Conflict Alerts # 339, 4 March 2021
In the news
On 1 March, protesters stormed a government building in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, demanding PM Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation, escalating a months-long political crisis over his handling of the recent war with Azerbaijan. On the same day, Pashinyan said he would be ready to hold snap parliamentary elections if the opposition agreed to certain conditions.
On 25 February, the General Staff of Armenia’s armed forces joined the opposition called for Pashinyan’s resignation with the Defence Ministry spokesman Samvel Asatryan stating, “Due to the current situation, the armed forces of the Republic of Armenia demand the resignation of the prime minister and government of the Republic of Armenia, at the same time warning against the use of force against the people who died defending the homeland and Artsakh.” Pashinyan responded calling the statement a “coup attempt.”
On 27 February, President Armen Sarkisian refused to sign off on the dismissal of the head of the country’s general staff whose firing by Pashinian prompted the political crisis. Sarkisian said the move was unconstitutional and that the army should be kept out of politics.
Issues at large
First, Pashinyan’s struggle to maintain his position since the war in 2020. Protests broke out in Armenia in November 2020 after Pashinyan signed a Russian-brokered cease-fire that brought an end to the six-week war with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The forces aligning against Pashinyan are growing by the day, and those publicly demanding his resignation now include the country’s president, the two opposition parties in parliament, all three former post-Soviet leaders of Armenia, the leaders of the two major Armenian churches, the academic council of Yerevan State University, and several provincial governors and mayors. Despite the pressure, Pashinyan has refused to step down and defended the peace deal as a painful but necessary move that prevented Azerbaijan from overrunning the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Second, the looming constitutional/ institutional crisis. The current political crisis has pitted the Prime Minister and President against each other, this is the first such decree Sarkisian has refused to sign in during his tenure with Pashinyan. Similarly, there has been a deepening rift between the Prime Minister and the military who have criticised Pashinyan for allegedly being too soft on certain issues.
Third, the rising opposition in Armenia. Although the opposition parties failed to gather a quorum of lawmakers to vote Pashinyan out, a coalition of opposition groups, including the former ruling Republican Party, have staged opposition protests in the capital with tents linings the streets causing tensions to surge.
With winter receding, the protests are likely to move from being dormant to active. However, an attempt to take power away from Pashinyan and his elected government would be unprecedented for the republic of Armenia.
While a wide swath of Armenian society now believes Pashinyan should resign, the more difficult question is that who should replace him? Although the opposition has risen to prominence in recent months, its week position has continued to enable Pashinyan to stay in power. Conversely, snap elections could provide a path out of the deadlock, yet Pashinyan's chances of winning are slim. His approval ratings have fallen from over 80 per cent after the country's peaceful revolution in 2018, to just about 30 per cent.