FOR A MAN in the reticule of his own army, Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian Prime Minister, seems unfazed. As long as the Armenian people have the last word, “there will be no coup,” he said. The Economist this week. The only way out of the crisis that is consuming his country, he says, is through the ballot box and early elections.
There are no tanks on the street in Yerevan. But Mr. Pashinyan is fighting for his political life. On February 25, dozens of officers, including the country’s top soldier, Onik Gasparyan, demanded the prime minister’s resignation, accusing him of incompetence. Mr. Pashinyan called this an attempted coup, refused to resign and ordered Mr. Gasparyan to do so instead. (So far he hasn’t.)
Tensions in Armenia have been brewing since November, when Pashinyan signed an armistice with Azerbaijan, ending a war against Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethno-Armenian separatist enclave inside Azerbaijan. More than 6,000 people have died in the fighting. Armenian defenses were crushed by Turkish drones and overrun by Azerbaijani ground forces. Under the ceasefire agreement, Armenia relinquished control of swathes of land it had captured around Karabakh three decades earlier. The status of the enclave is still unresolved. Some 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed there to keep the peace.
For many Armenians, convinced by the military and the government that the fighting was going their way, the surrender came as a shock and a betrayal. Mr. Pashinyan was immediately criticized. The opposition accused him of having caused war and lost the peace. Protesters stormed government buildings. The military (and the Kremlin) bristled after Mr Pashinyan claimed Russian Iskander missiles, which Armenia had used at least once during the war, turned out to be misfires. He backed down after a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The protests attracted only a few thousand people. But those who show up seem spoiled for a fight. “Pashinyan sold my homeland and my people,” Hrachya Abramyan, a veteran of the two Karabakh wars, said at a rally outside parliament. “If he doesn’t quit, we’ll grab him by the ears and reject him like a dog.” Opposition parties have not warmed up to an early election offer, likely because they continue to lag behind in the polls. Instead, they are proposing a transitional government. Some seem to be on the verge of approving a real coup. “I don’t like the idea,” says Davit Harutyunyan, a former minister. “But if I think that without taking the next step we risk losing the country and the civil war, then certainly.
Mr Pashinyan, a former journalist, came to power in 2018, when the exasperation over decades of cronyism spilled over into mass protests, bringing down the government of Serzh Sargsyan, his predecessor. Yet the tide that propelled Mr. Pashinyan to power has diminished. In the elections two years ago, he won 70% of the vote. Today, only 39% of Armenians want it. He had already been criticized for his management of the economy and the covid-19 crisis. He didn’t make new friends by throwing blame for the lost war.
Many see a Russian hand in the army’s movement against Mr. Pashinyan. Yet Russia may not want the Armenian ruler to disappear, as long as he is tamed. Mr Pashinyan was once keen to liberate Armenia from Russia’s grip and improve relations with Western powers. This is no longer possible. Emerging from a lost war, caught between two old enemies and frustrated by Western inaction, Armenia depends more than ever on Russia’s security guarantees, whoever is responsible. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “After the war”