Thousands rally behind Armenia's PM after he accuses army of coup attempt
YEREVAN (Reuters) - Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan condemned what he said was an attempted coup after the army demanded he quit on Thursday, and told a rally of thousands of supporters that only the people could decide his future.
The army's demand, in a written statement, plunged the impoverished former Soviet republic of less than 3 million into a new political crisis, just months after ethnic Armenian forces lost a war and territory to Azerbaijan.
Russia, which is traditionally a close ally and has a military base in Armenia, said it was alarmed by events. Moscow called it a domestic matter that Armenia should resolve peacefully and within the constitution.
Pashinyan, 45, has faced calls to quit since November over his handling of the six-week conflict between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and surrounding areas in which Azeri forces made territorial gains.
But it was the first time the military had called publicly for his resignation.
"The ineffective management of the current authorities and the serious mistakes in foreign policy have put the country on the brink of collapse," the army's general staff and other senior military officials said in a statement.
Two former presidents, Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sarksyan, released statements calling on Armenians to throw their support behind the military.
It was unclear whether the army was willing to use force to back its statement.
Pashinyan told followers to rally in his support in the capital, Yerevan, where he delivered a fiery speech to several thousand people denouncing the generals' demands.
"The army cannot be involved in political processes, the army should obey the people and the political power elected by people," he said.
Pashinyan said he had dismissed the head of the general staff of the armed forces, but that the move had still not been signed off by the president.
The loss of territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh last year was a bitter blow for Armenians, who fought a war with Azerbaijan over the enclave in the 1990s which killed at least 30,000 people.
The mountain region is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but is populated by ethnic Armenians. Russian peacekeepers have been deployed to the region.
Pashinyan, a former journalist who came to power in a peaceful revolution in May 2018, says he takes responsibility for what happened but has refused to quit, saying he is needed to ensure his country's security.
"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.
He cultivated an image as being close to the people as he was carried to power in 2018 by protests known as Armenia's Velvet revolution, often sporting a baseball cap and inveighing against official corruption.
On Thursday, he used a hand-held loudspeaker to shout greetings to passers-by as he led a march of thousands through Yerevan.
At a rival rally in Yerevan, several thousand opposition supporters could be seen cheering and clapping as a fighter jet flew overhead in footage circulated by Russia's RIA news agency.
At that rally, Vazgen Manukyan, an opposition leader, accused the government of trying to set the people against the army. On one street, protesters put up barricades using rubbish bins.
In a statement, the defence ministry said the army was not a political structure and any attempts to involve it in politics were inadmissible.
Pashinyan called on the opposition to stop protesting and suggested talks.