Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has defied calls to resign and accused the military of an attempted coup, as divisions over his handling of last year’s war with Azerbaijan brought thousands to the streets.
“The ineffective management of the current authorities and the serious mistakes in foreign policy have put the country on the brink of collapse,” the army’s general staff and other senior military officials said in a statement yesterday.
Two former presidents, Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sarksyan, released statements calling on Armenians to throw their support behind the military.
It was unclear whether the army was willing to use force to back its statement.
Hours after the military’s statement, Pashinyan rallied some 20,000 supporters in the centre of the capital Yerevan against what he said was an attempt to oust him.
The opposition gathered some 10,000 of its own supporters not far away, then began putting up tents and building barricades outside parliament as it vowed to hold round-the-clock demonstrations.
There were no signs of any military action against Pashinyan.
“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 “attempts to involve (the military) in political processes are unacceptable”.
Pashinyan said he is ready to start talks with the opposition, but also threatened to arrest any opponents who “go beyond political statements”.
The prime minister 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 joined calls yesterday 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 ordered the firing of the chief of the general staff Onik Gasparyan.
Pashinyan then led supporters through the streets of the capital, surrounded by his family, ministers and security detail, as marchers chanted “Nikol Prime Minister!”
He attempted to downplay the military statement, saying that it 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.
But Armenia’s opposition urged him to heed the 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.
Their supporters had gathered outside parliament in the early evening, blocking traffic, erecting tents and making barricades out of rubbish bins.
“We will bring tents, stoves, everything we need. We are staying here. The lawmakers can either come or we will bring them to parliament,” said Ishkhan Saghatelyan of the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation, also known as Dashnaktsutyun.
President Armen Sarkisian, whose role is largely symbolic, said he is taking urgent steps to try to defuse the crisis, while Armenia’s Apostolic Church called for all sides to hold talks “for the sake of our homeland and people”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Pashinyan and “called on all parties to show restraint”, the Kremlin’s spokesman said.
The European Union’s spokesman said it is following developments closely and called for the armed forces to “maintain neutrality in political matters” in line with Armenia’s Constitution.
Pashinyan has faced fierce criticism since he signed a 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 agreement 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.
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