Firebrand Armenian cleric suspends religious duties to challenge PM


A charismatic Armenian cleric spearheading anti-government protests temporarily stepped down from his religious post on Monday to mount a direct challenge to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan has roused thousands over the last month to protest against Pashinyan's decision to hand territory that Armenia had controlled since the 1990s back to neighboring Azerbaijan, Yerevan's arch foe.

He has also sought to launch an impeachment process against Pashinyan

Galstanyan said last week he intended to resign his religious role in order to challenge Pashinyan for the post of prime minister, a technical requirement.

On Monday, Armenia's Apostolic Church said it had suspended Galstanyan from "clerical and administrative service" at his request.

Aside from the political obstacles, he is still not eligible to hold the prime minister’s office under Armenian law because he has dual citizenship -- Armenian and Canadian.

But Pashinyan's grip on power, boosted by unpopular opposition parties and strong support in parliament, has so far remained unshaken despite Galstanyan's efforts to have him impeached.

A former journalist and opposition lawmaker, Pashinyan himself came to power after leading street protests that escalated into a peaceful revolution in 2018.

Hundreds of protestors took to the streets across Armenia on Monday in another day of protests, trying to block roads in what Galstanyan has termed a "nationwide campaign of disobedience."

The interior ministry said "a total of 284 citizens were detained for disobeying the lawful demands of police". Most of them were freed shortly afterwards.

- Firm grip on power -

The protests have centered on Armenia's decision to cede territory to Azerbaijan.

Last week, Armenia officially returned control to Azerbaijan over four border villages that it had seized decades earlier.

Yerevan has justified the decision as a necessary step towards normalizing ties between the Caucasus rivals -- who fought two wars for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

But it has triggered uproar among locals.

The area Armenia has handed back is strategically important for the landlocked country because it controls sections of a vital highway to Georgia.

Armenian residents of nearby settlements say the move cuts them off from the rest of the country and they have accused Pashinyan of giving away territory without getting anything in return.

Pashinyan defended the concessions, saying they were aimed at securing an elusive wider peace deal with Baku.

On Sunday, several thousand people flooded Yerevan's central Republic Square in a fresh protest spearheaded by Galstanyan.

The archbishop hails from the Tavush region, where the four villages handed over to Azerbaijan are located.

Despite Yerevan's disastrous military defeat to Azerbaijan in 2020 and the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh last year, Pashinyan's grip on power remains firm.

His governing coalition holds a comfortable majority in parliament, and opposition parties are largely unpopular within society at large.

Galstanyan and the protestors would require the support of at least one independent or ruling party MP in order to launch the impeachment process against Pashinyan.

Actually removing Pashinyan would then require at least 18 lawmakers from his own party voting to unseat him.

Azerbaijan recaptured Karabakh in a lightning offensive last year, ousting Armenian separatists who had held sway over the mountainous enclave in Azerbaijan for three decades.

The region's entire Armenian population -- more than 100,000 people -- fled to Armenia in the aftermath.

Leaders from both countries say they are working towards a broader peace deal.

However, several rounds of high-level talks hosted by the European Union, United States, Russia and others have so far failed to secure an agreement.

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