YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Armenia’s foreign minister resigned Monday amid political turmoil that has engulfed the country following a cease-fire deal for the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh that calls for ceding territory to longtime adversary Azerbaijan.
The Moscow-brokered truce halted fighting that killed hundreds — and possibly thousands — in six weeks, but it stipulated that Armenia turn over control of some areas its holds outside Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders to Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994. That war left not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself but substantial surrounding territory in Armenian hands.
The agreement was celebrated in Azerbaijan but sparked mass protests in Armenia, with thousands taking to the streets and demanding that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian step down and the deal invalidated.
The resignation of Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan was announced Monday by his spokeswoman, Anna Nagdhalyan. She posted his handwritten resignation letter on Facebook shortly after Pashinian said in parliament he decided to dismiss Mnatsakanyan. On Monday evening, President Armen Sarkissian signed a decree relieving Mnatsakanyan of his duties.
Earlier Monday, the ministry publicly disagreed with Pashinian over the course of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks.
Pashinian said during an online news conference that there had been offers to cede to Azerbaijan regions that Armenia controlled around Nagorno-Karabakh and the city of Shusha, which is located near the territory’s capital of Stepanakert.
Naghdalyan retorted on Facebook that giving up Shusha was never on the agenda “at any stage” of the peace negotiations.
The exchange and the ensuing resignation of Mnatsakanyan, who has held the post since 2018, could indicate that the political crisis in Armenia is deepening. It comes as 17 opposition parties and their supporters continue to demand Pashinian’s ouster, with thousands of people regularly taking to the streets of the capital of Yerevan.
Crowds gathered Monday for another rally, and in the evening, Sarkissian turned up the pressure on Pashinian, saying in an address to the nation that holding early elections is “inevitable.”
Sarkissian said he has been meeting with members of various political and social groups, and “the vast majority” of those he met with agree on one thing — “the resignation of the prime minister in accordance with the Constitution or the termination of his powers, and holding early parliamentary elections.”
But to hold a vote of no confidence, opposition lawmakers need to shore up support in Pashinian’s My Step faction, which holds an overwhelming majority in the 132-seat parliament.
Sarkissian called on the government and the ruling political force to “assess their potential” and put together a road map for “constitutional processes” that would allow for an early election. Before that can happen, he added, “the running of the country would be handed over to a highly professional government of national accord.”
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for decades. Heavy fighting that flared up Sept. 27 marked the biggest escalation in over a quarter-century, killing hundreds and possibly thousands of people.
The truce last week halted the violence after several failed attempts to establish a lasting cease-fire and came two days after Azerbaijan, which had made significant advances, announced it had seized Shusha.
Russian peacekeepers have started to move into the region — a total of 1,960 of them are to be sent in under a five-year mandate. Russia’s Defense Ministry reported that the peacekeepers accompanied about 1,200 people returning to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia since Saturday.
At the same time, many ethnic Armenians have been leaving territory that will be handed over to Azerbaijan, with some setting their houses on fire in a bitter farewell and digging up the graves of their relatives in order to rebury the remains in Armenia.
Associated Press writer Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed.