Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan accused the military of an attempted coup and brought supporters to the streets on Thursday, as months of tensions over its defeat in last year’s war with Azerbaijan came to a head.
Addressing some 20,000 supporters in central Yerevan, Pashinyan told military officers it was their duty to “obey the people” after top generals issued a statement calling on him to resign.
There were no signs of any military action against Pashinyan after the statement by the general staff, which he denounced as an attempted coup.
“As an elected prime minister, I am ordering all generals, officers and soldiers: do your job of protecting the country’s borders and territorial integrity,” he said during the rally.
The army “must obey the people and elected authorities,” Pashinyan said.
The defence ministry also issued a statement declaring that the army had no place in politics.
“The army is not a political institution and attempts to involve it in political processes are unacceptable,” it said.
Pashinyan said he was ready to start talks with the opposition, but also threatened to arrest any of his opponents who “go beyond political statements.”
Pashinyan has been under intense pressure over his handling of the conflict for control of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, but has ignored repeated calls to resign for losing swathes of territory to Azerbaijan.
After backing the prime minister for months, the military’s general staff on Thursday joined calls for him to step down, saying in a statement that he and his cabinet “are not capable of taking adequate decisions.”
Pashinyan hit back with an accusation that top brass were mounting an “attempted military coup” and fired the chief of the general staff Onik Gasparyan.
Calls for calm
Pashinyan then led supporters through the streets of the capital, surrounded by his family, ministers and security detail, as marchers chanted “Nikol Prime Minister!”
In an earlier statement, Pashinyan said the military’s call had been an “emotional reaction” to his firing the previous day of the deputy chief of the general staff, Tigran Khachatryan.
Khachatryan had ridiculed claims by Pashinyan that Iskander missiles supplied by Russia — Armenia’s main military ally — had failed to hit targets during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia’s opposition, who have been calling for Pashinyan’s resignation since a ceasefire deal in November, urged him to heed the military’s demand.
“We call on Nikol Pashinyan not to lead the country towards civil war and to avoid bloodshed. Pashinyan has one last chance to avoid turmoil,” Prosperous Armenia, the country’s largest opposition party, said in a statement.
Prosperous Armenia and another opposition party, Bright Armenia, called for the holding of an extraordinary session of parliament, which is controlled by Pashinyan’s allies.
More than 10,000 opposition supporters rallied in another part of central Yerevan on Thursday, with some vowing permanent demonstrations until Pashinyan resigned.
President Armen Sarkisian, whose role is largely symbolic, said he was taking urgent steps to try to defuse the crisis, while the Apostolic Church called for all sides to hold talks “for the sake of our homeland and people.”
Moscow also called for calm, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu strongly condemned what he said was an “attempted coup in Armenia.”
Pashinyan has faced fierce criticism since he signed the peace deal brokered by Russia that ended the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian region that broke from Azerbaijan’s control during a war in the early 1990s.
Fresh fighting erupted over the region in late September with Azerbaijani forces backed by ally Turkey making steady gains.
After six weeks of clashes and bombardments that claimed some 6,000 lives, a ceasefire deal was signed that handed over significant territory to Azerbaijan and allowed for the deployment of Russian peacekeepers.
The agreement was seen as a national humiliation for many in Armenia, though Pashinyan has said he had no choice but to agree or see his country’s forces suffer even bigger losses.
It was met with protests in the capital Yerevan, where demonstrators stormed government offices on the night it was signed and have continued to regularly gather.
Pashinyan has rejected calls to resign and for early elections despite the building pressure.
The 45-year-old former newspaper editor came to power spearheading peaceful protests in 2018 and initially brought a wave of optimism to Armenia, a deeply impoverished ex-Soviet state that also borders Iran, Georgia and Turkey.