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Armenia in political crisis after Nagorno-Karabakh defeat

Arshaluys Mgdesyan in Yerevan, Armenia
September 21, 2023

Armenia's opposition has demanded that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan resign for "giving Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan." How firm is his grip on power? Arshaluys Mgdesyan reports from Yerevan.

Protesters gather, discuss and wave the flag of Nagorno-Karabakh in front of a government building in the Armenian capital Yerevan as police look on
After authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh announced they had signed a total cease-fire, protesters took to the streets of Yerevan to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol PashinyanImage: SNA/IMAGO

The cessation of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh has given way to a political crisis in Armenia.

On Wednesday, authorities in the unrecognized republic of Artsakh [Armenian for Nagorno-Karabakh — Editor's note] announced they had signed a total cease-fire that would go into effect at 1 p.m. local time — ending the "anti-terror operation" launched by Azerbaijan's military in a little more than a day.

A man with a cellphone stands in a doorway overlooking bombed out automobiles and debris strewn about a courtyard after an Azerbaijan military attack
Nagorno-Karabakh lies in tatters after fresh fighting earlier this weekImage: TAR-TASS/IMAGO

The deal, mediated by Russian peacekeepers, required Armenian troops to withdraw from the peacekeepers' operational area, as well as the complete disarming and dissolution of the Defense Army of Nagorno-Karabakh. Heavy artillery and other weapons are also to be withdrawn from the region, the site of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan for the last 30 years.

'We will lose Armenian territory'

Word that authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh had given up resistance and agreed to Azerbaijan's demands, including the main point of disbanding the enclave's military, has prompted various reactions in Armenia.

The opposition called for protests in the capital, Yerevan, accusing Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of "treason" and demanding that he leave office immediately.

On Wednesday evening, citizens from Yerevan and the surrounding area gathered to protest in front of government buildings. They were furious that Pashinyan had decided to stay out of the one-day clash in Nagorno-Karabakh, blaming him for the fact that the breakaway region's army had been forced to lay down its arms.

"During five years under Nikol Pashinyan we have lost Artsakh and Armenia's national security itself has been called into question," an enraged protester named Suren told DW. "It's simply unacceptable that he should continue to lead the country. If this continues, soon we will lose Armenian territory." 

Opposition: Pashinyan is 'Armenia's biggest threat'

Andranik Tevanyan, a former parliamentarian and the current chairman of the opposition Mother Armenia bloc, is also calling on Pashinyan to resign for "abandoning Artsakh."

"We're calling on Pashinyan to recant an October 2022 statement made after talks in Prague in which he recognized Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region, leading us to today's sad situation," Tevanyan told DW.

A bearded man in suit and tie, Nikol Pashinyan, speaking
Nikol Pashinyan has been prime minister of Armenia since 2018Image: Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty Images

Tevanyan, who has been a regular speaker at demonstrations in Yerevan since September 19, sees Pashinyan as "Armenia's biggest threat."

"We must completely reverse Nikol Pashinyan's policies," he said.

Pashinyan supporters warn of a coup

Pashinyan supporters have rejected Tevanyan's accusations. They say the protests aimed at Pashinyan are "inspired by foreign interests," and have threatened to launch countermeasures.

One of the biggest proponents of this approach, deputy mayor of Yerevan and close Pashinyan confidant Tigran Avinyan, voiced his opinion on Facebook: "The independence and sovereignty of the Republic of Armenia are non-negotiable and any attempts at a violent coup undertaken parallel to tensions on the military front will be decisively suppressed," he wrote on September 19.

Baku, Moscow teaming up on Pashinyan?

Arman Babajanyan, chairman of the party For the Republic, thinks it likely that the domestic political situation in Armenia could become destabilized. Babajanyan, whose party missed out on joining the government by failing to clear the 5% hurdle in Armenia's last election in 2021, does not agree that Pashinyan should step down.

"If those people calling for Nikol Pashinyan to resign are unsuccessful in forcing him to do so through protest, it is entirely possible that Azerbaijan will launch military operations against Armenia with Moscow's blessing. That seems to me the more plausible scenario for a transfer of power," he said.

Russian-backed deal halts fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh


Yerevan-based political expert Armen Baghdasaryan, on the other hand, said he believes Pashinyan has good prospects for remaining in power as long as Armenians are not forced to leave Nagorno-Karabakh.

"Only if there is an evacuation of the 120,000 people of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia could a wave of protests arise that is strong enough to force a change in government," Baghdasaryan told DW. "As long as things don't become that tragic, I really don't think such a scenario is likely."

In Baghdasaryan's opinion, the opposition is simply ratcheting up its rhetoric by calling for Pashinyan to step down and not offering an alternative plan of action. "It's nearly impossible to bring about a change in leadership with an agenda like that," he said.

Nagorno-Karabakh: A century of tensions

This article was originally written in Russian.