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Bagrat Galstanian: The Armenian Archbishop Taking On The Government

Archbishop Bagrat Galstanian leads a rally against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in Yerevan on May 9.
Archbishop Bagrat Galstanian leads a rally against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in Yerevan on May 9.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian is facing the most serious challenge of his six years in power, and it is coming from an unlikely source: an archbishop.

Bagrat Galstanian, the senior church official from the embattled region of Tavush on the border with Azerbaijan, has succeeded where many opposition politicians have failed before him: to channel public anger over Armenia's catastrophic series of military losses and concessions to its foe, Azerbaijan.

With repeated offensives between 2020 and 2023, Azerbaijan managed to retake Nagorno-Karabakh, resulting in the capitulation of the local Armenian leadership and the exodus of more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians.

Galstanian was spurred into action after Pashinian's announcement on April 19 that he would allow Azerbaijan to retake control of several slices of territory in Tavush that Armenians had controlled since the first war between the two sides in the 1990s.

Since then, Galstanian's anti-government rallies in Yerevan have drawn the biggest crowds in the capital since those that Pashinian himself attracted in the 2018 Velvet Revolution that propelled him to power.

Galstanian seems unlikely -- at least for now -- to engineer his own revolution and remove Pashinian from power, given the political opposition's weakness in parliament. But his surprise emergence on the scene has provided an unprecedented focal point for the many Armenians fed up with Pashinian yet even more distrustful of the rest of the country's political establishment.

Popular Priest

The 53-year-old archbishop has an eclectic background for a church official. He was educated in the U.K. and Canada and served as the primate (the top church official) for the Canadian diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Unlike many priests, he has long had a public profile. He was the first head of the church's media department and after becoming primate of the diocese in Tavush, Armenia's northeasternmost region, he became known for his social work focused on the communities around that region's border with Azerbaijan.

A diocese children's choir formed under his leadership got attention after a medley of Queen songs they performed caught the attention of the band's guitarist, Brian May, who appeared on stage with the young singers at a 2022 festival.

Initially, Galstanian appeared to be a supporter of Pashinian. In a 2019 interview, he attributed a marked decrease of cross-border violence in Tavush to the changes brought by the Velvet Revolution.

But starting in 2020 -- when he visited Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani forces were closing in and prayed at the cathedral in Shushi (which is now known by the Azerbaijani name, Susa) in the Armenians' waning days of control of that city -- he began to take a more antagonistic approach to Pashinian. The archbishop spoke at a 2022 rally organized by the country's main political opposition.

Galstanian wasn't alone in his opposition: Pashinian's efforts to reduce the church's power in Armenia made him unpopular among religious leaders. His efforts to reach a peace agreement with Azerbaijan following Armenia's loss in the 2020 war deepened the church's opposition.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian

"Currently, there is no relationship as such between the church and the government. It simply does not exist," Galstanian said in a 2023 interview with Eurasianet. "For the church, the approach of the authorities to resolving the conflict, which boils down to recognizing Artsakh (an Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh) as part of Azerbaijan, is unacceptable."

Giving Land To Azerbaijan

He first led protests in Tavush itself, at villages that stood to be affected by the land transfer. Then, in the beginning of May, he embarked on a six-day march to Yerevan.

In the capital, he has held a series of rallies -- drawing more than 30,000 to one on May 9 -- and has held meetings with various groups of citizens -- artists, doctors, students -- to bring more people into the movement.

He has been vague about his particular demands, other than Pashinian's resignation and his replacement by a "government of reconciliation." He speaks at his rallies wearing a priest's cassock and a large cross around his neck, and his main slogan is: "Armenian, Armenia, Homeland, God."

With his supporters in tow, Galstanian makes the journey from Tavush to Yerevan on foot.
With his supporters in tow, Galstanian makes the journey from Tavush to Yerevan on foot.

The movement has drawn wide support, and not only from Pashinian's longtime nemeses from the former regime of Serzh Sarkisian and Robert Kocharian. The parties of Pashinian's political mentor, former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, and his erstwhile ally, Edmon Marukian, have both signaled approval. He's gotten support from the pro-Western Sasna Tsrer organization and positive coverage from pro-Kremlin Russian media.

The Russian and former regime support has led to accusations from government officials that the archbishop is merely a pawn in a bigger game. In reality, those relatively less popular forces are jumping on Galstanian's bandwagon, said Benyamin Poghosian, a senior fellow at the Yerevan-based APRI Armenia think tank.

Galstanian's success is due to the fact that "he's not a political figure," given Armenians' widespread distrust for politicians of all stripes, Poghosian said.

"He can play the role of this spark, at least to start to move something," he said.

But it's not likely he will be able to replicate Pashinian's 2018 success in using mass protests to force the government to resign.

Galstanian appears to lack a plan, even a short-term one, said Hrant Mikaelian, a Yerevan-based political analyst. At the May 9 rally, Galstanian announced that Pashinian had one hour to resign. The deadline passed without even a response from Pashinian. It was a misstep, revealing the ad hoc nature of Galstanian's efforts and causing him to "lose momentum," Mikaelian said.

"There was no alternative action plan. What if he resigns? What if he doesn't?" Mikaelian said.

Galstanian made a brief return to Tavush but is planning another big rally in Yerevan for May 26.

The opposition currently doesn't have the votes to start impeachment proceedings against Pashinian. A more likely scenario is that Galstanian could be the figurehead of a movement that would contest the next elections, scheduled for 2026, Poghosian said. (As a dual Canadian-Armenian citizen, he is ineligible to be prime minister himself, though he has mooted the possibility of trying to work around that restriction.)

For now, though, "if the goal is to change the government before 2026, I don't see how it's realistically possible," Poghosian said.

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