Armenia’s prime minister has hit out at what he called an attempted coup after the military’s General Staff demanded he step down after months of protests sparked by the nation’s defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan.
The General Staff issued a statement calling for the resignation of Nikol Pashinyan, signed by senior military officers, triggered by his decision earlier this week to oust the first deputy chief of the General Staff.
Mr Pashinyan described the statement as a “military coup attempt” and ordered the firing of the General Staff’s chief. He urged the military to only listen to his orders and called on his supporters to goo into the streets to back him.
Meanwhile, throngs of opposition demonstrators swarmed the streets of the Armenian capital, chanting “Nikol, you traitor!” and “Nikol, resign!”
Opposition supporters blocked the streets around Yerevan, paralysing traffic all around the city.
The developments came after Armenia saw a spike in demonstrations this week demanding Mr Pashinyan step down.
Protests calling for his resignation began immediately after he signed the November 10 peace deal that saw Azerbaijan reclaim control over large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas.
The Russia-brokered agreement ended 44 days of fierce fighting in which the Azerbaijani army routed Armenian forces.
Mr Pashinyan has defended the peace deal as a painful but necessary move to prevent Azerbaijan from overrunning the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but was under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994. That war left Nagorno-Karabakh and substantial surrounding territory in Armenian hands.
Heavy fighting that erupted in late September marked the biggest escalation of the decades-old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, killing more than 6,000 people on both sides.
Despite simmering public anger over the military defeat, Mr Pashinyan has manoeuvred to shore up his rule and the protests died down amid a cold winter, but the opposition demonstrations resumed this week, and the dispute between Mr Pashinyan and the military commanders has weakened his position.
He fired the deputy chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Tiran Khachatryan, earlier this week after he criticised the prime minister’s claim that just 10% of Russia-supplied Iskander missiles that Armenia used in the conflict exploded on impact.
The General Staff responded on Thursday with a statement demanding Mr Pashinyan’s resignation and warned the government against trying to use force against demonstrators. Immediately after the statement, he fired the General Staff chief, Colonel General Onik Gasparyan.
Russia, worried about its ally plunging deeper into turmoil, has voiced concern about the tensions and emphasised that Armenia must sort out its problems itself.
“We are calling for calm and believe that the situation should remain in the constitutional field,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Mr Pashinyan and called for the “preservation of calm and order in Armenia”, Mr Peskov said.
Armenia has relied on Moscow’s financial and military support and hosts a Russian military base – ties that will keep the two nations closely allied regardless of the outcome of the political infighting.
And even though the peace deal is widely reviled in Armenia with many calling it a betrayal, it is unlikely to be revised – no matter who is in charge – following the fighting that demonstrated Azerbaijan’s overwhelming military edge.
The US embassy in Yerevan urged all parties in Armenia to “exercise calm and restraint and to de-escalate tensions peacefully, without violence.”
In Brussels, European Commission spokesman Peter Stano also called on rival sides to “avoid any rhetoric or actions that could lead to further escalation”.