Armenia’s beleaguered prime minister has for the first time signaled a willingness to hold early parliamentary elections as opposition groups mount pressure for his resignation over the handling of a six-week war with Azerbaijan.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian on December 25 again rejected calls to step down but offered to negotiate with Armenia’s leading political groups about holding snap elections sometime in 2021.
"I invite the parliamentary and interested nonparliamentary forces to take part in consultations on 2021 snap parliamentary elections," the prime minister wrote on Facebook.
"I can give up the post of prime minister only if the people decide so," he said. "Should the people reaffirm their trust I am also ready to continue leading the Republic of Armenia in these difficult times. There is only one way to answer these questions: by holding pre-term parliamentary elections."
Pashinian, who swept to power amid nationwide protests in 2018, has come under fire since agreeing to a Moscow-brokered deal with Azerbaijan that took effect on November 10, ending six weeks of fierce fighting in and around the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh that saw ethnic Armenian forces suffer battlefield defeat.
A coalition uniting 16 opposition parties has been holding anti-government demonstrations in Yerevan and other parts of the country in a bid to force Pashinian to hand over power to an interim government.
Opposition forces want their joint candidate, Vazgen Manukian, to become transitional prime minister to oversee fresh elections.
In showing a willingness to hold early elections, Pashinian is trying to ease political tensions while ensuring he would be the one overseeing the electoral process, something the opposition rejects out of concern that a vote may be unfair.
Despite facing a united opposition front, Pashinian’s My Step bloc maintains an overwhelming majority in parliament.
In his message, Pashinian said the opposition campaign has failed to win popular support and that it is fizzling out on the streets.
The prime minister has for weeks dismissed the protests as a revolt by the country’s traditional "elites" who lost their "privileges" after he swept to power in 2018.
Under the Moscow-brokered cease-fire, a chunk of Nagorno-Karabakh and all seven districts around it were placed under Azerbaijani administration after almost 30 years of control by Armenians.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but the ethnic Armenians who make up most of the region's population reject Azerbaijani rule.
They had been governing their own affairs, with support from Armenia, since Azerbaijan's troops and Azeri civilians were pushed out of the region and seven adjacent districts in a war that ended in a cease-fire in 1994.