Armenia’s political crisis reached new heights today, as the country’s armed forces demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, raising fears of a military coup.
Just before noon local time, the general staff of the Armenian armed forces released an unprecedented statement. Declaring that the “inefficient governance of the current authorities” had brought the country “to the brink of collapse,” it stated that Mr Pashinyan and his government were “no longer able to make adequate decisions... for the Armenian people.”
Dozens of high-ranking officers, including the Chief of the General Staff, Onik Gasparyan, undersigned the statement.
The demand was immediately rejected by Mr Pashinyan, who called on his supporters to gather on the capital’s Republic Square and reject the army’s demands. He then led a crowd of supporters on a march through downtown Yerevan ahead of a planned speech.
The route almost brought the pro-government crowd into direct confrontation with an opposition rally. As Mr Pashinyan and his supporters passed by, anti-government protesters hurled cries of ‘traitor’ and ‘resign’ at him. Police broke up several scuffles between the two sides.
Mr Pashinyan then returned to Republic Square for a public speech, his first since the end of the war, railing against the army and his political opponents.
“The army cannot be involved in politics,” Mr Pashinyan told the crowd. “They must respect the electoral will of the people.”
He also issued a warning to his political opponents.
“Politicians should know that there is a line,” Mr Pashinyan said. “If you cross it, you will be arrested.”
The immediate trigger for the army’s statement came in the wake of Mr Pashinyan’s dismissal on Wednesday of the deputy army chief of staff, Tiran Khachatryan. This followed a scandal that first emerged on Tuesday, when the prime minister criticised the wartime effectiveness of a Russian ballistic missile system, leading to a sharp rebuke from both Russian officials and Armenian military brass.
Many Armenian oppositionists accuse Mr Pashinyan of alienating Russia, Yerevan’s chief military and political ally.
The country’s political crisis has been going on for months. Since signing a ceasefire deal, on crushing terms, that ended last autumn’s 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, Mr Pashinyan has faced regular protests against his rule.
The most prominent opposition bloc arrayed against him, the ‘Homeland Salvation Movement,’ consists of 17 parties that have held regular rallies. Former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan has also come out strongly against Mr Pashinyan.
While Mr Pashinyan has lost support, he is still widely seen in Armenia as the better choice than the opposition, dominated by members of the much-reviled old regime toppled in 2018’s ‘Velvet Revolution,’ which toppled the authoritarian government of his predecessor, Serzh Sargsyan.
“I don’t much like Nikol [Pashinyan], but what other choice do we have?,” said Vrezh, a 45-year old mechanic at Thursday’s pro-government rally. “The others robbed the country for thirty years,” he added.
Others chose not to attend either rally, out of broad dissatisfaction with both sides.
“Nikol is an idiot and needs to go, but the others are just thieves,” said Astghik, a 30-year old entrepreneur. “After 3,000 years as a nation, I can’t believe these are the best politicians we can come up with,” she said.
Moscow announced that it was watching Thursday’s developments ‘with concern,’ while noting that the turmoil in the country was ‘an internal matter’ for Armenia.
Regional experts saw today as a watershed moment for the country.
“The military’s intervention into politics is demonstrably unprecedented,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center. “It challenges the entire stability of civil-military relations, especially given that over three dozen senior officers [signed the statement],” he added.
“The only way out is seeking a fresh mandate from new elections,” Mr Giragosian said, adding that the ruling My Step bloc was likely to still win a governing majority, albeit reduced, in any new vote.
At the time of writing, a large opposition rally was still taking place outside of Armenia’s parliament building.