MOSCOW — Armenia, which lost a bloody war with its neighbor Azerbaijan last fall, slipped on Thursday into a political crisis after what its prime minister called an “attempted military coup.”
The instability came on top of what has already been a bitter winter for Armenia, a tiny south Caucasus nation squeezed between countries it deems its enemies.
A slumping economy and a severe coronavirus outbreak have further darkened the mood of a nation still seething over its humiliating loss of life and territory in the six-week war over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian area within the borders of Azerbaijan.
Badly outgunned by the Azerbaijani military, Armenia was forced to accept a settlement ceding strategic and historically cherished territory it had seized in an earlier war nearly three decades ago.
In a statement issued Thursday, the general staff of the armed forces called for the country’s civilian leadership to resign, blaming Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who negotiated the settlement, of trying to deflect blame onto the military.
“For a long time, the Armenian armed forces patiently endured discrediting attacks by the current government, but everything has its limits,” the statement said. “The armed forces of Armenia honorably fulfilled their duty.”
In a speech beamed live on Facebook, Mr. Pashinyan said that he would fire the chief of the general staff, Onik Gasparyan, and that a military coup had begun. He then called on supporters to gather in a central square in the capital.
As a crowd milled about, fighter jets flew two low sorties over the city, their engines screaming. But there was no sign of tanks, the deployment of troops or any other indication that a military coup was actually underway.
And it was unclear whether the warplanes were Russian or Armenian. Russia has a defense pact with Armenia and maintains an air base in the country.
“The most important problem we have today is the preservation of civilian power,” Mr. Pashinyan said, in calling supporters to the square. “What is happening I assess as an attempt at a military coup.”
A short while later, however, Mr. Pashinyan seemed to backpedal on that assessment, saying, “My statement about the threat of a military coup was emotional.” He asked his supporters to avoid conflict with soldiers, if any should appear.
“The threat of a coup is largely manageable, it was an emotional reaction, and we should not be strict with our brothers,” he said of the generals.
Mr. Pashinyan’s conflict with the generals had been simmering since early this week. He was criticized by a political opponent for failing to deploy Russian-made Iskander medium-range missiles, one of the country’s most expensive weapons systems, that might have turned the country’s fortunes during the war.
Mr. Pashinyan responded that he had in fact ordered the missiles to be fired but that some had malfunctioned — a hint of either shoddy Russian equipment or mismanagement in the military. After a deputy chief of the general staff publicly contradicted Mr. Pashinyan on the missiles, Mr. Pashinyan then fired the deputy chief of staff. Things escalated from there, with the general staff siding with the general.
It was a worrying breakdown in civilian command of the military, Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center, an analytical group in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, said in a telephone interview. The generals’ defiant statement showed “the military wading into the political arena” and at least appearing to support Mr. Pashinyan’s political opponents.
By early Thursday evening, the generals had issued a new statement saying they had made the previous statement of their own volition, not in alignment with any opposition political party. In the deepening twilight, crowds supporting both Mr. Pashinyan and the opposition milled about on the streets of Yerevan, videos showed.