The protests forced Pashinian to cut short his visit.
Syunik borders the Zangelan and Kubatli districts southwest of Karabakh which were mostly recaptured by Azerbaijan during the war. Parts of the districts close to the provincial capital Kapan and other communities remained under Armenian control until last week.
Armenian army units and local militias completed their withdrawal from those areas at the weekend despite protests staged by many local residents. The latter say that they can no longer feel safe because Azerbaijani forces will now be stationed dangerously close to their communities.
The troop redeployments also raised questions about the safety of a road connecting Kapan to another provincial town, Goris. Some of its sections straddle the Soviet-era Armenian-Azerbaijani border.
Armenia’s Defense Ministry and National Security Service (NSS) insisted over the weekend that the road, which is also part of the country’s vital transport link with Iran, will remain open for traffic.
A Defense Ministry statement said Russian border guards deployed in Syunik will guarantee its security. Pashinian announced, meanwhile, that he will tour Syunik on Monday and try to personally reassure the region’s population.
In an extraordinary move, Goris Mayor Arush Arushanian, urged supporters late on Sunday to block the main regional highway and bar Pashinian from entering the mountainous region bordering Iran.
“This is not a political orientation or a partisan initiative. This is a fight for the dignity, security and physical existence of the people of Syunik,” he said in an appeal posted on Facebook.
Arushanian was arrested overnight. This did not prevent hundreds of his supporters from gathering in Goris early in the morning. A convoy of vehicles carrying them was stopped just outside Goris riot police units sent from Yerevan. Some protesters and police officers briefly clashed at the scene.
Hundreds of other protesters blocked a highway section more than a dozen kilometers northwest of Goris.
Arushanian was among the heads of more than a dozen Syunik communities who issued earlier this month statements condemning Pashinian’s handling of the war with Azerbaijan and demanding his resignation.
Pashinian condemned the road blockade as a “provocation” when he began his tour of Syunik in another provincial town, Sisian, in the morning.
Addressing several hundred supporters that gathered in Sisian’s main square, he claimed that organizers of the protests want to prevent similar gatherings in Goris and Kapan which he said would expose continuing popular support for him.
The embattled prime minister insisted that he is ready to answer “tough questions” from the region’s population. “I admit that there are question to which we have no answers now,” he added.
With the protesters refusing to unblock the roads, Pashinian announced early in the afternoon that he will not travel to Goris, Kapan and other Syunik towns.
“We will not resort to the use of force especially during this mourning period [for Armenian victims of the war,]” he wrote on Facebook. “We are returning to Yerevan.”