Galstanyan, outspoken archbishop, bids to become Armenia’s prime minister

By Mark Dovich

Bagrat Galstanyan, the charismatic and outspoken clergyman who emerged last month as the leader of a growing anti-government movement in Armenia, was named Sunday as the opposition’s preferred candidate to replace Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister.

It was not immediately clear how to square Galstanyan’s leadership bid with the fact that Armenia’s constitution bars dual citizens from serving as prime minister. Galstanyan, who serves as archbishop for Armenia’s northeastern Tavush region, also holds a Canadian passport.

Gurgen Melikyan, a former dean at Yerevan State University and a well-known public intellectual, announced the news to tens of thousands of people gathered on Yerevan’s central Republic Square.

“For a month, we held meetings (to select a candidate for prime minister) with representatives of all areas, from political parties to public entities. The vast majority of the participants in all the meetings and discussions agreed that that person should be Archbishop Bagrat,” Melikyan said.

For his part, Galstanyan said he had already asked Catholicos Garegin II, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, to “freeze my 30-year spiritual service” and allow him to enter politics.

There was no immediate comment from the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the church’s governing body, on the matter.

Following the rally, Galstanyan led thousands of demonstrators to the gated residential area where Pashinyan and his family lives, demanding a private meeting with the prime minister. It was not clear if Pashinyan, who traveled earlier in the day to northern Armenia to survey historic flood damage, was home at the time.

Galstanyan then called on his supporters to take part in acts of civil disobedience across Yerevan starting Monday morning in an effort to paralyze traffic across the city.

What happens next?

Galstanyan’s nomination paves the way for Armenia’s opposition to seek Pashinyan’s ouster, as Armenian law requires the opposition to name a replacement candidate before lawmakers can bring an impeachment vote against the prime minister.

But crucially, the opposition Armenia and I Have Honor blocs, which together hold 35 seats in Armenia’s 107-member parliament, lack the votes to topple Pashinyan. Tabling an impeachment motion would require the support of 36 lawmakers, while actually forcing Pashinyan out of office would take 54 votes.

What’s been the reaction?

Pashinyan has so far not commented publicly on the latest developments.

He has previously accused the protesters, who he claimed are under the influence of “drug lords,” “criminals,” and “foreign special services,” of seeking to “incite war” and the “de facto dissolution of Armenian sovereignty and statehood.”

Last week, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin slammed what it called the government’s “false, baseless, and unfounded” accusations against it and called on Pashinyan to “review” his position on the church.

The prime minister has long been at odds with Catholicos Garegin II and other senior church leaders, whom he has accused of seeking to engineer former President Robert Kocharyan’s return to power.

What’s the background?

Last month, Pashinyan’s administration reached a landmark deal to delimit, or legally define, a section of Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan for the first time.

As part of that deal, Yerevan agreed to hand over to Baku four abandoned villages along the border between Armenia’s northeastern Tavush region and Azerbaijan’s northwestern Gazakh district. Azerbaijan took control of those areas last week.

The agreement was quickly met with fierce protests in nearby communities, where residents began calling on Pashinyan to resign, saying the prospect of Azerbaijan taking control of adjacent tracts of land may force them out of their homes. In addition, critics noted Armenia’s primary highway to Georgia runs through the area, as does the country’s main natural gas pipeline.

After several weeks of localized protests across Tavush, Galstanyan led residents on a weeklong march to Yerevan, where he has since helmed Armenia’s largest rallies since the 2018 revolution that catapulted Pashinyan to power. The demonstrators have dubbed themselves “Tavush for the Homeland.”

Over the last month, police officers have detained hundreds of Galstanyan’s supporters for taking part in acts of civil disobedience across Yerevan, mostly by blocking streets. As of last week, 25 protesters had been formally charged with crimes, and 10 remained under arrest.

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