On February 25, 2021 several dozen Armenian army officers and senior military leaders issued a letter calling for the Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, and his cabinet, to resign. The move came in response to Pashinyan’s firing of Tiran Khacharyan, the army’s second highest ranking officer over comments related to the country’s devastating loss in November 2020 to neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The military’s letter read: “For a long time, the Armenian armed forces patiently endured discrediting attacks by the current government, but everything has its limits.”
Pashinyan immediately accused the military of staging an attempted coup and urged his followers to gather at the central square in Yerevan to declare their support for his government. He had harsh words for the army chiefs: “The army is not a political institution and attempts to involve it in political processes are unacceptable,” but then toned down his accusation, admitting, “My statement about the threat of a military coup was emotional.” This disagreement with the military only heightened anti-government fervor among protestors who had been demanding that Pashinyan leave office for months after his alleged poor handling of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Finally, an in effort to diffuse the crisis, Pashinyan announced on March 25 that he would step down as Prime Minister and serve as interim Prime Minister until the country can hold snap elections on June 20, where he plans to also run. However, despite the backlash against him, Pashinyan still has the most popular support among the contending candidates. A strong alternative to him has not yet emerged, and it remains unclear that the snap elections will resolve Armenia’s political crisis. Further, Pashinyan’s recent actions on two fronts—threatening the military’s command structure and taking anti-democratic steps to bolster his electoral chances—have heightened the risk for more military intervention in civilian politics.
Despite Pashinyan’s rhetoric, the recent actions by the Armenian military do not yet meet most scholars’ definition of a coup. Although there is disagreement among scholars, political scientists Powell and Thyne offer widely accepted criteria: a coup constitutes an action to overthrow a state’s primary leader undertaken by any elite who is part of the state using illegal tactics. As the Armenian military leaders have not yet taken illegal action by writing a letter, the military’s intervention does not yet rise to the level of a coup.
If Pashinyan retains his position as Prime Minister after the snap elections in June, which seems likely, is there a risk that his actions against the military elite might provoke a coup? Historical cases of coups offer important lessons. First, military coups are quite difficult to coordinate. They carry high risks for plotters. In an analysis of the events preceding the 1964 Brazilian coup, political scientist Alfred Stepan raises that key factors often inhibit the military from getting involved, particularly their sense of constitutional duty and socialization into the idea that the role of the military is for external warfare. In the case of Brazil, he shows that the military did not act until President João Goulart took actions that threatened the military’s command structure and their ability to exercise military discipline. Goulart’s critical mistake, he contends, was to dismiss the commanding naval minister after his officers mutinied and to appoint a new minister who offered amnesty to the mutineers. Stepan argues that the president’s strategic choices galvanized once fractured groups together and pushed the military into acting against him.
Prime Minister Pashinyan has similarly made strategic choices that are threatening to the military’s hierarchy after the six-week war during the fall of 2020 with Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The disputed territory is home to ethnic Armenians but is internationally recognized to be within the territory of Azerbaijan. The conflict has deep roots. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, war erupted between the two countries, killing approximately 30,000 people and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees. In 1994, Russia brokered a ceasefire which ended major fighting, but small skirmishes, shelling, and ceasefire violations have persisted in the years following between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops. During this period, ethnic Armenians largely controlled Nagorno-Karabakh, with military and financial assistance from Armenia.
In 2018, during the protest campaign known as the “Velvet Revolution” that unseated the long-time ruling party and brought Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to power, Pashinyan initially avoided making Nagorno-Karabakh a key issue. His focus was on domestic reform and anti-corruption. However, he took up increasingly hardline rhetoric in 2019, calling for the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. Both sides escalated the conflict with combat activity, and large-scale fighting broke out in September 2020. However, oil-rich Azerbaijan, with military support from Turkey, quickly decimated Armenian defenses through drone attacks which resulted in a decisive victory. In desperation, Pashinyan signed a Russian-brokered cease-fire deal to end the war, surrendering Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan.
The political fallout for Pashinyan was swift. Within hours of signing the cease-fire deal, Armenians protested in Yerevan, screaming, “Where is Nikol? Where is that traitor?” A protest group led by veterans of special forces units broke into the Parliament building, chanting and throwing bottles on the chamber floor. Seventeen political parties also demanded that Pashinyan resign.
Pashinyan tried to dispel the condemnation of his handling of the war by scapegoating the military. In response to criticism from his predecessor, Serzh Sargsyan, who he ousted in 2018, about not using the sophisticated Iskander missiles from Russia until the war was already lost, Pashinyan disparaged the missile’s technology. On February 23, he said that the Iskanders “didn’t explode, or maybe 10 percent of them exploded… maybe they were weapons from the ‘80s.”
These comments set off a cascade of negative effects: first, Moscow reportedly took the comments as an insult given that the Iskander is one of their most advanced ballistic systems and weaponry is a matter of state prestige. Given that Russia is Armenia’s main security guarantor, his statements risked leaving Armenia isolated between its rivals, Azerbaijan and Turkey. Pashinyan’s comments also were met with ridicule from military leaders. The second highest ranking military official, Tiran Khachatrian, reportedly laughed in response at Pashinyan’s claim about the Iskander, and the Prime Minister in turn fired Khachatyan from his post on February 24.
The military saw Khachatyan’s dismissal as particularly threatening to their command structure. The next day, on February 25, the generals submitted their letter demanding Pashinyan’s resignation. Their letter prompted Pashinyan to then discharge the top military official, the army’s Chief of General Staff, Onik Gasparyan. Gasparyan’s firing triggered rebellion within the government. Armenia’s President, Armen Sargsyan, refused to sign the order for Gasparyan’s firing twice, and then appealed the army chief’s dismissal to the constitutional court.
After three weeks of battling intense public protests and legal battles, Pashinyan finally agreed on March 18 to step down as Prime Minister and to hold snap elections on June 20, where he would also be a candidate. “I will resign not to resign, but in order for early elections to take place,” he said. However, Pashinyan has simultaneously taken several anti-democratic steps to assure his grip on power, using tactics that Ozan Varol describes as “stealth authoritarianism.” Varol argues that transparent authoritarianism has much less legitimacy in the post-Cold War era and that would-be authoritarian leaders have learned to use legal mechanisms to hide their repressive practices.
On March 3, Pashinyan took steps to dismantle opposition against him. He brought criminal charges against Vazgen Manukyan, the candidate for Prime Minister from the opposing Homeland Salvation Movement coalition, for his role in mobilizing mass protests against Pashinyan. The government cited that Manukyan “made public calls for seizure of power and forcible change of the constitutional system. In this connection, a decision was made to indict Manukyan under article 301 of Armenia’s Criminal Code.” Manukyan dismissed the charges as politically motivated.
Additionally, Pashinyan used his coalition’s control over parliament to make changes to the electoral code on April 1. Under the old system, Armenians elected representatives to parliament through a two-tiered party-list proportional system, voting for parties, alliances, and individual candidates. With the new election laws, voters will select candidates only on a party-list basis. The opposition believes that these changes will help Pashinyan win in the upcoming election. Only pro-government parliamentarians voted for the new laws; none of the members from the opposition group Bright Armenia voted for the proposition and Prosperous Armenia boycotted the parliamentary meeting when the vote was cast. Pashinyan’s alliance, My Step, controls about 70% of the seats in parliament, which allowed the law to readily pass.
Pashinyan’s recent moves could be sufficient to unify the support of both the military and civilian opposition against him. Deep animosity remains over the outcome of the Nagorno-Karabakh war and the cease-fire is tenuous. The loss has been traumatic for Armenia in terms of loss of life and cultural heritage, influx of refugees, military humiliation, and increased security concerns. Critical for raising the risk of a possible coup, Pashinyan’s scapegoating of the army’s top commanders threatens the military’s command structure. If Pashinyan wins the snap election in June and does not seek to mend relations with the military, his choices carry a high risk of provoking even more military invention in civilian politics and even a potential coup.