A state-controlled volunteer militia last week entered the Nagorno-Karabakh parliament, reportedly to shore up support for President Arayik Harutyunyan.
On Sunday, news emerged that men in military fatigues had entered the region’s parliament on 16 August. Opposition MPs said that the militia members had one question: ‘who’s demanding Harutyunyan’s resignation?’
Both opposition parties that hold seats in parliament have denied that they were seeking the president’s resignation.
Marcel Petrosyan from the United Motherland faction told RFE/RL on Monday that there was ‘no demand for resignation’. He added that rumours of such demands were being deliberately circulated with ‘far-reaching goals’.
Russian-Armenian billionaire Ruben Vardanyan — who served as State Minister for four months in late 2022 and early 2023 — demanded that Harutyunyan step down on Sunday.
In a live broadcast on Facebook, Vardanyan claimed that Harutyunyan had promised to do so ‘at the beginning of the week’, and that it was not the first time he had made such a promise.
‘Some of the eight people present at that meeting did not believe your word. Another part said: “maybe he is telling the truth this time” ’, he said.
He also accused Harutyunyan of ‘destroying’ state institutions, criticising him for allowing the government militia to enter parliament.
The militia was established by parliament in October 2020 during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Composed of civilian volunteers, it falls under the control of the Defence Ministry and is tasked with defending Nagorno-Karabakh alongside the Defence Army. Little has been seen of the militia since the war.
The militia’s head, Karen Matevosyan, took to Facebook on Monday to express support for Harutyunyan in a live broadcast.
He said the militia was founded to save the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh from ‘elimination’, and that the militia did not directly intervene in the region’s domestic politics.
Harutyunyan met with representatives of the militia on 17 August, a day after they entered parliament. Details about the contents of the meeting were not disclosed.
The head of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Parliament, Davit Ishkhanyan, issued a statement on Tuesday calling for unity and ‘restraint’.
Ishkhanyan also warned that some other public calls for unity were ‘aimed at destroying the foundations of our statehood’, calling them ‘unacceptable’.
Harutyunyan hangs on
The president’s office and the ruling Free Homeland party denied on Sunday that Harutyunyan was planning to resign.
However, the president has spoken about the possibility of stepping down several times since the end of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020.
Following the 9 November agreement between Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia that brought an end to the war, Harutyunyan promised to resign at the first possibility — once the situation normalised.
Harutyunyan has faced previous challenges to his authority in the post-war period.
In the spring of 2021, large protests broke out over his close relations with the Armenian authorities, after Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan suggested he may recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as being part of Azerbaijan. Harutyunyan has since distanced himself from Pashinyan’s government.
Opposition parties within Nagorno-Karabakh have largely refrained from calling for snap elections, claiming this could be seen as an opening by Azerbaijan to conduct a military intervention.
Due to his profile and wealth, Ruben Vardanyan’s appointment as State Minister under Harutyunyan in late 2022 led to speculation he could challenge or succeed the president. The State Minister is the most senior post in the government under the president, and the position’s mandate was expanded with Vardanyan’s appointment, giving him control over most state institutions.
Critics warned he lacked a connection to the region or a deep understanding of its domestic affairs.
His appointment also led to questions in Armenia over his possible links to Russia and the Russian government, having made his fortune in Russia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Azerbaijani officials repeatedly railed against his appointment, claiming he was working directly for Russia.
Harutyunyan and Vardanyan had several public disagreements during Vardanyan’s tenure, and just four months after appointing him, Harutyunyan fired Vardanyan.
For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.