Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian on Monday called for an end to anti-government protests in Nagorno-Karabakh sparked by a violent dispute between security officers and other local residents.
Pashinian made what he described as a “brotherly request” as about 200 people demonstrated in Stepanakert for a fourth day to demand the resignation of the heads of Nagorno-Karabakh’s two main law-enforcement agencies blamed for the violence.
The brawl broke outside a Stepanakert car wash on Friday, with two groups of men bitterly arguing and pushing and punching each other for still unclear reasons. Several of them turned out to be officers of Karabakh’s National Security Service (NSS). They reportedly seriously injured at least one of the other, civilian participants of the fight.
The incident triggered a demonstration by angry Stepanakert residents who say that it is symptomatic of what they see as impunity enjoyed by members of security forces and their relatives. They blocked the town’s main avenue, demanding the resignation of the NSS and police chiefs. The street section has since been the scene of daily anti-government rallies.
Karabakh law-enforcement authorities arrested several individuals, including two NSS officers, in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Karabakh’s political leadership pledged to ensure an objective criminal investigation.
These assurances failed to satisfy the protesters, however. Their representatives twice met with Bako Sahakian, the Karabakh president, over the weekend. Sahakian is said to have told them late on Sunday that he is ready, in principle, to sack senior law-enforcement officials but will refrain from doing that now.
“The people will not leave until their demands are met,” one of the protest leaders said after the demonstrators decided to keep the Stepanakert street closed to traffic on Monday morning.
Meanwhile, Karabakh’s parliament set up a multi-party “investigative commission” at an emergency session held later in the day. The ad hoc commission is tasked with monitoring the probe of the brawl and other abuses allegedly committed by law-enforcement officials.
Pashinian appealed to the protesters late on Monday, saying that “any violence is unacceptable regardless of who resorts to it” and calling for “concrete conclusions” to be drawn from the June 1 incident. In a live Facebook broadcast, he praised Sahakian for meeting representatives of the protesters and reaching “concrete agreements” with them. He hinted that the Karabakh leader agreed to make personnel changes in the local security apparatus after the ongoing criminal inquiry is over.
The protests should therefore end, said the Armenian premier. “In a conversation with me, the president of Artsakh (Karabakh) reaffirmed his determination to implement those agreements and it is imperative to enable him to do that,” he added.
Pashinian’s appeal followed serious concerns voiced by some politicians and public figures in Armenia. They warned that a destabilization of the political situation in Karabakh could tempt Azerbaijan to attack Karabakh Armenian positions along “the line of contact” around the disputed territory.
“What happened in Armenia is inadmissible, to put it mildly, for Karabakh,” former President Levon Ter-Petrosian said in a weekend statement. “I mean mass protests and pressures on the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s authorities. They could have disastrous consequences for a country which is in a state of war.”
Ter-Petrosian alluded to the recent mass protests in Armenia that brought Pashinian to power. He said Pashinian must publicly call for an end to the Stepanakert protests.
The Karabakh leader’s spokesman, Davit Babayan, sought to allay such fears earlier on Monday. “The situation is not critical. This is a form of dialogue,” Babayan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Babayan also warned against attempts to “politicize” the June 1 incident and urged the protest leaders to drop their “ultimatums” issued to the authorities in Stepanakert.