Nagorny Karabakh Conflict Sparks Political Crisis in Armenia
Rallies called on Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign, but the opposition provides no real alternative.
Nagorny Karabakh’s collapse in the wake of Azerbaijan’s military offensive has sparked political unrest in Armenia. However, as protesters and opposition politicians gathered in central Yerevan to demand Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan resign, no real political alternative was visible on the horizon.
Thousands of protesters rallied in Republic Square in the heart of the capital to denounce the government’s perceived failure to support Armenians in Karabakh following Baku’s 24-hour operation launched on September 19. With Karabakh weakened by a nine months-long blockade, Azerbaijan made quick territorial gains. The ceasefire Russia negotiated was conditioned to fully disband and disarm Karabakh’s armed forces and remove all weaponry from the territory.
Some of the Yerevan protesters clashed with police and security forces were deployed around the square, while armoured riot police cordoned off government offices.
Waving Karabakh flags, protesters chanted “Artsakh,” the Armenian name for Karabakh, and “Nikol is a traitor.” Prime minister since 2018, Pashinyan presided over the defeat to Azerbaijan in the 2020 war and the final collapse of Karabakh’s authorities.
“After Artsakh fell, Pashinyan has no right to stay in power. His politics over these five years [in office] have brought us to this point,” 37-year-old Yerevan resident Tsolak Hakobyan told IWPR, outraged by the Armenian authorities’ decision to leave “our compatriots to their fate”.
When Azerbaijan’s offensive began, the prime minister said that he would not allow internal or external forces “to drag the Republic of Armenia into military operations”. He denounced what he called “ethnic cleansing” in the region, but refused to intervene.
“Pashinyan is no longer legitimate. At first, he refused to support the right of the people of Artsakh to self-determination and then he abandoned them totally. This is a direct violation of the constitution of Armenia,” Andranik Tevanyan, leader of the Mother Armenia opposition bloc, told thousands of protesters on September 20.
“He is a threat to our security,” added Tevanyan, a close ally of the former president Robert Kocharyan, considered a pro-Russian politician and the fiercest critic of the Armenian government.
But despite the widespread criticism, alternatives to the current government are in short supply. Beyond calling for his resignation, no one has an alternative option to Pashinyan.
Amid the distress of the situation in Karabakh, Pashinyan’s supporters have largely avoided publicity. On social media, some have maintained that the protests in Armenia are organised by “certain external centres” and promise to harshly suppress “any coup attempts."
Lawmaker Arthur Hovhannisyan, from the ruling Civil Contract party, described an “external trace” in the protesters and called opposition leader Tevanyan an “agent”.
Authorities in Moscow have also called on Pashinyan to leave, but there is an increasing animosity against the passive role Russia played in the latest military debacle.
“Russian peacekeepers [in Karabak] abandoned their obligations to ensure the security of the region because Russia entered into bargaining with Azerbaijan based on its own interests,” Mikael Nagapetyan, a politician with the Citizen's Decision Party, told IWPR.
“After Armenia refused to defend Artsakh, it completely became an object of Russian interests and trade. And Russia made this deal.”
The 2020 agreement included the deployment of a 2,000-strong Russian peacekeeping mission, which has been criticised for not protecting the region against a prolonged blockade.
In recent months, Yerevan has increasingly severed ties with Moscow, which it viewed as no longer a reliable security guarantor. It withdrew its representative to the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Moscow-led military bloc, and conducted joint military exercises with the US on its soil, which ended on September 20. The drills were significant since Armenia’s second largest city, Gyumri, hosts a large Russian military base.
The government has also sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine and, symbolically, Pashinyan’s wife travelled to Kyiv in early September to attend a forum organised by Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska.
Yerevan resident Edward Grigoryan also blamed the Kremlin for the defeat in Stepanakert.
“The aim of the developments in Karabakh is to change the government in Yerevan by bringing furious masses onto the streets. You must be blind not to see this,” he told IWPR.
On September 19, several protesters gathered outside the Russian embassy. Among them were also Russian citizens who had moved to Armenia in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.
“We are here to support the people of Artsakh. We are certain that Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey are acting in a triple conspiracy there,” Rostislav, a former resident of Russia’s southern city of Krasnodar told IWPR as he held the Karabakh flag.
Some experts, however, downplayed Russia’s role in the crisis.
“I don’t see anything new in the accusations against Russia, and frankly speaking, I think they’re foolish,” said Russian political scientist Nikolai Silaev, senior research fellow at the Institute of International Studies. “What happened in Nagorno-Karabakh is a humanitarian catastrophe, since people will be forced to leave their homeland, and this is also a blow to the reputation of Russia. Our peacekeepers also died there,” he continued, referring to reports of eight Russian soldiers killed in the shelling,
He added that since November 2020, Armenian authorities had blamed Moscow “simply for everything” and the opposition blames it having “Pashinyan still in power”.
The profound bond between Yerevan and Stepanakert is expressly stated in Armenia’s Declaration of Independence, issued on December 1, 1989. The declaration, which is part of the country’s constitution, spells out “the reunification of the Armenian SSR and Nagorny Karabakh” by the decision of the Supreme Councils of the Armenian SSR and Nagorny Karabakh.
Developments in Karabakh have always had a domino effect on Armenia’s domestic politics.
In 2020 the ceasefire agreement that Moscow brokered to end the Second Karabakh war sparked political unrest, with mass rallies demanding Pashinyan resign. Opponents saw the trilateral agreement signed on November 9 as an act of treason, while the government argued that Azerbaijan’s military might had left no other option.
Similarly, in April 2022, thousands rallied against the government after Pashinyan told lawmakers that the “international community called on Armenia to scale down demands on Karabakh”. His speech in the parliament indicated concessions to Azerbaijan and plans to drop the demand for the region’s independence, which had been at the core of the three-decade long conflict with Baku.
On September 21, as Azerbaijani authorities met the de-facto Karabakh officials, Pashinyan addressed the nation to mark 32 years of Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union.
“As it turned out later, this was the easiest part of the road to Independence,” he said. “The people of the Republic of Armenia later had to face economic and political crises, wars and poverty. It is in this whirlwind and passing through trials that we realised that declaring independence is one thing, conquering and strengthening it is completely different.
This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.