Tensions Increase as Prime Minister and Church Leaders Clash in Armenia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 86

(Source: Prime Minister of Armenia)

Executive Summary:

  • Protests that initially opposed border delimitation and demarcation process between Armenia and Azerbaijan have since become focused on removing Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan from office.
  • The demonstrations have increasingly turned into smaller acts of civil disobedience, such as Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan managing to significantly delay Pashinyan from arriving to
  • Pashinyan’s efforts to transform the country from “historical Armenia” to “real Armenia” look set to further exacerbate the conflict between the government and the church.

Yerevan is entering its second month of protests against the border and delimitation process launched between Armenia and Azerbaijan in April. Relations between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the government have plummeted and may be irreconcilable (see EDM, April 8). Although Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan, Primate of the Tavush Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, has dominated the media since April, his mass rallies have failed to attract sufficient numbers to pose a serious threat to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. In a household survey last month, only 12.8 percent of respondents said they would vote for Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party if elections were held that week (MPG, May 14). Galstanyan’s name was second at 3.9 percent despite remaining ineligible. This division and lack of support for Pashinyan will likely result in further political strife in Armenia.

Most Armenians remain undecided or do not plan to participate in the upcoming elections. As a result, the combined support for the opposition now equals that of the embattled prime minister. Assuming the government does not benefit significantly from administrative resources when the vote occurs, the opposition may significantly prevent Pashinyan from maintaining his current majority government. Galstanyan insists that his “Tavush for the Motherland” movement is not coordinating with other political forces in the country and denies the involvement of former President Robert Kocharyan and Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II. The government alleges otherwise. Other commentators believe that Kocharyan and Karekin could simply be riding on Galstanyan’s coattails (Commonspace, May 26).

In May 2022, Galstanyan joined the political protests demanding Pashinyan’s resignation led by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun; ARF-D) and with the full blessing of the Catholicos (Panorama, May 11, 2022). The ARF-D is the main party in Kocharyan’s Armenia Alliance faction in parliament. One of its deputies, Garnik Danielyan, has been by Galstanyan’s side since the beginning of the protests in Tavush. Other senior figures in Dashnaktsutyun, including party head Ishkhan Saghatelyan, attend some rallies but have tried to maintain a low profile. On May 25, Dashnaktsutyun convened a conference on the “Armenian Cause” in Yerevan, where Galstanyan and representatives of the Catholicos were in attendance (Asbarez, May 25).

The following day, a demonstration in the capital attracted 23,000 people. Although Galstanyan’s movement was waning, it had gained some lost momentum before the gathering by stating that a nomination to replace Pashinyan would be announced—that candidate being Galstanyan. He also announced that he had applied to the Armenian Apostolic Church to suspend his clerical duties so he could campaign against the current government (News.am, May 27). Yet, on May 21, Galstanyan has said publicly that he still meets with the Catholicos every two days (Azatutyun, May 21).

In early May, Armenian political scientist Styopa Safaryan alleged that the Catholicos was simply using members of the clergy as expendable pawns instead of openly engaging with the public (Haykakan Zhamanak, May 5). That started to change on March 27 when Galstanyan announced he would travel by motorcade to the Sardarapat memorial—a complex memorializing the Battle of Sardarabad, which paved the way to the establishment of the First Republic of Armenia—and camp overnight. Galstanyan aimed to prevent Pashinyan and other officials from visiting the memorial the next morning for the annual commemoration of the short-lived 1918 Armenian Republic.

One prominent anti-government Telegram channel, Mika Badalyan, posted that it was vital to use this disruption to discredit Pashinyan in the eyes of the international community as he currently has complete support from the West (T.me/mikayelbad, May 27). A pro-government channel, Bagramyan26, in turn, posted that it believed Galstanyan needed a major clash to reinvigorate the movement but that the government would prevent it (T.me/bagramyan26, May 28). Instead, the morning event was delayed until after Galstanyan left the site (Azatutyun, May 28). During the official ceremony held in the afternoon, Pashinyan delivered a second address despite having sent out a different version earlier when it was unclear if or when Galstanyan would leave Sardarapat (Prime Minister of Armenia, May 28 [1], [2]). In what seemed to be a direct criticism of the church, he accused unnamed “elites” of subjugating the population.

Following the event, cell phone footage spread online of special police units forcibly blocking a delegation consisting of the Catholicos and other senior clergy (YouTube.com, May 28). Until the Second Karabakh War with Azerbaijan in 2020, the Catholicos had always been part of the official annual commemoration, though now visits individually. The press office of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin said that it had informed the government he would visit while Pashinyan supported the police action (Azatutyun, May 29). Critics, however, argue that the Catholicos has the right to attend such events regardless (ArmInfo, 29 May). Pashinyan has countered that the police had no option but to first check whether the Catholicos also planned to disrupt the event (Azatutyun, May 29).

Following the Sardarapat incident, Archbishop Mikael Ajapahyan, primate of the Diocese of the Shirak region of Armenia, lambasted Pashinyan. He declared, “I have said several times that these authorities are not Armenian. … Everything can be expected from the anti-national authorities” (168.am, May 28). Archbishop Arshak Khachatryan echoed the accusatory tone, stating, “People of unknown origin wearing Armenian police uniforms are blocking the entrance of the Armenian Catholicos and clergy to the memorial complex. … Almost 110 years after the victorious and heroic battle of Sardarapat, Armenians were defeated in the same place” (News.am, May 28). Deputy Head of the Prime Minister’s Office Taron Chakhoyan later attacked the church on social media, writing, “Clergymen who engage in anti-state politics should be ready to bear its political consequences” (Haykakan Zhamanak, May 28).

The government has also hinted again at applying a 20-percent, value-added tax to the sale of candles by the church, a significant source of revenue (see EDM, May 14; Azatutyun, May 31). One Russian analyst said, “It is quite logical that … the interests of the revanchist ‘old men,’ such as ex-presidents Sargsyan and Kocharyan, and the Armenian church found each other [and] decided to use the image in the cassock as a new tool for active confrontation with Pashinyan” (Caliber, June 2).

The Armenian church has emerged as a major opponent of any normalization with Azerbaijan, a far cry from when Karekin II visited Baku in 2010 and met with Azerbaijan’s spiritual leader, Sheik Allahshukur Pashazade, and President Ilham Aliyev (Azatutyun, April 27, 2010). The last time the two religious leaders met was in Moscow with Russian Patriarch Kirill in October 2021. Earlier this year, Pashazade said he was considering extending another invitation for Karekin to visit Baku at the end of this year but added that “the Armenian church, led by the Armenian Catholicos, is promoting revanchism all over the world” (Azernews, April 10). A spokesperson for the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin accused Pashazade of the same (Mediamax, April 10).

Meanwhile, despite failing to reach critical mass, Galstanyan continues to disrupt official events. His success in doing so without warning, including in Sardarapat, has put Pashinyan’s government on edge, eager to avoid any large clashes that the opposition could use against him. As the Armenian premier seeks to transform the country from “historical Armenia” to “real Armenia,” the conflict between the government and the church looks set to continue (see EDM, January 21). As a sign of that, Civil Contract MP Arsen Torosyan proposed this week to stop financing Shoghakat TV, the broadcasting arm of the Armenian Apostolic Church, officially on air since 2002 (Azatutyun, June 5). Coincidentally intended personally or not, the station was established as an audio-visual studio by Karekin II before he became Catholicos in 1995 (Chiesa Apostolica Armena D’Italia, May 5).