Watching closely: Attempted ‘Military Coup’ – Analysis of Political Crisis in Armenia Following the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War

Armenia is facing a serious concurrent political crisis following the recent 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. The Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenian and Azerbaijan, which lasted 44 days, ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire on November 9th, 2020. According to the signed ceasefire agreement, Armenia was forced to make concessions (handing over significant landmarks alongside Armenian populated towns and villages). Many Armenians were against this move, with some opponents calling it a capitulation, storming into parliament and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s residence the night the agreement was signed.

On the same day, following the signing of the agreement, a total of 17 opposition parties issued a joint statement demanding the resignation of PM Pashinyan and his government. Amongst the 17 parties, only one of which is parliamentary, were other prominent figures closely tied to the previous government, including Former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukyan, Former President’s Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharyan. Notably, in 2018 Pashinyan was democratically elected Prime Minister after appraisal for leading a peaceful (‘velvet’) revolution to topple the decadelong rule of Sargsyan and the corrupt system associated with his government. Furthermore, Kocharyan has been put under a currently standing trial with an official charge of ‘overthrowing the constitutional order‘ in 2008. 

Upon Pashinyan’s claim to not resign, there have been rising political tensions between the two factions: on one side being Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his government; on the other, the 17 political parties organized against him. Protests have simmered since, with demands for Armenian PM’s resignation, organized by opposition parties’ alliance calling itself the ‘Homeland Salvation Movement’. Manukyan, who has been put forward by the opposition as a replacement for Pashinyan, called on all Armenians to join the protest, threatening around-the-clock protests until an extraordinary parliament meeting to remove Pashinyan and call early elections. Pashinyan and his government have since suggested that the opposition parties hold snap parliamentary elections to reaffirm the ‘power of the people’; an offer that was rejected by all 17 opposing powers.

The mounting tensions have further been exacerbated following the General Chief of Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces’ public statement on February 25th, 2021. The statement called for the resignation of the Armenian PM and his government, accusing them of misrule and incompetence. The statement comes following public questions over the efficacy of Russian-provided Iskander missiles during the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war. This subject was broached by former-President Serzh Sargsyan and triggered a rebuke from Pashinyan. The subsequent response by Tiran Khachatryan, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces, in which the Pashinyan’s claims were ridiculed, caused the firing of Khachatryan himself. Pashinyan has now also dismissed the Chief of General Staff Armed Forces Onik Gasrparyan. Yet, both decrees have been sent to President Armen Sarkissian for his signature, where a decision to sign has not been made.  

However, in response to the statement, Pashinyan described it as a “military coup” attempt and invited all pro-government supporters to the Republic Square to deliberate reasons behind such a call from the military. The Prime Minister emphasized that the Armenian Army is always loved, highlighting that he believes many generals and high-ranking officers have signed the announcement under the order of the general’s superior to them. Pashinyan called for the Army to not object to the Armenian population’s political will and withhold from being involved in the political process. A statement was also issued by the Defence Ministry declaring any involvement of the military in politics as “unacceptable.” Furthermore, Pashinyan has again ruled out his resignation, emphasizing that the problem will not be solved, claiming that he will resign only when the democratically voted out or demanded resignation by the Armenian population. 

The 17 opposition parties have sided with the General Chief of Staff of the Armenian Armed Force’s public statement. Manukyan told supporters at a rally that the Army would never allow Gasparyan to be sacked. Some opposition demonstrators have now put-up tents outside the government headquarters and barricaded the main avenue to press their demand for Pashinyan’s resignation.

To break the impasse, conversation around peaceful democratic elections itself may be plausible

Assuming the role of political peacemaker, President Sarkissian held a meeting with Gasparyan, the President’s office said, without further details. As a result, Sarkissian returned the proposal to dismiss Gasparyan of Pashinyan, noting in the statement that the PM’s mediation apparently contradicts the Constitution. Pashinyan, without making any concessions, announced that he was returning the document to the President, with the hope that it would be signed this time. However, since Sarkissian has already stated that he sees a problem with the Constitution, he will likely use his authority to apply to the Constitutional Court, for which he has a three-day term. The Constitutional Court must consider the case within ten days after receiving the President’s application. Thus, Armenia remains in a state of uncertainty for another thirteen days, with no particular steps being taken as of yet to resolve the internal political crisis. The country is targeted by uncertainty, shocks, which may have serious consequences.

With the foundations of Armenia’s democratic transition linked to Pashinyan’s power under question, civil society’s level of support remains divided, with most not taking any side. The war’s stressors and its aftermath have revived pre-existing political division, and the outlook on Armenia’s political future remains uncertain. There are chances of a new opening for the pre-revolution political elites to regain influence, that was lost within the post-revolution parliamentary election in 2018. Despite failing to achieve any electoral representation in the post-revolution parliament, Armenia’s former government has remained well-resourced with a strong institutional presence in the judiciary and media. Thus, whether the current Armenian government and former political oppositions can manage their competition and disputes within parliamentary politics’s constitutional parameters will be a meaningful moment within the county’s sovereignty and prospects as a democratic state. The Vice President of the National Assembly, Alen Simonyan, has stated that consultation for election will start again soon. To break the impasse, a conversation around peaceful democratic elections may be plausible. This will decide whether the current PM remains in power and may potentially ensure a governing structure with a broader mandate and greater legitimacy with a broader coalition running Armenia rather than the current one-party rule.

The Editor: Vanouhi Petrosyan

Vanouhi Petrosyan is a MSc International Relations Student at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and holds a First-Class BA in International Development from King’s College London. She has significant experience in research and has conducted critical policy and political analysis particularly within European and international politics. Vanouhi also has well-founded knowledge of Transcaucasia with focus on security issues and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

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