Religion and Politics

Of Borders and Bishops The “Tavush for the Homeland” Movement in Armenia

Published on: June 14, 2024
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The role of Galstanyan in recent protests hearkens back to the Battle of Avarayr
Image: St. Ghevont at the Battle of Avarayr

After the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, when Azerbaijan gained control of half the territory of the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh and the territory surrounding it, the actual border between Armenia and Azerbaijan lengthened significantly. Following the war, also known as the 44-Day War, Azerbaijan used its new advantage to blockade what was left of the Republic of Artsakh. Azerbaijan’s blockade resulted in the ethnic cleansing of the region, described by many scholars and experts as genocide. At the end of 2023, a final wave of nearly 100,000 refugees fled the territory and the government of the autonomous Republic of Artsakh was dissolved. This violent cleansing of Artsakh of its Armenian population also had two other major consequences: increasing dissatisfaction with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the need to formally demarcate the border between the two former Soviet republics.

These two elements of the aftermath of ethnic cleansing of Artsakh came to a head last month, in May 2024. In late April, as part of the ongoing demarcation of the border between the two countries, the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a “historic” transfer—described as a “return”—of uninhabited villages in Armenia to Azerbaijan. For Armenians in neighboring villages in the Tavush region, this was too much, as they felt the new border would endanger them and cut them off from the rest of Armenia. Many Armenians worldwide felt similarly, and a simmering dissatisfaction with Pashinyan—as the prime minister who presided over the loss of Artsakh, whether or not another course of action or another leader would have been able to change the outcome of the war—began to boil over.

Enter the charismatic Primate of the Diocese of Tavush, Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan. Born in Gyumri in Armenia, educated in England and Canada, and having served as the Primate of the Diocese of Canada, Galstanyan returned to Armenia in 2015 as the Primate of the Diocese where the four villages are located. Archbishop Bagrat, voicing the displeasure of the members of his diocese, came out as a vocal critic of Pashinyan shortly after the announcement of the transfer of the villages. He quickly became the face and voice of the villagers, who were already blocking highways and protesting what they saw as an unjust demarcation process.

By the end of April, the “Tavush for the Homeland” movement emerged, with Galstanyan as its face. At the same time, both denunciations of the Archbishop and slander against him increased. Given that the institution of the Armenian Apostolic Church declined to censure the Archbishop’s political statements, some of this political ire was directed more broadly against the Armenian Apostolic Church. As others have pointed out, the Armenian Apostolic Church in Armenia has often been at loggerheads with the Pashinyan administration, most notably over the question of the potential “removal of religious or Armenian Church history from the curriculum of all public schools” in 2019. In this early phase of the protests, the Church as an institution did not directly enter the fray, though this past history and the decision not to censure Galstanyan led to a general sense that the Church agreed with the criticisms of the Archbishop.

Then, on May 4, the Tavush for the Homeland movement and Archbishop Bagrat announced they would walk from the village from Kirants to Yerevan. Galstanyan said that the march would “demand that this process here and elsewhere be stopped,” referring to the demarcation process. They spent the first night in the medieval monastery of Haghartsin before carrying on, picking up support and followers on the way. On May 9, they arrived in the capital. That evening, at a large rally, Archbishop Bagrat gave Pashinyan one hour to resign. When, predictably, this did not happen, he declared that he would work with two parliamentary groups to begin the impeachment of the Prime Minister.

Over the next few weeks, Galstanyan continued to hold rallies in the capital. At times, for instance in the initial May 9 rally, he swapped the more common black frock for a shining white one also sometimes worn by bishops. In this—consciously or not—he invoked a famous image of St. Ghevont, the priest who stood by the soldiers in the 451 Battle of Avarayr. One of the pivotal events of Armenian history, where nascent Christianity and defense of the Armenian people came together, Vartanantz, as it is known, has a forceful typological resonance. Centuries later, the arrival of Bishop Karekin Hovespian (later Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia) at the Battle of Sardarabad in 1918, reinforced the typological power of an Armenian Christian cleric positioned as the just defender of the Armenian people.

Throughout May, the Church hierarchy slowly became more explicit in its support of Archbishop Galstanyan. Already before the march to Yerevan, the Supreme Spiritual Council had said that the Archbishop “could not stay indifferent to the resulting ‘existential challenges’ facing the region’s population” and that the protesters were expressing their “righteous concerns and anxieties.” Later, the Council described the protests in Yerevan as “Armenians’ righteous uprising.” On Sunday, May 12, churches around the world prayed for the homeland and became sites for discussion about the protests and the future of the country. On May 23, the Church leadership issued a statement denouncing the accusations and slander against the Church that had been mounting. In an incident on May 28 commemorating the Battle of Sardarabad—not only an important national holiday but also one that, as mentioned, supports the enduring type of the cleric and the Church as defender of the people—police initially barred Catholicos Karekin II from praying at the memorial. An outpouring of “dismay” and support for the Church echoed across the world. While not directly related to the charismatic Archbishop and his leadership role in the anti-government protests—the Catholicos arrived after Galstanyan and his followers left the memorial—this event squarely aligns the institutional Church with Galstanyan and increasing dissatisfaction with Pashinyan.

The Church hierarchy’s relationship with the Pashinyan administration was already strained before Galstanyan’s emergence as the face of the opposition movement. The Archbishop has stated that he meets with the Catholicos, but doesn’t suggest that he has a direct role in it. Church leadership rejects the accusation that it has crossed a line, instead referring to the problems in church-state relations. Initially, Archbishop Bagrat likewise insisted he was looking for the proper candidate to replace Pashinyan. However, during a rally on May 26, Galstanyan announced that he would be the movement’s candidate for prime minister. He asked the Catholicos to “freeze my 30-year spiritual service.” Though he retains his consecration and clerical rank as a bishop, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin released him from his service as the Primate of Tavush. Crucially, though, his clerical rank is not his main obstacle to becoming prime minister: Galstanyan holds dual citizenship with Canada. According to Armenian law, the prime minister cannot be a dual citizen. Galstanyan has suggested he would renounce his Canadian citizenship in order to be eligible.

However, an impeachment vote remains unlikely. In the meantime, protests continue, though numbers seem to be dwindling. On June 12, police fired stun grenades at protesters demonstrating outside the Armenian National Assembly, injuring over thirty people. The Supreme Spiritual Council of the Armenian Church responded by calling on the authorities to refrain from violence. The situation continues to evolve. Whatever the outcome, Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan’s ability to inspire, in part through inhabiting an old and important type in the history of Armenian Christianity, that of the righteous cleric leading Armenians in battle in the defense of the homeland, has galvanized dissatisfaction with the Pashinyan administration and drawn the Armenian Apostolic Church squarely into the conversation over the future of the Republic of Armenia.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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  • Christopher Sheklian

    Assistant Professor at Mississippi State University

    Christopher Sheklian is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Mississippi State University. Previously, he was a postdoctoral researcher at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands and was the Director of the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center, a resea...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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