Armenia’s Karabakh wound is bleeding domestically. On Feb. 25, 40 senior-ranking military officers, including Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Onik Gasparyan, his aides, and corps commanders, gave a memorandum to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The already turbulent political scene has now fully capsized. Pashinyan, who was asked to resign on the grounds that he had lost his ability to govern, was accused of making serious mistakes, systematically wearing down the army, being shortsighted, acting destructively, acting with personal ambitions, and failing to look out for the country’s interests.
The apparent reason for the memorandum was the Feb. 24 dismissal of Tiran Khachatryan, Gasparyan’s first deputy. In the memorandum, the dismissal was strongly rejected. Pashinyan described the call for Khachatryan’s resignation a “coup attempt” and dismissed Gasparyan. However, the decision was ineffective as it was not signed by President Armen Sarkisian. The soldiers confirmed their position via a second statement. Thirty senior police chiefs also backed the army.
Although the last straw was the firing of Khachatryan, the main source of tension is the Karabakh disaster. Those who are looking for traces of Russian influence on the memorandum are pointing to a controversy just before it: When Pashinyan denigrated the Russian Iskander missiles, as if questioning whether to trust Russia, the Russians were irritated.
Former President Serzh Sarkisian asked on Feb. 16 why the Iskander missiles were not used in the Karabakh war. On Feb. 23, Pashinyan said, “Let him ask why the fired Iskander did not explode or why it exploded by only, say, 10 percent.” Two Russian deputies subsequently criticized Pashinyan for blaming the missiles for his own failures.
When Pashinyan’s statement was presented to Khachatryan, he told journalists, in between laughter, that the 10 percent effectiveness was nonsense. What ultimately resulted in his dismissal was this reaction: “Well, yes, it is impossible... What do you mean? Iskander? One shot? 10 percent? I’m sorry, but this can’t be serious.”
Taking into account Armenia’s political conditions, no one expected Pashinyan to keep his position after the defeat in the Karabakh war. When Pashinyan accepted the conditions of Russian President Vladimir Putin and signed a ceasefire agreement with Azerbaijan, he adopted the tone of ‘no problem neighbor.’
Perhaps this position delayed the carpet being pulled out from under his feet. Perhaps the responsibility of the commanders in the military disaster left room for Pashinyan to maneuver. Even though Pashinyan occasionally accused some of the commanders and their political allies, such as former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukyan, of sabotaging the war.
However, the elite team of the army, retired soldiers, and former presidents who have strong ties to Russia could not stomach the Nov. 10 ceasefire. Since nobody is willing to take the blame, this situation remains an open wound.
Pashinyan protested the memorandum by grabbing the megaphone and taking to the street as in 2018. His refusal to resign it has strengthened the ranks supporting the army. Pashinyan gathered his supporters in Republic Square, while the opposition was at Freedom Square. Pashinyan wants negotiations, but the opposition, such as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the Homeland Salvation Movement, and the Prosperous Armenia Party, have offered him no option other than resignation.
Although the leader of Bright Armenia, Edmon Marukyan, did not take to the streets, he also argued that the memorandum was neither an attempted coup nor against the constitution. Former President Robert Kocharyan asked the public to support the army’s declaration. Former Chief of the General Staff Yuri Khachaturov, former Police Chief Valeriy Osipyan, and former Prime Minister Manukyan are among those 40 signatories.
Pashinyan has associated the army memorandum with the influence of those former officials who were removed from their posts in 2018, but who still maintain their influence on the armed forces. However, the position and rank of the soldiers supporting the memorandum gives us an idea about the size of the front opposing Pashinyan in the army.
In the case that Pashinyan leaves, how the Nov. 10 ceasefire agreement will be affected is unclear. The agreement has critical conditions such as the strengthening of the Lachin corridor and the opening of transport lines between Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan.
There is no cause for concern for Russia. The recent war has increased Russia's guardianship capacity over Armenia and Azerbaijan; It has become the “master sergeant” of Karabakh as a peacekeeping force. As long as Russian military units stay in Karabakh and watch over the Lachin corridor, they will be in a position to both curb Azerbaijan and control Armenia’s domestic equilibriums. Regardless of which side wins in Yerevan, Russia will be able to take advantage of the situation.
The question of whether Moscow has given the green light comes to mind, since Tigran Parvanyan, commander of the Armenian-Russian United Group of Forces, is among the generals who signed the memorandum. While Pashinyan’s unwilling compliance with the Kremlin continues, Russia does not have to change its stance; If the pro-Russian bloc prevails, Putin would be taking revenge for the Velvet Revolution, which challenged Russian influence in 2018. Thus, the Kremlin regards the crisis as Armenia’s domestic affair and wishes for a peaceful solution.
Pashinyan has also stated their desire to strengthen the defense cooperation with Moscow. Putin, informed by Pashinyan, called for “order and restraint” and both sides have their own interpretations of this message.
A new government, with the backing of the army, might look into the option of a war in the Caucasus. If the ‘angry’ bloc is considering annulling the agreement with Azerbaijan, how Russia would react to this depends mostly on the state of Turkish-Russian and Azerbaijani-Russian relations. Russia can proceed in implementing this agreement as long as it serves its interests in the South Caucasus. Otherwise, it may continue to protect the new status quo.
Turkey condemning the coup attempt shows that it associates Pashinyan’s keeping his position with the implementation of the agreement. No doubt, Turkey’s reaction was interpreted as support for Pashinyan and slogans, seen in urban squares saying “Armenia without the Turk,” as referring to Pashinyan.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev also issued a statement remarking on the possibility of the agreement being annulled: “The war is over. Whoever nurtures revanchist ideas, will see this fist. The Armenian army is finished. It does not exist, and it should not.”
If the memorandum leads to a coup in Armenia, the tradition that maintains a distance between the army and the government in the former Soviet region will be broken. There have been several painful changes in this region already, but the government has yet to be toppled by a military coup.
Armenia is going through difficult times. The best way to prevent this crisis from turning into a social clash or the memorandum into a military coup may be early elections. It could be that Pashinyan is expecting the support of the West, which did not come during the war, to arrive during a trial for democracy.
The EU said it wants a “peaceful solution” and left the ball in the middle of the court. The U.S. sent a message to the army telling it to “not get involved in politics.” This is a response expected from the Biden administration.
Perhaps this showdown could have a recovery effect on Pashinyan’s weakening grassroots and the parliamentary ally, the My Step Alliance. Nevertheless, Karabakh will remain such a deep trauma that it is difficult for Pashinyan to gain traction as he did in 2018.
Pashinyan said on Feb. 25, referring to the 2018 Velvet Revolution, that they will abandon their soft “velvet” approach. This harsh stance of Pashinyan may cause him to hit a wall. If not, then it may give him the time he needs to divide the memorandum front.