Thu 25 Feb 2021 10.42 EST
Nikol Pashinyan addresses a rally of his supporters at Republic Square in central Yerevan on Thursday. Photograph: Stepan Poghosyan/Photolure/ÒÀÑÑ
The Armenian prime minister has accused the armed forces of an attempted coup against his government after top military officers signed a letter calling on him to resign, in an escalation of the political crisis sparked by Armenia’s defeat in the war in Nagorno-Karabakh last year.
Tensions between Nikol Pashinyan and the military erupted into open conflict on Thursday as the chief of the armed forces general staff, Onik Gasparyan, and other senior commanders accused the prime minister of bringing Armenia to “the brink of collapse”.
In response, Pashinyan dismissed Gasparyan and called his own supporters to rally 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 square on Thursday and addressing his supporters through a bullhorn.
“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 elected by the people.”
There have been no reports of the military being mobilised to seize government buildings or otherwise unseat Pashinyan. However, discontent has grown against the prime minister 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 towns and villages it had won in a war after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but populated by ethnic Armenians.
Opponents of the ceasefire called it a capitulation and stormed parliament and Pashinyan’s residence the night it was signed. Protests have simmered since and Armenia has been in deadlock, with the administration paralysed but the prime minister ignoring calls for snap elections.
On Thursday, Pashinyan told Armenians he had “thought about resigning”, but added that “the people will decide whether I resign or not”. Thousands of his supporters marched behind him through the streets from Republic Square. There were scuffles as the march passed by a counter-protest organised by the opposition but no serious clashes took place.
Earlier this week, Pashinyan had dismissed Tiran Khacharyan, Gasparyan’s first deputy, for ridiculing the prime minister’s claims that Russian-supplied Iskander missiles used in the conflict mostly failed to explode on 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 are no longer able to 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, at the same time warning to 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 with Gasparyan’s dismissal and called his supporters to the streets. “I consider the statement of the general headquarters as an attempted military coup,” Pashinyan wrote in a statement on Facebook.
In his remarks on Thursday, Pashinyan called for “an end to velvet”, a reference to the lack of violence or reprisals 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.”
Armenia’s president, Armen Sarkissian, whose role is largely symbolic, called for restraint on all sides. “Reaffirming the role of the presidency as a balancing body, I am taking urgent measures to defuse tensions and find ways to resolve the situation peacefully,” he said. He had previously called on Pashinyan to resign to trigger early elections.
The opposition has been backed by the 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 surrendered the land must go,” he said. By evening, members of the opposition had blocked a central Yerevan avenue and were reported to be erecting tents.
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The Guardian© 2021