Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said he would be ready to hold snap parliamentary elections if the opposition agreed to certain conditions, as thousands joined rival street rallies in the capital Yerevan on Monday.
Pashinyan, in power since 2018 in the ex-Soviet republic of less than three million people, is facing a crisis after the army last week demanded he step down, prompting him to decry a coup attempt and try to sack the army’s top general.
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Speaking to thousands of supporters who rallied in the centre, Pashinyan proposed holding a referendum in October to adopt a new constitution and said snap elections were possible under certain conditions.
He has suggested parliamentary factions sign a memorandum promising not to elect someone else as prime minister if he steps down to clear the way for early elections.
“If the parliamentary opposition agrees to early elections, we will agree to early elections,” he told the flag-waving crowd.
“Let’s go to the polls and see whose resignation the people are demanding,” said Pashinyan, who swept to power after spearheading peaceful demonstrations in 2018.
The Armenian leader has faced protests and calls to resign since last November, when he agreed to a Russian-brokered ceasefire that halted six weeks of fighting between ethnic Armenian and Azeri forces over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Pashinyan admitted to making mistakes and asked for forgiveness, but has refused to step down.
Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from Yerevan, said the opposition has been “very vocal and very good” at being visible and controlling the message.
“Mr Pashinyan, and his government and his supporters in parliament perhaps allowed themselves to lose the opportunity to have their message heard,” he said.
Forestier-Walker said today’s rally was the government’s way of showing that it still had strong support amongst Armenians.
Meanwhile, a rival rally of several thousand pro-opposition protesters gathered nearby outside parliament, where activists have set up a tent camp and vowed to stay until Pashinyan and his government resign.
“We want to change those in charge – they sold out our land,” Hovsep Hovsepyan, a 65-year-old pensioner, told AFP news agency at the protest.
Monday’s rallies coincided with the anniversary of the deaths of 10 people when riot police dispersed thousands of protesters contesting the result of a presidential election in Yerevan on March 1, 2008.
Earlier in the day, demonstrators forced their way into the parliament building to demand that Pashinyan quit. Social media footage showed several protesters in the building, one with a megaphone, as police looked on. The demonstrators left shortly after without violence.
Conflict with military
Opposition protests seeking the prime minister’s removal abated during the winter but intensified again last week amid Pashinyan’s rift with the country’s top military brass.
Pashinyan dismissed armed forces Chief of General Staff Onik Gasparyan in February, but his sacking needed the formal approval of the president – who rejected the move as unconstitutional and said the army should be kept out of politics.
But Pashinyan has sent back his decree demanding the general’s dismissal to the president’s office.
The country’s Security Council on Monday urged President Armen Sarkissian to approve the sacking of the top army general, the Interfax news agency reported. RIA reported that Pashinyan also met Sarkissian on Monday.