Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has warned of an “attempted coup” against him after top military officials demanded he resigns over his handling of last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Also under pressure from a growing protest movement, Pashinyan on Thursday announced he had fired Onik Gasparyan, the head of the army’s General Staff, and urged the military to listen only to his orders.
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“The most important problem now is to keep the power in the hands of the people, because I consider what is happening to be a military coup,” Pashinyan said in an address to the nation broadcast on Facebook.
The prime minister was later seen marching through the capital, Yerevan, with hundreds of supporters.
Al Jazeera’s Gegham Vardanian, reporting from Yerevan, said that move showed the prime minister had “no plans to leave” his post.
“But tension is in the air,” he said.
Throngs of opposition demonstrators also took to the streets of Yerevan on Thursday, chanting “Nikol, you traitor!” and “Nikol, resign!” while blocking streets and paralysing traffic around the capital.
Pashinyan has faced calls to quit since November, with critics angered over the outcome of the six-week Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which killed thousands on both sides but saw swathes of territory in and around the mountainous region ceded to Azerbaijan.
The war ended in November when both sides signed a Russian-brokered peace deal.
The demonstrations had gone dormant for a spell in the depth of Armenia’s winter but have resumed in recent days.
It was unclear whether the army was willing to use force to back its statement, which was issued earlier on Thursday and signed by Gasparyan and other top military officers.
“The ineffective management of the current government and the serious mistakes in foreign policy have put the country on the brink of collapse,” the statement said.
Tensions between the army and Pashinyan had already been rising; Pashinyan fired the first deputy chief of the General Staff, Tiran Khachatryan, earlier this week.
Khachatryan had derided the prime minister’s claim that just 10 percent of Russia-supplied Iskander missiles that Armenia used in the Nagorno-Karabakh war exploded on impact.
Meanwhile, Robert Kocharyan, a former president, said Pashinyan “must go” as he called on Armenians to “stand by” the army.
“The authorities who have lost the war and surrendered the land must go,” Kocharyan wrote on Facebook. “This is the prime necessity for our national rebirth.”
Moscow calls for calm
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as Azerbaijan’s land but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces and self-appointed Armenian officials, backed by Armenia since an earlier war between the rivals ended in a ceasefire in 1994.
The Kremlin said on Thursday it was concerned by the growing political tensions in Armenia, where Moscow has a military base.
Speaking to reporters on a conference call, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called on the military and Pashinyan’s government to resolve their differences peacefully and within the framework of the constitution.
Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, who has extensively covered the conflict over the years, said Pashinyan was in the “political struggle of his life”.
The military’s statement indicated he had “lost the support of the armed forces”, Forestier-Walker said. “But an attempt to take power away from Pashinyan and his elected government would be unprecedented for the republic of Armenia.”