The Armenian prime minister accused the armed forces of an attempted coup against his government after senior military officials signed a letter asking him to resign, in an escalation of the political crisis caused by the defeat of Armenia in the Nagorno war. -Karabakh last year.
Tensions between Nikol Pashinyan and the army erupted into open conflict on Thursday when the chief of the armed forces’ general staff, Onik Gasparyan, and other senior officials accused the prime minister of bringing Armenia to the “brink of collapse.”
In response, Pashinyan fired Gasparyan and called on his own supporters to demonstrate in Yerevan’s Republic Square, the site of the popular revolution that brought him to power three years ago. A video broadcast showed Pashinyan in a suit arriving at the plaza on Thursday and addressing his supporters through a megaphone.
“The army cannot get involved in the political process,” Pashinyan said in a speech. “The army should only obey the people and the political leadership chosen by the people.”
There have been no reports that the military has mobilized to seize government buildings or unseat Pashinyan. However, discontent against the prime minister has grown over Armenia’s defeat in the six-week war with Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh last year. As part of a Russian-brokered ceasefire, Armenia was forced to make painful concessions to Azerbaijan, handing over cities and villages it had won in a war after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but populated by ethnic Armenians.
Opponents of the ceasefire called it capitulation and stormed the parliament and the Pashinyan residence the night it was signed. Protests have boiled since then and Armenia has been at a standstill, with the administration paralyzed but the prime minister ignoring calls for early elections.
On Thursday, Pashinyan told Armenians that he had “thought about resigning,” but added that “the people will decide whether or not I resign.” Thousands of his followers marched behind him through the streets from the Plaza de la República. There were skirmishes as the march passed over a counter-protest organized by the opposition, but there were no serious clashes.
Earlier this week, Pashinyan had fired Tiran Khacharyan, Gasparyan’s first deputy, for ridiculing the prime minister’s claims that the Russian-supplied Iskander missiles used in the conflict mostly failed to explode upon contact.
In response, Gasparyan, along with his deputies and other senior commanders, signed an open letter on Thursday saying: “The prime minister and the government can no longer make reasonable decisions in this critical and fatal situation for the Armenian people. Due to the current situation, the Armenian armed forces demand the resignation of the prime minister and the government, warning at the same time that they refrain from using force against the people whose children died defending the homeland and Artsakh [the Armenian word for the Nagorno-Karabakh territories]. “
The prime minister reportedly responded by firing Gasparyan and called his supporters to the streets. “I regard the statement from the headquarters as an attempted military coup,” Pashinyan wrote in a statement on Facebook.
In his remarks Thursday, Pashinyan called for “an end to velvet,” a reference to the lack of violence or retaliation in the country’s 2018 revolution. In his remarks, he threatened opposition leaders with arrest, saying: “There is a line. If you cross it, you will be arrested. “
Armenian President Armen Sarkissian, whose role is largely symbolic, called for restraint everywhere. “Reaffirming the role of the presidency as a balancing body, I am taking urgent measures to ease tensions and find ways to resolve the situation peacefully,” he said. He had previously asked Pashinyan to resign to trigger snap elections.
The opposition has been backed by former President Robert Kocharyan, who on Thursday called on Armenians to back the military against the government. “The authorities who have lost the war and handed over the land must go,” he said. By nightfall, opposition members had blocked a central avenue in Yerevan and were reportedly pitching tents.