YEREVAN, Armenia -- Armenia's prime minister accused top military officers on Thursday of attempting a coup after they demanded he step down, adding fuel to months of protests calling for his resignation following the country's defeat in a conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has faced opposition calls to step down ever since he signed a Nov. 10 peace deal that saw Azerbaijan reclaim control over large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas that had been held by Armenian forces for more than a quarter-century.
The opposition protests gathered pace this week, and the feud with his top military commanders has weakened Pashinyan's position, raising concerns about stability in the strategic South Caucasus region, where shipments of Azerbaijan’s Caspian crude oil pass through on their way to Western markets.
The immediate trigger for the latest tensions was Pashinyan’s decision earlier this week to oust the first deputy chief of the military's General Staff that includes the armed forces' top officers.
In response, the General Staff called for Pashinyan's resignation, but he doubled down and ordered that the chief of the General Staff be dismissed.
After denouncing the military’s statement as a “coup attempt,” Pashinyan led his supporters at a rally in the capital, and he addressed them in a dramatic speech in which he said he had considered — but rejected — calls to resign.
“I became the prime minister not on my own will, but because people decided so,” he shouted to the crowd of more than 20,000 people in Republic Square. “Let people demand my resignation or shoot me in the square.”
He warned that the latest developments have led to an “explosive situation, which is fraught with unpredictable consequences.”
In nearby Freedom Square, over 20,000 opposition supporters held a parallel rally, and some vowed to stay there until Pashinyan stepped down. Demonstrators paralyzed traffic all around Yerevan, chanting “Nikol, you traitor!” and “Nikol, resign!”
There were sporadic scuffles in the streets between the sides, but the rival demonstrations led by Pashinyan and his foes later in the day went on in different parts of the capital. As the evening fell, some opposition supporters built barricades on the central avenue to step up pressure on Pashinyan.
The crisis has its roots in Armenia's humiliating defeat in heavy fighting with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh that erupted in late September and lasted 44 days. A Russia-brokered agreement ended the conflict in which the Azerbaijani army routed Armenian forces — but only after more than 6,000 people died on both sides.
Pashinyan has defended the peace deal as a painful but necessary move to prevent Azerbaijan from overrunning the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region, which lies within Azerbaijan but was under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994.
Despite the simmering public anger over the military defeat, Pashinyan has maneuvered to shore up his rule and the protests died down during winter. But the opposition demonstrations resumed with new vigor this week — and then came the spat with the military brass.
Pashinyan fired the deputy chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Tiran Khachatryan, earlier this week after he derided the prime minister's claim that only 10% of Russia-supplied Iskander missiles that Armenia used in the conflict exploded on impact.
The General Staff responded Thursday with a statement demanding Pashinyan's resignation and warned the government against trying to use force against the opposition demonstrators. Immediately after the statement, Pashinyan dismissed the General Staff chief, Col. Gen. Onik Gasparyan.
The order is subject to approval by the nation's largely ceremonial president, Armen Sarkissian, who hasn't endorsed it yet, prompting an angry outburst from Pashinyan.
“If he doesn't sign my proposal to dismiss Gasparyan, does it mean that he joins the coup?” Pashinyan asked at the rally of his supporters. He urged the chief of the General Staff to resign voluntarily, adding that “I won’t let him lead the army against the people.”
The prime minister warned that authorities now will move more forcefully to disperse the opposition protests and arrest its participants. He bluntly rejected their demand for early parliamentary elections.
The political crisis is being watched closely, particularly in Russia and Turkey, which compete for influence in the South Caucasus region.
Russia, worried about its ally plunging deeper into turmoil, voiced concern about the tensions and emphasized that Armenia must sort out its problems itself. “We are calling for calm and believe that the situation should remain in the constitutional field,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Pashinyan and called for the “preservation of calm and order in Armenia,” Peskov said.
While the Kremlin emphasized stability, the Russian military didn't miss a chance to slap the Armenian leader on the wrist for debasing the Iskander missile, a state-of-the-art weapon touted by the military for its accuracy.
The Russian Defense Ministry said it was “bewildered” to hear Pashinyan's claim because the Armenian military hadn’t fired an Iskander missile during the conflict. It added that the Armenian prime minister had apparently been misled.
Armenia has relied on Moscow's financial and military support and hosts a Russian military base — ties that will keep the two nations closely allied regardless of the outcome of the political infighting.
And even though the peace deal is widely reviled in Armenia with many calling it a betrayal, it's unlikely to be revised — no matter who is in charge — following the fighting that demonstrated Azerbaijan's overwhelming military edge.
Turkey, which backed its ally Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, would relish instability that would further weaken Armenia. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country strongly condemns the coup attempt in Armenia and stands against all coup attempts anywhere in the world.
The U.S. Embassy in Yerevan urged all parties in Armenia to “exercise calm and restraint and to de-escalate tensions peacefully, without violence.” In Brussels, European Commission spokesman Peter Stano also called on rival sides to “avoid any rhetoric or actions that could lead to further escalation.”
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov and Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed.