Monday, Opposition Leader Under Investigation • Artak Khulian Armenia -- Vazgen Manukian (C) and other leaders of the opposition Homeland Salvation Movement talk during a rally at Liberty Square, Yerevan, February 20, 2021. Police launched criminal proceedings against a veteran Armenian politician on Monday after he said that opposition forces trying to topple Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian must be ready to stage an uprising. Vazgen Manukian made the statement in a speech delivered at a weekend rally held by the Homeland Salvation Movement, an alliance of more than a dozen opposition parties. “At any moment -- it could be today, one week later or ten days later -- we must be ready for revolting and taking power at lightning speed,” said Manukian. He described that as “Plan B” of the opposition campaign for Pashinian’s resignation involving peaceful protests. “We will follow Plan A but must always be ready for Plan B,” said the 75-year-old politician whom the opposition alliance wants to head an interim government to be formed after Pashinian’s resignation. A spokeswoman for Prosecutor-General Artur Davtian said that the Armenian police launched a criminal investigation into public calls for a violent overthrow of the government. He told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that the criminal case has been sent to the Investigative Committee for further inquiry. The law-enforcement authorities did not say whether Manukian will be summoned for questioning. Manukian already floated the idea of an “uprising” when he met with opposition supporters late last month. His calls have not been officially endorsed by the Homeland Salvation Movement. The alliance rallied thousands of supporters in Yerevan’s Liberty Square on Saturday in what its coordinator, Ishkhan Saghatelian, described as a “new start” of its drive to oust Pashinian. Saghatelian said the opposition forces will stage “nonstop” street protests in the coming days. On Monday evening, a smaller crowd of opposition supporters marched to downtown Yerevan from the city’s northern Arabkir district. Opposition leaders addressed the protesters after blocking a key street intersection in the city center. They condemned the criminal case opened against Manukian. “We want to save the Armenian nation and this state,” declared Manukian. He scoffed at the authorities’ reaction to his weekend statement, saying that “government buildings will fall into our hands like ripe pears.” Armenian Government Critics Prosecuted Over ‘Fake’ Facebook Page • Naira Bulghadarian • Artak Khulian Armenia - Karen Bekarian (L) and Ara Saghatelian. Four anti-government activists were arrested and indicted over the weekend for allegedly creating a social media account that regularly spreads offensive comments about Armenia’s leadership. Two of them were set free on Sunday and Monday in accordance with court orders. The National Security Service (NSS) charged Ara Saghatelian, a former chief of the Armenian parliament staff, Karen Bekarian, a veteran pundit and former lawmaker, and two other men with calling for violence and criticizing government actions in breach of martial law declared during the autumn war in Nagorno-Karabakh. In a statement, the NSS claimed that the “group” led by Saghatelian did that through a Facebook page opened in the name of a certain “Gagik Soghomonyan.” It cited in particular the “fake” Facebook user’s abusive statuses blaming Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian for Armenia’s defeat in the war, branding him a “traitor” and insulting his supporters. The Facebook page continued to be updated after the arrests. All four suspects denied any connection with “Gagik Soghomonyan.” Lawyers representing them dismissed the accusations as politically motivated. A Yerevan court sanctioned on Sunday the two-month pre-trial arrest of Saghatelian, who had also run a government-funded public relations agency during former President Serzh Sarkisian’s rule. His lawyer said he will appeal against the decision. Another, little-known suspect, Aram Sargsian, was also remanded in custody. At the same time the court ordered Bekarian and the fourth suspect, Mher Avagian, released from jail. Avagian heads a non-governmental organization called the International Center for the Development of Parliamentarianism. Bekarian described the criminal case as “political persecution” when he spoke to reporters following his release on Monday. “When you can’t understand the essence of the case, can’t understand what is being prosecuted, when you see no logic [behind it] you quickly realize that the [investigators’] motive is completely different,” he said. Bekarian used to represent Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK) in Armenia’s former parliament. He is a co-founder of the Qaryak Media company comprising a TV channel, a radio station and an online news website. All three media outlets are highly critical of the current government. Representatives of the HHK and other opposition groups strongly condemned the arrests. Yerevan Sees Stronger Russian Military Presence In Armenia Armenia -- Russian and Armenian troops hold joint military exercises at the Alagyaz shooting range, September 24, 2020. Russia is helping Armenia modernize its armed forces after the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh and will also expand Russian military presence in the South Caucasus state, according to Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian. “The issue of expanding and reinforcing the Russian military base in the Republic of Armenia has always been on the agenda and the Armenian side has always been interested in that,” Harutiunian told the RIA Novosti news agency in an interview published on Monday. “Of course, the leadership of Russia’s Defense Ministry has taken into account existing military-political realities in the region and taken right steps towards strengthening and rearming the base, and I’m sure that this is going to be a long-term process,” he said without elaborating. Harutiunian stressed that there is “no need” to open a second Russian base in Armenia. “It’s probably more correct to speak about the possibility of a redeployment of a detachment of the [existing] Russian base, given its expansion, to Armenia’s eastern direction,” he said, adding that Moscow and Yerevan are already working on that. Harutiunian referred to Armenia’s Syunik province bordering districts southwest of Karabakh which were retaken by Azerbaijan during and after the six-week war stopped by a Russian-brokered ceasefire on November 10. Russia deployed soldiers and border guards to the region to help the Armenian military defend it against possible Azerbaijani attacks. Yerevan announced plans to further deepen Russian-Armenian military ties shortly after the war. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian stated on New Year’s Eve that his country now needs “new security guarantees.” Pashinian reaffirmed those plans at a January 11 meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Later in January, a delegation led by Colonel-General Sergei Istrakov, the deputy chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, visited Yerevan for nearly weeklong negotiations with the Armenian army’s top brass. Harutiunian told RIA Novosti that the talks were aimed at “assisting us in the reform and modernization of Armenia’s armed forces.” The two sides worked out concrete “recommendations” on how to modernize the Armenian army in the current circumstances, he said. “A very serious emphasis was put on the military-technical component of the matter,” the minister added in reference to arms acquisitions. Russian military officials are thus already involved in Armenian defense reforms in “in the most direct way,” he said. Armenia has long received Russian weapons at knockdown prices and even for free thanks to its bilateral defense agreements with Russia and membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Reprinted on ANN/Armenian News with permission from RFE/RL Copyright (c) 2021 Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Inc. 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.