Supporters of the government rally at Armenia’s Republic Square, February 25, 2021 (photo Raffi Elliott)

Pashinyan Accuses Military Leaders of Plot

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YEREVAN — Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan accused the country’s top military brass of instigating a coup following a press release by the Army General Staff calling for his government’s resignation on Thursday, February 25. The letter was also signed by the commanders of all five of Armenia’s military districts. According to the statement, the military claimed to no longer trust the government’s ability to “make adequate decisions in this critical situation for the Armenian people.”

Anti-coup protesters march in Yerevan (photo Raffi Elliott)

The statement came a day after the dismissal of First Deputy Chief of the General Staff Tiran Khachatryan, but also coincided with a row over the prime minister’s recent comments over the effectiveness of the Russian-manufactured Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile system. The remarks, meant as a rebuke to criticism over their use by former president Serzh Sargsyan, were not well received in Moscow. Russia, one of the world’s largest weapons exporters, is notoriously protective of the reputation of its weapons systems.

However, according to Antranik Kocharyan, who chairs the parliamentary committee on security and defence, the firing was part of a series of comprehensive military reforms which the prime minister announced earlier this week. Such reforms had been in the planning stage for months following Armenia’s military misfortunes during last year’s Karabakh War. Investigators have already pressed charges on various high-ranking military figures over corruption and embezzlement cases.

Gathering thousands of supporters in Yerevan’s Republic Square, Pashinyan denounced what he claimed to be the military’s collusion with the “counter-revolutionary forces” represented by a coalition of mostly non-parliamentary opposition parties — the three largest of which formed the government until the 2018 Velvet Revolution forced them out.

“As the democratically elected prime minister of the Republic of Armenia, I order all servicemembers of every rank of the Armenian Armed Forces to perform their duties of defending the Homeland’s borders, and avoid meddling in politics” Pashinyan declared as crowds cheered.

The prime minister also defended his government’s record as a benefactor to the military since taking office two years ago, stating that no expense was spared in upgrading the army’s fighting capabilities, lifting living conditions and providing wage raises across the board. “Unfortunately, the regime which enriched itself at the military’s expense for decades continues to hold sway,” Pashinyan said, referring to the former administration.

Police keep pro- and anti-government protesters apart (photo Raffi Elliott)

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At another square in central Yerevan, a coalition of 16 opposition parties, including the formerly-ruling Republicans, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, and Prosperous Armenia held a smaller rally in which it called once more for Pashinyan’s resignation, and offered its support to the military. Vasgen Manukyan, the coalition’s pick for prime minister, claimed that this was the current government’s last chance to leave without blood. Seyran Ohanyan, a former minister of defence under Sargsyan who also commanded the unsuccessful defense of Shushi, spoke at the rally, which was also attended by general Yurki Khatchaturov. Khatchaturov is currently facing charges for ordering the army to violently crush protests on March 1, 2008.

Another former president, Robert Kocharyan, also voiced support for the military’s standoff with the government. “At this crucial moment, we call on the people to stand by the Armenian Armed Forces. The government which lost the war and ceded lands must leave.”

“They want to paint me as a traitor,” Pashinyan said, referring to the opposition parties, “but let me tell you what treason is. When we were fighting the war in October, the heads of these parties tried to convince the army to take power in Yerevan instead of fighting the Turks,” He then reiterated that he was not trying to deflect blame or responsibility for the defeat on anyone else, but instead took a more conciliatory tone towards his detractors.

Calling once more for the army’s chief of staff to resign, Pashinyan announced his readiness to open a dialogue with all opposition forces in order to find a solution to the current crisis, insisting only that it be done within the framework of the constitution. The prime minister then led his supporters towards Yerevan’s working-class Yerort Marz district, as the opposition attempted to block access to the National Assembly building.

Both rallies remained largely peaceful throughout the day despite some exchanges of insults between supporters of the two camps as Pashinyan supporters marched past Freedom Square, where the opposition held its meeting. Police were quick to intervene to avoid any scuffles.

Armenian President Armen Sarkissian responded to the crisis by calling on all sides to avoid provocations, exercise restraint and common sense. “Our people cannot afford to be divided. Any attempt to destabilize the state institutions should not be tolerated. We must act unconditionally within the framework of the Constitution,” his statement read.

The Ministry of Defense issued the following statement the same day: “The Armed Forces of the Republic of Armenia fully implement the protection of the borders of our homeland and ensure security. The army is an apolitical structure, and all attempts to involve the armed forces in any political process are inadmissible.”

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