Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has rejected calls to resign and warned of “an attempted military coup” as the United States and Russia urged all sides to deescalate an intensifying political crisis.
Speaking to around 20,000 supporters in the center of the capital Yerevan on February 25, Pashinian said Armenians would not allow the armed forces to interfere after top military brass joined opposition demands for his resignation.
“As prime minister, my order to all soldiers, officers and generals of the armed forces is – gentlemen, do your job – the protection of the Armenian borders and its territorial integrity. This is my order, and no one can dare to [violate] this order,” Pashinian told the rally.
The prime minister, who spoke amid a heavy security presence after leading a march through the streets of Yerevan, was reacting to a letter released earlier in the day by the general staff demanding he and his government resign.
In response, the Defense Ministry issued a statement declaring any involvement of the military in politics is “unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, opposition parties organized a rival protest of about 10,000 supporters in the capital demanding Pashinian step down, then began setting up camps and barricades outside parliament.
Vazgen Manukian, a group of opposition parties’ joint prime minister candidate, threatened around-the-clock protests until an extraordinary session of parliament meets to remove Pashinian.
Pashinian, whose My Step alliance holds a majority in parliament, has rejected opposition demands for early elections and called for consultations.
The brewing crisis drew swift international support for the civilian government and calls for restraint.
The United States, which has friendly ties with Armenia, warned the military and urged all sides to avoid violence.
“We remind all parties of the bedrock democratic principle that states’ armed forces should not intervene in domestic politics,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin held a phone conversation with Pashinian.
“Putin spoke in favor of maintaining order and calm in Armenia and settling the situation in line with the law,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “President Putin backs the legitimate Armenian authorities and hopes for the soonest possible rectification of the situation.”
Russia is a key ally of Armenia and has a military base in the country.
Pashinian has faced mounting protests and calls from the opposition for his resignation following a six-week conflict between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh last year.
A Russian-brokered cease-fire deal Pashinian signed in November brought an end to 44 days of fierce fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh where Armenian forces suffered territorial and battlefield losses from Azerbaijan’s Turkish-backed military.
Under the deal, Armenia ceded control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and all seven surrounding districts of Azerbaijan that had been occupied by Armenian forces since the early 1990s.
In the letter from military officers, the general staff accused Pashinian and his government of bringing the country “to the brink of collapse” and said it “will no longer be able to make adequate decisions in this critical situation for the Armenian people.”
The letter expressed “resolute protest” against Pashinian’s dismissal a day earlier of Tigran Khachatryan, the first deputy chief of the general staff, calling the prime minister’s reasons “short-sighted” and his action “an anti-state, irresponsible step.”
Khachatryan had earlier mocked Pashinian’s analysis of Russian weapons used in the war against Azerbaijan.
The letter was signed by several dozen army officials, including Chief of the General Staff Onik Gasparian.
Pashinian quickly moved to dismiss Gasparian following the letter’s publication, demanding President Armen Sarkisian sign a decree removing him or that Gasparian announce his resignation.
Sarkisian, whose role is largely symbolic, said he was taking urgent steps to try to defuse the crisis, calling on all involved to “show restraint and common sense.”
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, AFP, and Interfax