Armenian Foreign Minister Fired As Government Faces Mounting Pressure Over Peace Deal

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has dismissed his foreign minister in a cabinet reshuffle as he comes under mounting pressure from the president and opposition to resign over a controversial peace deal with Azerbaijan.

The announcement of a Russian-brokered accord early on November 10 that ended six weeks of fighting between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region has triggered a political crisis amid accusations the government capitulated to Azerbaijan.

The peace deal, which came after Azerbaijani forces made major battlefield gains to regain territory lost to Armenian separatists nearly three decades ago, allows Azerbaijan to keep a sizable chunk of the mountainous region, as well as much of the area ringing the enclave.

Thousands of angry protesters continued to rally in Yerevan on November 16, backing calls from 17 opposition groups demanding Pashinian resign.

Armenian authorities say that the opposition protests are illegal, citing martial law declared following the outbreak of war on September 27.

The biggest opposition bloc in parliament, Prosperous Armenia, the former ruling Republican Party, Hayrenik (Fatherland) party, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation party are among the 17 opposition groups that launched the protests after November 10. The leaders of these parties have been arrested and released several times since the start of the protests.

In an address to the nation, Armenian President Armen Sarkisian called on Pashinian's government to resign and for an interim government of national unity to be formed pending snap parliamentary elections.

"Taking into account the current situation, taking into account public demands, it is obvious that in order to avoid internal political upheavals, the holding of early parliamentary elections is inevitable," Sarkisian said after meeting with members of various political groups.

Pashinian's My Step faction still holds a large majority in the 132-seat parliament, enough to avoid a no-confidence vote.

Pashinian has rebuffed calls to resign or hold snap elections, but on November 16 he fired Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanian.

Addressing a meeting of parliament boycotted by the opposition, he gave no clear reason why he fired his foreign minister of two years but said the government will see several reshuffles.

He also reiterated that the peace accord was Armenia's only option and that it ensured Nagorno-Karabakh's survival, even if the territory's second city, Shushi, known as Susa in Azeri, was lost.

Around 2,000 Russia peacekeepers will be deployed to maintain security in the territory for a period of five years. They will also stand guard on the strategic Lachin Corridor, the sole road linking the region and Armenia.

Pashinian said the road through the Lachin region would be reopened on November 16 and that many displaced residents of the enclave were returning to their homes. Between 75,000 and 90,000 of the region's 150,000 inhabitants fled the fighting.

Meanwhile, an exodus of ethnic Armenians from the territories that will be handed over to Azerbaijan is expected to create economic, social, and political pressure in Armenia.

Residents of Kalbacar, a district in Azerbaijan that was controlled for decades by ethnic Armenians, have been leaving their homes ahead of a November 25 transfer deadline.

Some residents set their homes on fire before leaving, RFE/RL’s Armenian Service reported.

The districts of Aghdam and Lachin must be handed over to Azerbaijan starting on November 20 and December 1, respectively. Baku captured four other districts during the six-week conflict.

Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but the ethnic Armenians who make up most of the population reject Azerbaijani rule.

They have been governing their own affairs, with support from Armenia, since Azerbaijan's troops and ethnic Azeri civilians were pushed out of the region in a war that ended in a cease-fire in 1994.

Fighting broke out again in and around Nagorno-Karabakh on September 27, killing more than 2,000 soldiers and civilians on both sides over the ensuing weeks. Azerbaijan has not provided a figure for its military casualties.

With reporting by AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters, and RFE/RL's Armenian Azerbaijani services