YEREVAN, Armenia — A crowd of protestors filed into the central square of the Armenian capital on Wednesday night, first just as small groups, mixing with the families eating ice creams on benches, but then as a wide sea of angry faces.
Heavily armored riot police formed an iron cordon around the government building, its windows already smashed by bricks thrown at a demonstration the night before. Chants went up in support of the ethnic Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Azerbaijani troops launched a lightning offensive the day before. Others in the crowd — a few thousand strong — called for Armenia’s embattled prime minister, liberal reformer Nikol Pashinyan, to resign over the defeat and bloodshed.
The supreme fear is that many of the 100,000 Armenians in the enclave will be driven out in ethnic cleansing by Azerbaijani forces.
“The biggest problem is our prime minister because he’s doing nothing to save people’s lives and Azerbaijan is doing genocide,” said Van, a 36-year-old from Yerevan. “They’re washing their hands of it.”
Pashinyan was commander-in-chief in 2020 when Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bloody 44-day conflict over the breakaway territory, inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders but controlled since a war that followed the fall of the Soviet Union by its ethnic Armenian population. Armenian forces lost swathes of territory, forcing them to depend on Russian peacekeepers to maintain the status quo.
However, with Moscow bogged down in its full-blown invasion of Ukraine, Azerbaijan has tightened its hold on Nagorno-Karabakh. First came a months-long blockade of aid supplies reaching the region and then, on Tuesday morning, a blitzkrieg of tanks, troops and artillery fire. And, on Wednesday, leaders in the territory said they had been forced to accept a Moscow-brokered surrender agreement.
One day war
This time, Pashinyan has been desperate for the Armenian state not to be drawn into the fighting — despite its deep support for the Karabakh Armenians. On Tuesday night, as fighting flared once again in the region, the prime minister said he would not allow internal or external forces “to drag the Republic of Armenia into military operations.”
Outnumbered and outgunned by Azerbaijan’s troops, who have been trained and equipped by its allies Turkey and Israel, another war could pose a profound threat to Armenia’s existence — particularly after Azerbaijani troops took control of strategic high points inside its borders during an invasion last September.
For many Armenians, however, Pashinyan’s stance isn’t good enough.
“This, right here, is a genocide alert,” said Aspram Krpeyan, an opposition MP taking part in the protests on Wednesday night. “We should form a proper government that will serve the Armenian nation and only the Armenian nation.”
But while criticism is ubiquitous, alternatives are in short supply, and beyond handing in his resignation few can say what they want Pashinyan to do next.
In recent months, the Armenian government has sought to make a historic break with Russia in the midst of concerns it is no longer a reliable security guarantor. The country has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine for the first time, invited U.S. soldiers to stage joint drills, and withdrawn its representative to the Moscow-led CSTO military bloc. In an interview with POLITICO just last week, Pashinyan said Moscow’s peacekeepers had “failed” in their duties.
Now, the Kremlin is looking to pin the blame for the latest round of hostilities on Armenia’s increasingly pro-Western leader.
In a document obtained by independent Russian news site Meduza on Wednesday, the country’s state media was instructed to point the finger at Pashinyan and his partners in the U.S. and EU. Meanwhile, Armenia’s pro-Russian opposition parties are wasting no time calling for a “provisional government” to oversee the crisis.
Pro-Russian politicians in Armenia are seeking to build political capital from the military disaster but there is very little practical support that Russia would seem able to provide now. “Even if there was some kind of effort at regime change or a coup that would bring a more pro-Russian faction to power, I just can’t see how they would keep power given the total sense of disillusionment with Moscow’s role in Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Laurence Broers, an expert on the conflict at Chatham House. “But that doesn’t mean there won’t be explosions of frustration.”
Even Pashinyan’s own foreign ministry, which has spent years building stronger relationships with Western capitals, couldn’t hide a sense of betrayal. Edmon Marukyan, Yerevan’s ambassador-at-large, posted a picture of the chaos unfolding in Nagorno-Karabakh, saying “this is tolerated by you” and naming top U.S. and EU leaders, including European Council President Charles Michel and Brussels’ top diplomat Josep Borrell.
The EU is especially cautious over its diplomatic interventions on Armenia as it has styled authoritarian Baku as a key ally in helping provide alternative gas supplies to Russia.
In the meantime, fears of ethnic cleansing are growing, and Russia claims it has “evacuated” as many as 2,000 Karabakh Armenians — to where, it has not said. In Stepanakert, the region’s de facto capital, thousands of people have packed their bags and fled to the Russian peacekeepers’ headquarters at a disused airport outside the city, but those on the ground say they’ve received no food, water or route to safety.
Azerbaijan insists it is not trying to bring about a mass exodus, but has presented no plans for the peaceful integration of the Karabakh Armenians. All of those who had lived in territory captured by Azerbaijani forces in 2020 were forced to escape ahead of the arriving armies. In some cases, such as that of an elderly couple who stayed behind, they were reportedly executed and their bodies mutilated. That, combined with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s boast of having “chased them out of our lands like dogs,” means many doubt they can continue to live in the mountainous area if it comes under the control of his forces.
According to Armenian officials, at least 200 people have died and 400 have been wounded in the offensive as of earlier Thursday evening. Social media channels are filled with people looking for their lost relatives, many from rural parts of Nagorno-Karabakh where communication lines were cut.
“I’m here because my family are under attack,” said 20-year-old Daniella, a student from Stepanakert who joined the protests. “They are hiding in basements without food, without water. I don’t think the Armenians can do anything, they’ve done all they can.”
If a full-blown ethnic cleansing is to be averted, she said, other countries — be it Russia, the U.S. or EU nations — now need to step up. “But they do nothing. They talk, they say words, but where are their actions?”