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Something’s happening in Armenia. But is it a coup?

In fact, coups are rare in post-Soviet countries

- March 2, 2021

On Feb. 25, Armenia’s top military leadership called on Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign. This threat came in the form of a letter signed by “several dozen” army officers, who cited “attacks” on the armed forces by the government. On Monday, pro-Pashinyan supporters demonstrated in one part of the capital while protesters demanding his resignation rallied at a separate site.

It isn’t clear what the next moves might be — and whether the army will attempt to forcibly remove the civilian government. But military coups are extremely rare in the countries that once made up the Soviet Union, so analysts are keeping a close eye on the situation and the potential effect on regional politics.

Military coups have become less common since the Cold War

Scholars have long noted that the USSR left a number of poor legacies for democracy — but overly interventionist militaries was not one of them. The Soviet Union itself was remarkably invulnerable to coups, and Soviet clients in Eurasia and elsewhere were highly coup resistant.

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Though less frequent, military coups still happen: last year in Mali, for instance; and last month in Myanmar. One data set tallies 109 coup attempts between 1991 and 2020, not all successful. Just two took place in the former Soviet Union — two failed coups in Azerbaijan in 1995 and 1996.

Of course, post-Soviet security services have hardly remained outside politics, but involvement by the army in ousting a leader is rare. We don’t know whether this coup threat will bring soldiers to the streets or oust Pashinyan’s government. Regardless, this crisis poses a serious challenge to Armenian democracy, civil-military relations and the fragile peace in the region. The powerful military that was once the source of regime strength in Armenia now threatens to bring down the government.

What happened in Armenia?

Armenia’s parliament named Nikol Pashinyan prime minister in 2018, when a “Velvet Revolution” swept the regime led by Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan from power. This regime transition was the result of weeks of peaceful protests in the most recent example of a successful “color revolution.”

But Armenians weren’t happy last fall with a peace deal that ceded Armenian-held territory in Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan after the long-standing conflict reignited. Many within the army took issue with the dismissal last week of the deputy chief of the army general staff.

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There are also reports that the army had refused an order to use force against protesters in December. Large protests on Feb. 20 brought thousands into the streets to call for Pashinyan’s resignation. On Monday, protesters broke into a government building, demanding he resign.

Former Armenian presidents Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharian, along with high-ranking police officers, also called for Pashinyan to resign. While the large internal security service has urged calm, their position in any clash will also prove critical.

On Feb. 25, Pashinyan rallied thousands of his supporters to the streets of Yerevan and tried to fire the leader of the army. However, on Feb. 27, the Armenian president effectively sided with the army and refused to approve the order to dismiss Gen. Staff Chief Gasparyan.

During the Velvet Revolution, Russia notably stood on the sidelines, and Pashinyan gave assurances of his desire for continued close strategic relations with Moscow. So far, Russia has expressed a desire for a peaceful resolution to the current crisis, describing it as an “exclusively internal affair” that should be resolved through constitutional means.

Is this really a coup?

A standard definition of a coup is an “illegal and overt action intended to seize executive authority in the state.” Despite Pashinyan’s claims to the contrary, it’s not clear the scenario in Armenia is a coup attempt, using this definition.

However, many scholars adopt a more expansive definition, which includes actions short of direct attempts to seize executive power. This broader scope would encompass an attempt by the military to unseat the sitting head of state via unconstitutional means. In this case, the explicit call for the removal of the head of government constitutes this act of insubordination and, arguably, a coup attempt.

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This leaves Armenia’s situation perhaps a parallel to the scenario in Bolivia, when the army effectively forced President Evo Morales to resign in 2019, but did not directly seize power. Like Bolivia, Armenia is seeing mass protests. This is in fact quite common as a lead-up to coup attempts and regime change.

Why does this matter?

Most basically, this matters for democracy in Armenia, which has been struggling to establish democratic institutions since declaring its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. Many analysts viewed the Velvet Revolution as a democratic breakthrough against an authoritarian regime.

Of course, this could turn out to be what some analysts call a “good coup,” if it’s a reaction to the government’s plans to use the army against domestic protesters. But “good coups” are also rare, and coups overall tend to increase, rather than decrease, the risk of violent repression.

To scholars, the potential involvement of the regular army in an effort to overthrow a government in the former Soviet Union is a novel development. After all, Armenia’s initial victory in the territorial conflict over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region strengthened the regime in Yerevan and enabled the construction of a powerful security apparatus. We might be witness to the double-edged nature of a powerful military: When military forces blame civilian leadership for poor battlefield outcomes, a coup attempt is increasingly likely.

The fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh is about local territories and wider rivalries

The wider implications, if the military overthrows the government and creates a more hard line regime, could include a threat to the relatively fragile peace agreement with Azerbaijan. In that scenario, the risk rises of resumed hostilities in a conflict that left thousands of casualties.

Even failed coups can have tremendous consequences for democracy, as the post-coup purges in Turkey demonstrated. If Pashinyan’s regime shakes this threat off, would we see a similar purge of opponents in the armed forces?

As of now, the army remains in the barracks, and it’s unclear whether Pashinyan will successfully maneuver past the coup threat. What is clear is that the challenge Armenia’s mass protests pose have grown more acute. Without a loyal army willing to defend the regime, Pashinyan may find he has few options to resist the growing clamor for his resignation.

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Adam E. Casey is a research fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan.