Politics

Armenia’s Military Leadership, Civilian Opposition Move to Oust Pashinian’s Government

Feature 26 February 2021
Armenia’s Military Leadership, Civilian Opposition Move to Oust Pashinian’s Government

A military-civilian putsch broke out in Yerevan (February 25) against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and his government, who are blamed for Armenia’s disastrous defeat by Azerbaijan in the 44-day Second Karabakh War (September 27–November 9, 2020), for complying with the armistice terms, and for general mismanagement of the country.

Armenia’s top military brass demanded Pashinian’s resignation in a collective statement on February 25, backed instantly by a wide array of political parties, some of which were holding pre-scheduled protests in downtown Yerevan on the same day. Civilian opposition parties had organized protest actions almost continuously in Yerevan and some provinces since November, but they were not gaining much traction until the military leadership made its move today.

The military’s deep-seated discontent, hitherto concealed from public view, rose to a boiling point over a seemingly trivial incident: Pashinian’s February 23 interview with a state media outlet, in which he offered yet another self-serving account of the war, lashed out again at his critics, and displayed ignorance of the military issues he attempted to address. His clueless comments about the Russian Iskander missiles in this interview (News.am, February 23) went viral and were ridiculed in Armenia and Russia.

The matter may have been laid to rest had Pashinian not moved to dismiss Lieutenant General Tiran Khachatrian, the first deputy chief of staff of Armenia’s Armed Forces, from his post on February 24. Khachatrian, a recipient of the National Hero of Armenia medal in the Karabakh war, was punished for an interview of his own (News.am, February 24), in which he laughed openly and repeatedly at Pashinian’s earlier remarks. Armenia’s head of state, Armen Sarkissian (convalescing after medical treatment abroad), granted Pashinian’s wish and co-signed for Khachatrian’s removal.

On February 25, 40 senior officers of the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff—among them 20 generals, including the commanders of five Army Corps, and 20 colonels of the General Staff—signed a public statement demanding the government’s resignation. The statement describes Pashinian as “ignoring the national interests, proceeding [instead] from personal sentiments and ambitions,” and the government as “incapable of taking adequate decisions for the Armenian people in this fateful crisis… The current authorities’ ineffective management and misconceived foreign policy have brought the country to disaster.” The Armed Forces’ chief of the General Staff, Colonel General Onik Gasparian, and his first deputy, Khachatrian, led the list of signatories (Arminfo, February 25).

Pashinian upped the ante with a statement terming the military leaders’ action as “an attempted coup d’état” and insinuating that they “rose against civilian authorities in order to avoid scrutiny into the details of the 44-day war.” Pashinian, moreover, ordered the chief of staff, General Gasparian (see above), dismissed; and he asked President Armen Sarkissian to co-sign the dismissal. Sarkissian, however, did not hasten to comply this time (Armenpress, February 25).

The prime minister promptly followed up with a televised appeal “to all” to immediately gather on Republic Square (Yerevan’s traditional venue for mass protests, including those led by Pashinian in the past) in order to thwart the “coup d’état.” Implicitly threatening to turn a crowd against the military high command, Pashinian warned the latter, “The military cannot be allowed to avoid accountability. We ourselves cannot fail to ask them certain questions in order to find out the truth about the war… Some Armenian generals do not like to answer society’s questions about certain events of this war. This does not mean that something must necessarily happen based on the answers, but answers must be given” (News.am, February 25). This final sentence seemed to contain an offer of leniency if the military desisted from the “coup.”

The defense minister, General (ret.) Vagarshak Harutiunian, appeared to remain silent through the day and evening. Two short, unsigned statements on the defense ministry’s behalf adopted an equidistant posture (Armenpress, February 25).

Pashinian’s party, My Step, holds a majority of almost two thirds in the current parliament (since 2018). The government’s resignation or ouster would probably trigger pre-term parliamentary elections, in which Pashinian’s party would be highly unlikely to match its 2018 performance.

Only two other parties are currently represented in the legislature, both opposing the government. These are Gagik Tsarukian’s Prosperous Armenia (an “oligarchic” party, associated with the old establishment) and Edmond Marukian’s Enlightened Armenia party (opposing both Pashinian and the old establishment, Marukian switched from pro-Western liberal to strident pro-Russia positions, as a political lesson of the lost war). These parties have joined a coalition of 16 small extra-parliamentary parties, including the old and still-influential Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun) in the anti-government protests on Republic Square. Former prime minister and defense minister Vazgen Manukian is the nominal leader of the 16-party alliance.

All these groups and personalities had been demanding the government’s resignation since November, along with all three former heads of state (Levon Ter-Petrosian, Robert Kocharian, Serge Sarkissian), both Catholicoses (of Etchmiadzin and of Cilicia), and an array of cultural institutions from the old establishment (see EDM, January 7). The military leadership’s entry into the fray should add the weight they seemed to lack thus far.

The article was republished from The Jamestown Foundation.

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