Armenians Protest Against Government Shift on Karabakh

Anger over potential plans to drop the decades’ long demand for territory’s independence.

Armenians Protest Against Government Shift on Karabakh

Anger over potential plans to drop the decades’ long demand for territory’s independence.

A recent protest in Yerevan against the government's changing stance on Karabakh.
A recent protest in Yerevan against the government's changing stance on Karabakh. © Arshaluis Mghdesyan

Thousands of protesters rallying in the Armenian capital Yerevan have underlined public opposition to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his government making concessions to Azerbaijan over the long-disputed Nagorny Karabakh region.

Opposition in Armenia and local authorities in Karabakh slammed Pashinyan after he told lawmakers on April 13 that the “international community calls on Armenia to scale down demands on Karabakh,” indicating plans to drop the demand for its independence. This has been at the core of the three-decade long conflict with Baku over the mountainous region of Azerbaijan predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians.

On April 30, Armenia's national security service warned of “a real threat of mass unrest in the country”.

Chanting “Nikol, the traitor,” and “Stop Pashinyan,” protesters who took part in the largest rally on May 1 demanded the prime minister’s resignation.

Parliament vice speaker and opposition leader Ishkhan Sagatelyan told the crowds that any political status that left Karabakh within Azerbaijan was “unacceptable,” calling for large-scale civil disobedience across the country.

According to media reports, police arrested hundreds of demonstrators on May 1.

For its part, the opposition hopes popular dissent pressures Pashinyan to resign, mirroring his own rise to power in April 2018.  Then-prime minister Serzh Sargsyan succumbed to large street demonstrations  - led by Pashinyan.

“The situation is really critical and without the removal of the current government, which intends to cede Karabakh, there is no way to make any changes in favour of Armenia,” Artur Vanetsyan, leader of the opposition I Have the Honour parliamentary group, told IWPR.

Karabakh was at the centre of a six-week war in late 2020 that claimed more than 6,500 lives and displaced tens of thousands, before it ended in November with a Russian-brokered ceasefire.

Under the agreement, Armenia ceded swathes of territories it had controlled for decades, and Russia deployed some 2,000 peacekeepers to oversee the truce.

The security situation, however, remains volatile. On March 24 Azerbaijani forces violated the ceasefire in Askeran region, an area monitored by the Russians, and took control of the village of Farukh and the surrounding heights. Baku withdrew four days later following pressure from Moscow.

Baku proposals for the peace agreement, tabled in mid-March, include a mutual recognition of territorial integrity, meaning Yerevan should agree to recognise Karabakh as an integral part of Azerbaijan.

In April, Pashinyan and Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev met in Brussels for EU-mediated discussions after which they tasked their foreign ministers to begin preparatory work for peace talks.

The EU has increased its involvement in the negotiations over the protracted conflict. After the Pashinyan’s April 13 statement, the EU special representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia, Toivo Klaar, tweeted that “Armenia has the European Union’s support in the search for a just peace”.

Yerevan’s room for manoeuvre has significantly narrowed since the 2020 defeat.

“Armenia is under consolidated pressure from outside,” Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, told IWPR. “Azerbaijan needs to secure a treaty with Armenia that can be presented as the recognition of its territorial integrity with Karabakh included.”

Karabakh’s status has been Armenia’s key requirement in the negotiation process with Azerbaijan and it has been included in all plans drafted under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group. As such, it has created political turmoil in Armenia.

In February 1998, President Levon Ter-Petrosyan was forced to resign after agreeing to a stage-by-stage conflict resolution proposal which entailed major concessions, including shelving the definition of Karabakh’s status.

Since then, independence has been Armenia’s essential condition for any negotiation - and an unacceptable option for Baku, which has only agreed on the region’s autonomous status within Azerbaijan.

The 2020 war has changed the Armenian government’s position. Yerevan seems to have dropped its claims that Armenians in Karabakh would be subjected to ethnic cleansing if the territory remained part of Azerbaijan.

“Back in 1996, the idea that Karabakh had no future within Azerbaijan was actively put forward. Years have passed, and today we can say that, in my opinion, it was wrong,” Vigen Khachatryan, member of the ruling party Civil Contract, said on April 14 in a statement that contradicted the party’s pre-election rhetoric, which stressed the ethnic cleansing threat.

Ahead of the parliamentary polls in 2021, Civil Contract vowed to ensure the security of Karabakh, to work on de-occupation of the territories Azerbaijan seized in 2020 and to ensure Karabakh people’s self-determination through the principle of “separation for the sake of salvation”.

Months later, those principles do not feature in the government’s programme. Party members explained the shift as a necessity.

“The Armenian government has revised its approaches in response to the call of the OSCE Minsk Group to start negotiations without any preconditions. We did this to restart the negotiation process after the war,” Maria Karapetyan, a Civil Contract lawmaker, told IWPR.

In Karabakh, the shift has provoked an unusually strong political resistance.

“The authorities of Artsakh [the Armenian name for Karabakh] will not, under any circumstances, give up on their fight for the right of the people to self-determination,” the territory’s de-facto president Arayik Harutyunyan said on April 13. The following day the local assembly adopted a motion labelling the Armenian government position as “catastrophic” and stating that any political settlement of Karabakh within Azerbaijan “undermines not only the statehood of Artsakh, but also the inalienable right of the Armenians of Artsakh to live in their historical homeland”.

Gegham Baghdasaryan, president of the Stepanakert Press Club and editor-in-chief of the Analyticon magazine, said that the de facto authorities needed to ask what their own vision was for the region’s future rather than simply criticising Yerevan.

“By directing all the resources of public outrage and emotions to Pashinyan’s government led by Pashinyan, there is no room for such questions in Artsakh,” Baghdasaryan told IWPR, adding that authorities in Stepanakert should pursue their own independent policy.

“Residents should demand this, and not blame Armenia and its leader for everything,” he concluded.

Stepanakert-born political analyst Tigran Grigoryan said that the resistance to a political status within Azerbaijan was to be expected.

“If implemented, Nagorny Karabakh will see the complete expulsion of Armenians,” he told IWPR, noting that the threat of ethnic cleansing under Baku’s rule was real.

“Armenians of Karabakh are not ready to accept any status within Azerbaijan, and in case of such developments, they will simply leave their homes voluntarily.

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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