholicos of All Armenians, and the beneficiary is [former president] Robert Kocharyan.”

Galstanyan himself confirmed that there were political objectives at the demonstration when he gave Pashinyan one hour to resign. A 15-minute extension also came to no avail. The populist cleric instead said that he would consult with opposition groups to remove him through a parliamentary vote of no confidence. He later that evening, met with deputies from Kocharyan’s Hayastan and Serzh Sargsyan's I Have Honour blocs. A campaign of civil disobedience was launched the next day, mirroring the same tactics the two opposition parties used in 2022. 

For now, the demonstrations remain peaceful, with Pashinyan appearing confident that he can ride out this latest attempt to remove him from office. However, the situation remains unpredictable as hopes to normalize relations between Yerevan and Baku increase. Assuming it can maintain momentum, it is also unclear what the opposition might do if Galstanyan fails to achieve his objectives by legitimate means. Or indeed what they could do if they came to power.