Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan

Protest Movement in Armenia and the Current Stage of the Nagorno Karabakh Conflict Settlement Process

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By Benyamin Poghosyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

The April 13 speech of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in the parliament sent shock waves across the society in Armenia, the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic, and the Armenian diaspora. Pashinyan’s statement that the international community offers to Armenia to lower the threshold of the status for Nagorno Karabakh was perceived by many as a thinly veiled hint that Armenia should accept the autonomous status of Karabakh within Azerbaijan. The prime minister did not provide details on what this lowered threshold means and who are those mysterious actors among the international community who provided Armenia with this advice. As Pashinyan’s statement came only a week after he met with President Aliyev in Brussels, facilitated by the European Council President, many believe that the source of this advice is the West, or at least the European Union. Some argue that Russia is behind these developments, while others claim that there is an agreed approach between Russia and the West. Regardless of who suggested to Armenia to lower the threshold for Karabakh’s status and why, this speech triggered a significant backlash in the politically active part of the society within Armenia and beyond.

Many outside Armenia perceived the results of the June 2021 early parliamentary elections as proof that the majority of the Armenian population is tired of Nagorno Karabakh, or at least is indifferent to Karabakh’s future. The conventional wisdom behind this narrative was the argument that if the majority voted for the leader who lost the war, the primary concern for them was the issues related to the socioeconomic development of Armenia. Therefore, this part of society will silently accept the future setbacks in Karabakh, including recognizing Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan and watching the quick transformation of Karabakh into another Nakhijevan afterward.

However, this perception has little in common with reality. Many voted for Pashinyan in June 2021 not because they were happy with the 2020 war results but because they hated Pashinyan less than his primary opponents – the second and third presidents of Armenia. If other actors would lead the opposition during the elections, probably Pashinyan would finish the first but could not get more than 50 percent of the votes. Meanwhile, during the election campaign, Pashinyan put forward the idea of “remedial secession” as the base of his policy on the Karabakh conflict and never spoke about the possibility of recognizing Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. Thus, anyone who seeks to explain the results of the June 2021 elections as proof that the majority of the Armenian society is ready to accept the complete loss of Karabakh is either involved in wishful thinking or deliberate distortion of reality.

Almost immediately after Pashinyan’s speech, the opposition declared its intention to start non-stop protest movements. The first step was taken by Artur Vanetsyan, the first post-revolutionary director of the Armenian National Security service. He became a hero in the fight against corruption during the first year of Pashinyan’s rule but left his position in September 2019. He established a political party, “Motherland,” and entered the parliament in the June 2021 elections, allying with the former ruling Republican party, led by the third president of Armenia. Vanetsyan started a sit-down strike on April 17.

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The Republican party and Armenian Revolutionary Federation, an opposition party that entered parliament in cooperation with the third president of Armenia, Robert Kocharyan, joined the protests, organizing daily rallies in Yerevan and in the regions of Armenia. Other initiatives and movements, which have no relations with the former authorities and were established after the 2020 Karabakh war, also entered the scene. The opposition, which named itself a “resistance movement,” organized a large rally on May 1, and launched actions of civil disobedience on May 2. The morning of May 2, 2022 in Yerevan resembled the days of April 2018, as protestors were blocking the streets, while police were dispersing them and taking into police stations.

Protests do not directly threaten Pashinyan’s rule yet. However, Pashinyan only hinted that he might recognize Nagorno Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan, while in recent days, he sought to change his rhetoric. During the joint government session of Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic held in Yerevan on April 29, Pashinyan stated that nothing would be negotiated and implemented in secrecy from Nagorno Karabakh.

The protest movement, which started in Armenia after Pashinyan’s April 13 speech, proves one thing. The majority of the politically active part of the Armenian society does not and will not accept any solution that will make Nagorno Karabakh part of Azerbaijan under any circumstances or guarantees. Any efforts by international actors, be it Russia, the EU, or the US, to convince the Armenian government to agree to such a solution will inevitably trigger political destabilization in Armenia. These developments will only make South Caucasus more unstable and raise the probability of military escalation, creating another hot spot in post–Soviet space.

Benyamin Poghosyan is Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.

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