Thousands of Armenians, led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, marched through the capital Yerevan on Saturday in memory of the soldiers killed in a six-week conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
“The entire nation has been through and is going through a nightmare,” Pashinyan said in a video message before the march. “Sometimes it seems that all of our dreams have been dashed and our optimism destroyed.”
As Armenia began three days of mourning for the war that killed nearly 3,000 Armenians, Pashinyan faced growing calls from the opposition to step down over the handling of the conflict and what critics call a humiliating peace deal with Azerbaijan.
The prime minister, accompanied by top officials, led a procession to the Yerablur military memorial cemetery in Yerevan to light incense on the graves of the fallen soldiers.
What did Armenia agree to?
The opposition, meanwhile, labeled the 45-year-old leader a “traitor” for agreeing to end the war in November with a Russia-brokered peace deal that saw Armenia cede swaths of the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Azerbaijan.
The loss of land controlled by ethnic Armenian forces for more than a quarter of a century has angered Armenians, many of whom have been protesting against Pashinyan for weeks.
Many critics chanted “Nikol the traitor” as the prime minister’s convoy passed by, while some said he should have stayed away from the cemetery.
“He must not desecrate the graves of our children,” said Misak Avetisyan, who lost a son in the war.
Heavy security was deployed at the cemetery, filled to the brink with Pashinyan’s supporters who engaged in scuffles with his opponents.
Pashinyan, whose wife and son were at the front during the conflict, has rejected the calls to resign. He has defended the peace deal as Armenia’s only option to ensure Karabakh’s survival.
Opposition to stage national strike
Later on Saturday, about 20,000 opposition supporters also marched across the capital to commemorate the victims of the conflict.
Armenia’s opposition has called on its supporters to stage a national strike on December 22, at the end of the three-day mourning period, to pressure Pashinyan to step down.
Pashinyan swept to power in a peaceful revolution in May 2018. But since the latest war, many accuse him of betraying Armenia’s interests.
Key public figures have joined calls for his resignation, including the influential head of Armenia’s Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin, and 14 retired military generals who issued a statement on Saturday criticizing the government’s handling of the conflict.
“This war did not have to happen,” said former prime minister Vazgen Manukyan, who the opposition says should replace Pashinyan.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have for decades been engaged in a simmering conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The enclave is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has been controlled by ethnic Armenians for the past 30 years.
The latest conflict over the disputed region erupted in late September, leaving more than 5,000 people dead, including civilians on both sides, and thousands more displaced.
As part of the deal, Russia has deployed nearly2,000 peacekeeping troops to Karabakh for at least five years to monitor the peace agreement.