Various political factions have been locked in a standoff since the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Armenia joined the ranks of the opposition forces demanding Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation in a move he has condemned as a military coup attempt.
At the heart of the political turmoil is a dispute over the use of the Russian-provided Iskander missile system in the 2020 Artsakh War. On February 25, Pashinyan issued a dismissal order for the First Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces Tiran Khachatryan after he laughed at the PM’s claim that the Iskander missile system only partially fired during an interview. Pashinyan’s statement was a response to an accusation made by former President Serge Sarkisian that the military did not deploy the Iskander systems during the critical stage of the war. The Russian Defense Ministry released a statement alleging that the PM had been “misled” and that Iskander missile systems were not deployed during the conflict. Pashinyan’s spokesperson Mane Gevorgyan told the press that the PM “hadn’t been briefed correctly regarding this situation.”
On Thursday Pashinyan also announced the creation of a working group to lead reforms of the Armed Forces headed by Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutyunyan.
In response to the PM’s interventions into its inner workings, the General Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces released an incendiary press release on Thursday morning demanding his resignation. “The General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Armenia expresses its resolute protest against the dismissal of the First Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Armenia for short-sighted reasons,” the statement reads. “The Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia and the Government are no longer able to make adequate decisions in this critical situation for the Armenian people.
“For a long time the Armed Forces patiently tolerated the ‘attacks’ aimed at discrediting the Armed Forces from the current leadership, but everything has its limits,” the statement continues. “Inefficient governance by the current authorities and grave mistakes in foreign policy have brought the country to the brink of collapse.”
The statement immediately provoked divergent reactions. Pashinyan condemned the announcement as a “military coup attempt.” The Ministry of Defense concurred, sustaining that “all attempts to involve the Armed Forces in any political process are inadmissible.” Indeed, according to Articles 14 and 155 of the Armenian Constitution, the Armed Forces must maintain neutrality in political matters as they are under the subordination of the government and civilian control.
The PM’s opponents, including the Homeland Salvation Movement, have expressed their solidarity with the military brass. “The Homeland Salvation Movement welcomes the statement by the highest command of the Armenian Armed Forces and expresses its solidarity with the sole and unselfish guarantor of our country, our Armed Forces,” reads the response by the movement. “We consider it unnecessary to repeat assessments of the destructive actions and consequences of the current leadership and the person holding the office of prime minister.”
Pashinyan suggested a connection between certain high ranking military officials and political circles during a Facebook Live address shortly after. “We have reached a point where, unfortunately, we cannot avoid asking questions of our high-ranking military officials…if we want to clarify the entire truth about the war,” he upheld. In response the General Staff of the Armed Forces released a second statement defending its earlier press release as reflective of the “clear conviction and position of the generals and officers” and free of any external pressure.
Mass demonstrations in the country’s capital have been ongoing since Thursday, organized by various factions of the PM’s supporters and opponents. During a rally on Thursday in Republic Square, Pashinyan reiterated his stance that he would not resign unless he was voted out of office by the people who elected him. “It is the end of the Velvet,” he proclaimed. “The people know that the reason for this defeat is because of those people who, for years, stole from the army, from the people, from the country…Those who stole from the country have no path back.”
Each side also organized mass demonstrations on March 1st, on the thirteenth anniversary of the 2008 presidential election protests. Followers of the Homeland Salvation Movement gathered on Baghramyan Ave., where they have been camping out overnight since last Thursday to demand the PM’s resignation. “Our entire army signed this statement. This is the end,” former Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces and Secretary-General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization Yuri Khatchaturov declared during Monday’s protest. “Do you understand, even Erdogan and Aliyev are openly concerned? They are worried because they understand that the Armenian army has always defeated them and will defeat them…I respectfully address all soldiers, sergeants, contractors, everyone. Know that the people are with you.”
Pashinyan, for his part, organized a mass rally with his supporters in Republic Square that same evening. He addressed the opposition parliamentary forces, inviting them to participate in snap parliamentary elections. This proclamation reverses the previous stance of the ruling My Step party, which had announced that it had foreclosed the possibility of early elections. The opposition parliamentary factions include the Prosperous Armenia Party, led by Gagik Tsarukyan, and the Bright Armenia Party, led by Edmon Marukyan, who has expressed his party’s readiness to hold early elections. The PM is set to meet with each of the party heads in the coming days.
Pashinyan also proposed a constitutional referendum that would revert the country from a parliamentary to a semi-presidential republic during his speech. One consequence of this change is that the president would be elected through a direct vote rather than by members of parliament.
The prime minister and president have been embroiled in a disagreement over the dismissal of Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Onik Gasparyan, one of the signatories of the February 25 press release. President Armen Sarkissian sent the draft decree back to the PM’s office with objections on grounds of its unconstitutionality. On Tuesday the President confirmed that he has decided not to sign the draft decree. Instead, he will apply to the Constitutional Court regarding the law on military service to determine the constitutionality of the law. The law regulates the grounds for dismissing military personnel from office.
According to Article 139 of the Armenian Constitution, the president has the option of applying to the Constitutional Court if his objections to a draft decree are not accepted by the prime minister’s office. However, since the president’s application to the court does not concern the draft decree itself, the decree can enter into force in spite of the president’s disagreement, and Gasparyan can be discharged. The General Staff of the Armed Forces reported that Gasparyan will remain in his post for the next eight days while the Constitutional Court reviews the president’s application.
The Homeland Salvation Movement released a statement expressing “extreme worry” about the president’s position on Gasparyan’s dismissal. Representatives of the movement, including Homeland Party leader Artur Vanetsyan, Republican Party member Vahram Baghdasaryan and Armenian Revolutionary Federation Supreme Body member Artsvik Minasyan, met with the president on Wednesday and exchanged views on resolving the political crisis in the country.
“From a legal perspective, the president cannot be inactive without justification,” Minasyan declared during a Homeland Salvation Movement rally on Wednesday. “The law stipulates that the president must either sign the degree or approach the Constitutional Court. There is no third option. The third option is inactivity.”
Meanwhile, Vazgen Manukyan—the candidate selected by the Homeland Salvation Movement to lead an interim government—is facing charges for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. Manukyan is under investigation for his public calls during a February 20 demonstration in which he said, “We must be prepared to seize power by rebelling with lightning speed.” Manukyan has been summoned for questioning by the Investigative Committee on March 4th.