Can Armenia’s PM survive protests and a ‘coup’ attempt?

Pashinyan is under pressure over his handling of the bloody Nagorno-Karabakh war, which saw key territory ceded to Azerbaijan.

After top military officials turned on Pashinyan, the PM rallied his supporters in Yerevan on February 25 [Stepan Poghosyan/PHOTOLURE via AP]

To Vazgen Narsesyan, the shame of Armenia’s lost war to Azerbaijan must be washed away with the prime minister’s resignation.

Last November, Premier Nikol Pashinyan ceded control of large swaths of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region in neighbouring Azerbaijan that was controlled by ethnic Armenians since the 1990s, to Baku.

The move followed a 44-day war in which Azerbaijani forces dominated the battlefield.

The loss shocked Armenia, an impoverished and resource-poor nation of three million, and the opposition lambasted Pashinyan and called for his resignation.

On Thursday, the General Staff of Armenia’s armed forces joined the opposition urging Pashinyan to resign after he fired two top brass generals. Protesters flocked to the centre of Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to back the demand.

“He must act like a man, admit his guilt and step down,” Narsesyan, a 52-year-old car mechanic who arrived from the northern Armenian city of Dilijan, told Al Jazeera.

Narsesyan added that he would stay in a tent next to the parliament building with other protesters, until Pashinyan, who came to power in 2018, resigns.

But so far, things do not look that bad for Pashinyan.

Opposition parties failed to gather a quorum of lawmakers to vote him out, while Pashinyan, a former publicist, managed to rally thousands of supporters on Thursday.

Pashinyan headed what was later dubbed the “Velvet Revolution” that toppled pro-Russian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan and his clan of former leaders and commanders from Nagorno-Karabakh.

On Thursday, up to 10,000 protesters rallied against Pashinyan in central Yerevan, according to observers and media reports, while the embattled premier gathered twice as many supporters – and told them their nation was facing an “attempted coup”.

Outside observers say that the “coup” – which never turned into an actual armed rebellion – stems from Pashinyan’s push to rid the military of the generals whose careers date back to the 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh war.

“Pashinyan was going to purge the top brass where many hail from the so-called Karabakh clan,” Pavel Luzin, a defence analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a think-tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.

“Hence the attempts of top generals to fight Pashinyan considering the strength of civil opposition to the current Armenian government,” he said.

Emil Mustafayev, a political analyst in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, told Al Jazeera the confrontation is “the result of Armenia’s total loss in the war with Azerbaijan and an attempt of revanchist forces to come back to power by forcibly toppling Pashinyan”.

“The situation is really complicated, and it’s hard to predict whether the premier will leave or stay.”

Unsurprisingly, some Armenians worry the conflict may continue and turn violent.

“Things are very tense. I’m afraid there could be a civil war,” Janna Melikyan, a freelance graphic designer in Yerevan, told Al Jazeera.

Many Armenians still see the lost war over Nagorno-Karabakh in apocalyptic terms.

To them, the triumph of Azerbaijan, a Turkic-speaking state of 10 million that has close historic and political ties with neighbouring Turkey, is a continuation of a difficult history.

“All we did for centuries was trying to survive. Pashinyan gave in,” Arevik Dadayan, a retired bookkeeper in Yerevan, told Al Jazeera. “He betrayed our nation, our faith.”

Economic woes add to the crisis.

Armenia remains in economic isolation as its border with Turkey is sealed, while the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the routes of labour migrants who go to Russia annually.

Russia, Armenia’s biggest backer, sat the war out despite a defence pact with Yerevan and the presence of a Russian military base in the western Armenian city of Gyumri.

Thousands of Russian peacekeepers have been deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh to guard the new border and de-mine thousands of hectares of land.

Ethnic Armenians have historically been the majority of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, but it was made part of Soviet Azerbaijan in 1923.

When the perestroika reforms started in the waning days of the USSR, they urged Moscow to make the enclave part of Armenia, and held a referendum to cede from Azerbaijan in 1991.

Baku never recognised the referendum, and the subsequent conflict became the first open war between two former Soviet republics.

After a shaky, Russia-brokered peace accord in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh became de-facto independent, although even Armenia never recognised it.

But Armenia’s military and economic support remain crucial.

In the nineties, ethnic Armenians expelled hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani civilians from seven adjacent districts, turning them into sparsely populated no-man’s land. According to the November 10, 2020 Russia brokered ceasefire deal, Azerbaijan got the districts back.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev apparently gloated over the crisis in Yerevan – and blamed Pashinyan’s government for instigating it.

“Armenia has never been in such a pitiful state,” he told Azerbaijani media on Thursday. “It is their leadership that got them there.”