Since 1992, the Yerablur military cemetery, on a hilltop in the outskirts of Yerevan, has been the burial place of Armenian soldiers who died in the Nagorny Karabakh wars.
Since 1992, the Yerablur military cemetery, on a hilltop in the outskirts of Yerevan, has been the burial place of Armenian soldiers who died in the Nagorny Karabakh wars. © Arshaluis Mghdesyan

Is Armenia Giving up on Nagorny Karabakh?

Statements recognising Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity signal painful decisions may lie ahead.

Thursday, 8 June, 2023

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s statement on the readiness to recognise the region of Nagorny Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan could end a territorial dispute that has locked the two nations in a three decades long war. 

But it has also shaken Armenian society, whose fight for the region has defined its history and identity.

“The perception of the international community is increasingly leaning towards the formula that Armenia and Azerbaijan must, without reservation, recognise each other’s territorial integrity, 29,800 sq km and 86,600 sq km respectively. We agree with this logic and [we] are negotiating according to this logic,” Pashinyan stated during a four-and-half-hour press conference on May 22. He added that “a dialogue must take place between Baku and Stepanakert aimed at ensuring the rights and security of the Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh”.

Prompted by journalists, he added that “those 86,600 square kilometres also include Nagorny Karabakh”.

This is the first time an Armenian leader has said that Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity includes the Armenian-populated enclave in the neighbouring South Caucasus nation.

“Artsakh [as Armenians call Karabakh] is the homeland that we are holding on to with our teeth,” Marat Hovhannisyan told IWPR. Originally from Armenia’s Kotyak region, the 27-year-old joined the army in Karabakh when he was 18: for him, the territory is the land of his ancestors.

“I cannot imagine it as part of Azerbaijan, every Armenian who sets foot here can feel how strong and how long we have fought to have our home and our statehood.” 

The mountainous region has been an integral part of Armenia’s political identity since 1988 when ethnic Armenians, comprising a majority in the territory, demanded it be transferred from then Soviet Azerbaijan to Soviet Armenia.

Armenian forces won the war that broke out following the collapse of the Soviet Union, claiming nearly 30,000 lives and leaving hundreds of thousands displaced. The 1994 ceasefire gave Karabakh de facto independence, but its 150,000 residents have been living in limbo as the territory’s sovereignty was not internationally recognised. 

The link between Yerevan and Stepanakert, Karabakh’s de facto capital, is deep: it is included in Armenia’s declaration of independence and recognising it as part of Azerbaijan would require this to be amended. 

However, while the prime minister’s statement has undoubtedly stirred ire, this has not gone beyond angry debate on social networks, small gatherings and outrage in Stepanakert.

This marks a stark contrast with the recent past.

In 2020, tens of thousands marched in Yerevan calling for Pashinyan’s resignation after Armenia lost the Second Karabakh war and Azerbaijan regained the control of districts around Karabakh and some key towns in the territory, like Hadrut and Shushi (Shusha in Azerbaijani).

Large protests also erupted in May 2022 after Pashinyan said in parliament that Armenia had to “lower the benchmark of expectations” on the status of Karabakh. Then, as now,  the opposition was not able to capitalise on the anger and the interest eventually faded.

“The prospects of subordinating Karabakh to Azerbaijan are sensitive, any idea of ceding the territory is profoundly unpopular in Armenia,” political analyst Alexander Iskandaryan, who leads the Caucasus Institute, told IWPR. “However, due to harsh post-war consequences, it is getting more admissible.”


For decades, Yerevan countered Baku’s claim of territorial integrity with the right to self-determination, stressing that Armenians in the territory had the right to determine their international political status and sovereignty without outside or external interference.

The 2020 war changed the balance of power and narratives. 

The right of Karabakh to self-determination has disappeared from the rhetoric of the political elite, which is increasingly raising the need to accept a difficult reality.

Those in Karabakh do not see such painful decisions as an option.

“We have sacrificed our dearest people for Artsakh and what our heroes did in 1990 cannot be devalued…This is unacceptable,” Loretta Bakhshiyan, whose 18-year-old son Aram and her two brothers died in 2020, told IWPR in a phone conversation from Stepanakert.

Bakhshiyan has been unable to visit her son’s grave in the Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan since December 2022 due to the blockade by Azerbaijani so-called eco-activists of the Lachin corridor, the only road connecting Karabakh with Armenia. 

“Artsakh must always be Armenian; I cannot imagine [it] as part of Azerbaijan. If you [Armenian government] had to recognise it as part of Azerbaijan, why did you sacrifice this generation?”  the 41-year-old said.

For three decades, surveys have mirrored Bakhshiyan’s position: Armenians have only seen Karabakh either as an independent state or a part of Armenia. 

Grieving mothers are the most critical voices. In mid-May, Armenian media reported an attempt to abduct Ashot Pashinyan, the premier’s 23-year-old son who also fought in the Second Karabakh war. The culprits belonged to an NGO advocating for mothers of the fallen soldiers of 2020 who have regularly staged protests against the government.


Polls on Pashinya’s latest statement are not available, but a survey conducted by the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI) in early 2023 showed that 53 per cent of Armenians think that government policy towards Karabakh “regressed a lot” while 16 per cent thinks that it “somewhat regressed”. 

Issues related to the region, including the blockade in Lachin corridor or the state of the army, dominate what Armenians see as their government’s biggest failure during the previous six months.

“Pashinyan’s rating has fallen sharply from 75 per cent [of his election in 2018] to 14 per cent today. This figure is below the line of legitimacy; making such an extreme decision with such a trust rating is very risky. A huge wave of dissatisfaction will rise,” Gevorg Poghosyan, sociology professor at the National Academy of Science, told IWPR, adding that a referendum should be held.

Surveys, however, do not detail how far society is ready to go to defend Karabakh, including through a new military confrontation.

“Even when iconic Karabakh leaders, such as Vazgen Manukyan and Robert Kocharyan [former Karabakh-born Armenian president] joined the opposition, there was no awakening as in 1988. People get so tired of wars that they may be ready for a ‘disgraceful peace’,” Sergey Markedonov, a Russian political scientist specialising on Caucasus issues, told IWPR.

A treaty may also not secure long-lasting peace in the region.

“The government thinks that by ceding Karabak it will solve all problems in Armenia, from security issues to economic development. But history has proved that Azerbaijan’s aggression and territorial claims are not limited to the territory… Baku did not cease its ambitions towards Armenia after the [2020] war,” Tigran Abrahamyan, an opposition MP from the I Have the Honour Alliance, told IWPR referring to the 2022 attack along a broad swathe of border areas within Armenia.  

Iskandaryan agreed, pointing out that Baku did not feel under any military threat. 

“Yerevan wants to protect itself with a peace treaty, Baku does not have such a need [and] accordingly, it needs something else, the full control of Karabakh. Even with declaration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, Baku receives Karabakh only on paper,” the analyst stressed.  “There are still Russian peacekeepers stationed there, there are local government institutions, even though not recognised, and Azerbaijani legislation does not extend to it.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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