Armenia has been witnessing growing anti-government protests in recent weeks against possible concessions over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, disputed with neighbouring Azerbaijan. On May 18, protests briefly shut down metro services in the capital Yerevan, with social media posts showing agitators blocking the doors of metro carriages and preventing trains from moving. Reuters reported that protestors were demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and were chanting anti-government slogans.
These protests have been on for weeks, after Pashinyan said the international community wanted Armenia to scale down demands on its claims to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous and heavily forested region that under international law is recognised as part of Azerbaijan. However, ethnic Armenians who constitute the vast majority of the population there reject Azeri rule. After Azerbaijan’s troops were pushed out of the region following a war in the 1990s, these ethnic Armenians have been in administrative control of Nagorno-Karabakh, with support from Armenia.
In September 2020, clashes broke out that rapidly escalated to become the deadliest since the 1990s. Yerevan said it was Azerbaijan that reopened the conflict by launching a major offensive, while Baku claimed it was forced to respond to provocations by the other side. In the past three decades, ceasefires brokered by Russia and the United States have failed to hold.
Armenia has been witnessing domestic unrest since April this year related to Pashniyan’s handling of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “Parliamentary opposition groups, composed of two factions, declared their plan to oust their government or at least increase street pressure to prevent PM Nikol Pashinyan from providing further concessions to Azerbaijan and Turkey when it comes to the security and right of self-determination of Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh (called Artsakh) and the recognition of Armenian Genocide,” Yeghia Tashjian, Associate Fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, told indianexpress.com.
As one of the preconditions to establish peace, Azerbaijan wants Armenia to officially recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. “This factor will eliminate the Armenian historical presence in the region, as Azerbaijan will impose racial and discriminatory policies against the indigenous Armenians of the region,” Tashjian said.
Supporting Azerbaijan’s claims is its ally Turkey, which is adding its own conditions to the proposal, one of which includes pushing Yerevan to cease international lobbying for official recognition of the Armenian Genocide, an issue that has been a long-standing conflict between Yerevan and Ankara. Armenia has said approximately 1.5 million people were killed in 1915 during a genocide by the Ottoman Empire. While Turkey accepts that many Armenians living in the empire were killed by Ottoman forces during the First World War, it has consistently rejected the number of victims and has denied that the killings were systematic or constitute genocide.
“The opposition perceives these preconditions as unacceptable and calls for dialogue and unconditional negotiations. Many government officials and ruling Party MPs voiced for “peace”, others also hinted at the possibility of handing Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan in exchange for “peace”. The opposition refuses these terms,” Tashjian explained.
Criticism against Pashinyan
In Armenia, Pashinyan’s handling of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict received criticism after he agreed to hand over Armenian control of several territories to Azerbaijan. Last month, Pashinyan told Armenian lawmakers that the international community has called on Armenia to scale down demands on Karabakh, which sparked a fresh round of criticism and anti-government protests.
Tashjian told indianexpress.com that Pashinyan increased the salaries of the country’s security forces, in an attempt to win their loyalty. The ongoing protests in Armenia have been marked by police brutality and the detaining of protestors, activists as well as Parliament members. “However, the momentum of the opposition has not decreased. The opposition is eager to continue the protests, and mobilise the people until the government is toppled,” Tashjian said.
The public anger at Pashinyan’s handling of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has the potential to intensify into a wider, larger movement and result in civil unrest across the country, Tashjian believes. While the largest protests have occurred in Yerevan, smaller protests have been marked in other parts of the country as well. The fresh round of clashes in 2020 prompted mass mobilisation across Armenia and the vast Armenian diaspora sprung into action. Armenians across the world began lobbying their governments for stronger support for Armenia in the conflict, and donations and other forms of assistance began pouring in to support the ethnic Armenian soldiers fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In August last year, Pashinyan told lawmakers that a total of 3,773 Armenian servicemen were killed during the 44-day war with Azerbaijan. The anger against the government is also in part because many in Armenia lost their loved ones during the war, Tashjian explained. “The US and European Union are pressuring the Armenian government to downgrade the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and sign a one-sided humiliating “peace plan” with Azerbaijan to question the legitimacy of the presence of Russian peacekeepers stationed in the region,” Tashjian said.
Pashinyan’s stance on Nagorno-Karabakh
There has been a clear shift in Pashinyan’s views on Nagorno-Karabakh post May 2018, when he was elected leader of Armenia. Tashjian believes that much of Pashinyan’s rhetoric was aimed at winning nationalist support. “He torpedoed the negotiation process in April 2020 by arguing that “Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) is Armenia and full stop”.
Later, after the war, before the 2021 elections, he campaigned for a “just status for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh,” Tashjian explained. “And now under Western pressure he is lowering the status, arguing that Nagorno-Karabakh could be part of Azerbaijan if the rights of Armenians are guaranteed,” Tashjian added. The issue is the ambiguity with the term “rights” and what it would mean for Armenia and ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Prior to his election as leader, Pashinyan had created an image of himself as a civil disobedience leader. With this government crackdown on protests, there has been some criticism that he is stifling the same methods of protests that he once used.