Manvel Grigorian, a retired but still influential army general, and a reputed crime figure challenging him were arrested on Saturday amid rival demonstrations held by their supporters in the Armenian town of Echmiadzin.
The town, which is home to the Mother See of Armenian Apostolic Church, has been governed by Grigorian’s son Karen for almost a decade. Hundreds of local residents protested against the mayor in recent days, accusing him of corruption and mismanagement and demanding his resignation.
Speakers at the rallies there also called for an end to what they say an atmosphere of fear created by Manvel Grigorian, who has long held sway in Echmiadzin and nearby villages. They used the slogans and tactics of a recent nationwide protest movement that toppled Armenia’s previous government.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, who swept to power as a result of that movement, denounced this fact on Friday. “It’s unacceptable that criminal elements are desecrating symbols of our revolution of love and solidarity and exploiting the revolution in mafia wars,” he wrote on Facebook. “We will not allow that.”
Pashinian clearly alluded to reports that the man behind the protests against the Grigorians is Artur Asatrian, an Echmiadzin native who has long been branded a crime figure by Armenian media.
On Saturday, officers of the National Security Service (NSS) raided Asatrian’s Echmiadzin compound and other properties owned by the man better known as “Don Pipo.” Asatrian and four other men, all of them Russian citizens, were arrested as a result.
In a written statement, the NSS said that Asatrian is suspected of illegally possessing weapons and kidnapping three individuals who had allegedly plotted to assassinate him a few years ago.
In an apparently related development, security officers also searched the Echmiadzin villa of Manvel Grigorian. They found and confiscated large quantities of “illegally acquired” weapons and ammunition before detaining the once powerful general, according to the NSS statement.
The security service added that it immediately notified the speaker of Armenia’s parliament, of which Grigorian is a member, about the arrest. It did not specify whether it will press criminal charges against the ex-general affiliated with former President Serzh Sarkisian’ Republican Party (HHK).
Under Armenian law, he cannot be formally charged and kept in custody for more than three days without the parliament’s consent.
Grigorian, 61, is a prominent veteran of the 1991-1994 of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh who served as Armenia’s deputy defense minister from 2000-2008. He is also the chairman of the Yerkrapah Union of Karabakh war veterans, an organization which was particularly influential in the 1990s and the early 2000s.
The HHK’s parliamentary faction, the largest in the National Assembly, expressed serious concern at Grigorian’s arrest, saying that it violated a constitutional provision regulating detentions of lawmakers. It suggested that “mainly political motives” are behind the high-profile criminal case.
A statement by the faction also called on Armenian prosecutors to ensure the “legality of the investigation” and Grigorian’s immediate release from custody.
Footage aired by the Armenia TV channel showed the HHK faction leader, Vahram Baghdasarian, leaving the Yerkrapah office in Echmiadzin shortly before the official announcement of the arrests.
The NSS raids and arrests came as Karen Grigorian’s opponents stepped up the pressure on the Echmiadzin mayor, blocking the town’s main streets in the morning. The embattled mayor organized a counterdemonstration in the town’s central square later in the day. Riot police were deployed there to prevent possible clashes between the rival groups of protesters.
Karen Grigorian rejected the demands for his resignation and defended his track record when he spoke to reporters. He also offered to embark on a dialogue with his detractors.