By AVET DEMOURIAN,
YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Armenia’s prime minister accused top military officers on Thursday of attempting a coup after they demanded he step down, adding fuel to monthslong protests calling for his resignation following the nation’s defeat in a conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The demonstrations began immediately after Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signed a Nov. 10 peace deal that saw Azerbaijan reclaim control over large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas that had been held by Armenian forces for more than a quarter-century.
Those protests have gathered pace this week, and the feud with his top military commanders has weakened Pashinyan’s position. The immediate trigger for the standoff was Pashinyan’s decision to oust the first deputy chief of the military’s General Staff, a group of the armed forces’ top commanders.
In response, the General Staff called for Pashinyan’s resignation — but the prime minister doubled down and dismissed the chief of the General Staff.
He described the military’s statement as a “military coup attempt” and urged troops to only listen to his orders.
He also called on his backers to come to the streets and then later walked among them, using a loudspeaker to rally support. “We need a conversation, not a confrontation,” he said.
Pashinyan denied rumors that he was preparing to flee the country.
Supporters of Pashinyan and the opposition engaged in sporadic scuffles on the streets of Yerevan on Thursday.
Russia’s government voiced concern over the tensions but emphasized that Armenia needs to sort it out itself. “We are calling for calm and believe that the situation should remain in the constitutional filed,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
The crisis has its roots in Armenia’s humiliating defeat in heavy fighting with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh that erupted in late September and lasted 44 days. A Russian-brokered agreement ended the conflict in which the Azerbaijani army routed Armenian forces — but only after more than 6,000 people died on both sides.
Pashinyan has defended the peace deal as a painful but necessary move to prevent Azerbaijan from overrunning the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region, which lies within Azerbaijan but was under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994.
Opposition groups have dismissed that argument. On Thursday, opposition demonstrators swarmed the streets of the Armenian capital, chanting “Nikol, you traitor!” and “Nikol, resign!” They paralyzed traffic all around Yerevan.
Despite the simmering public anger over the military defeat, Pashinyan has maneuvered to shore up his rule and the protests died down amid the winter’s cold. But the opposition demonstrations resumed with new vigor this week — and then came the spat with top officers.
Pashinyan fired the deputy chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Tiran Khachatryan, earlier this week after he derided 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 Thursday with a statement demanding Pashinyan’s resignation and warned the government against trying to use force against the opposition demonstrators. Immediately after the statement, Pashinyan dismissed the General Staff chief, Col. Gen. Onik Gasparyan.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov and Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this report.