He said the sacking of Colonel-General Onik Gasparian sought by Pashinian would be unconstitutional and would not address the “unprecedented” political crisis in the country.
Pashinian petitioned Sarkissian on Thursday to sign a decree relieving Gasparian of his duties shortly after the chief of the Armenian army’s General Staff and 40 other high-ranking officers issued a joint statement that accused the government of misrule and demanded its resignation.
Pashinian rejected the demand as a “military coup attempt.” By contrast, Armenian opposition groups trying to oust him over his handling of the autumn war in Nagorno-Karabakh voiced support for the military’s top brass.
Sarkissian held a series of talks with senior representatives of the ruling My Step bloc, opposition leaders and Gasparian before announcing his decision not to sign a relevant presidential decree drafted by Pashinian’s office.
Citing “leading lawyers and independent experts,” the president suggested that the proposed decree runs counter to the Armenian constitution. He also noted that Pashinian demanded Gasparian’s sacking after the military’s unprecedented statement and amid a “political crisis” and “serious security challenges” facing Armenia.
“There is no doubt that the armed forces must maintain neutrality on political issues,” Sarkissian said in a statement. “It is also evident that because of the war the military personnel now need our support and attention more than ever before. Solving problems of the army and its personnel is a top priority that cannot be ignored in any way.”
“The existing situation is unprecedented, requires systemic and comprehensive solutions, and cannot be resolved with frequent personnel changes that do not take into account the state of affairs in the country,” added the statement.
It insisted that the head of state, who has largely ceremonial powers, “does not support any political force.”
The Armenian constitution allows the prime minister to again demand that Sarkissian sack Gasparian. In that case, the president can sign the relevant decree or ask the Constitutional Court to rule on its legality.
Pashinian was quick to criticize Sarkissian’s decision not to sack the army chief. “This decision does not help at all to settle the current situation,” he wrote on Facebook, adding that he is resending the draft decree to the president.
Sarkissian's move was swiftly welcomed by an alliance of Armenian parties that continued to stage demonstrations in Yerevan aimed at forcing Pashinian to step down.
One of the alliance leaders, Vazgen Manukian, described it as a “great victory” when he addressed supporters of the Homeland Salvation Movement before they again marched through the city center. Manukian again called on Armenia’s police and the National Security Service to join the military in demanding Pashinian’s resignation.
The opposition alliance holds Pashinian responsible for the Armenian side’s defeat in the six-week war with Azerbaijan stopped by a Russian-brokered ceasefire on November 10. Sarkissian has likewise called on the prime minister to hand over power to an interim government tasked with holding snap parliamentary elections.