The Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Deal Is So Unpopular, Armenians Assaulted Their Own Politicians

The deal, brokered by Russia, saw furious crowds storming the country's parliament and ransacking government buildings.
November 10, 2020, 6:16pm
Demonstrators protesting against the end of war in Nagorno Karabakh break into the building housing the residence of the Armenian prime minister and government offices in capital Yerevan​.
Demonstrators protesting against the end of war in Nagorno Karabakh break into the building housing the residence of the Armenian prime minister and government offices in capital Yerevan. Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov\TASS via Getty Images

Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to a Moscow-brokered deal to end weeks of fighting over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, sparking celebrations in Baku but scenes of unrest on the streets of Yerevan, where angry protesters stormed parliament and seriously assaulted a politician.

Analysts said the agreement enshrines Azerbaijan’s battlefield victories in the campaign it launched six weeks ago to retake territory in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave that’s internationally recognised as belonging to Baku, but which has been governed by ethnic Armenians since the 1990s.

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Under the agreement, which came into effect at 1AM local time Tuesday, the two sides agreed to stop the fighting — which has killed thousands and displaced more than 100,000 people in recent weeks — while Azerbaijan will keep the significant territorial gains made in the conflict, including the enclave’s second city of Shusha, which it claimed on Sunday.

Armenia will also be required to give up a number of other adjacent territories outside the enclave by the 1st of December while nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers, who were deployed to the region early Tuesday, will patrol the frontlines for five years. The deal doesn’t directly address the status of the parts of Nagorno-Karabakh still under Armenian control, including the regional capital, Stepanakert.

Neil Melvin, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, told VICE News that the agreement reflected a resounding victory in the conflict for Azerbaijan.

“They’re calling it a ceasefire agreement, but it’s essentially a victory deal for Azerbaijan. This basically enshrines all the ambitions Azerbaijan had when it started the war,” he said.

Melvin said that Armenia had recognised that “if they didn’t do a deal now, they were going to be overrun.”

“It’s going to be very difficult for Armenians to swallow, but they’ve lost the war at the moment, so they have to accept it.”

The deal sparked jubilant celebrations in Azerbaijan, where President Ilham Aliyev boasted in a triumphant televised address that he had forced his Armenian counterpart to sign the agreement “on account of this iron fist.” The agreement was of "historic importance," and amounted to a "capitulation" by Armenia, he said.

By contrast, in Armenia, the reaction to the deal was one of shock and anger. Overnight, furious crowds stormed the parliament and ransacked government buildings, including Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s official residence, demanding his resignation and chanting: “Nikol has betrayed us.”

Parliament’s speaker, Ararat Mirzoyan, was beaten unconscious by an angry mob, in an assault that was captured on camera. Pashinyan said on Facebook Tuesday that Mirzoyan was being operated on but his life was not at risk.

Ani Paitjan, a Yerevan-based reporter for CivilNet, told VICE News that the sudden announcement of the capitulation had come as a shock to the Armenian public — followed by denial, anger and despair.

“People are depressed. Some people think this is not possible, because their children gave their lives for nothing,” she said. “They’re super angry because they were told losing was not an option. Then when it became a reality, people were mad.”

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She said many people had not realised the conflict was going as badly as it was. When her news site recently reported that Azerbaijan ‘s troops were in Shusha, the symbolic and strategic city in Nagorno-Karabakh, many readers disbelieved the reports and accused them of peddling misinformation.

A group of opposition parties has called a rally Wednesday, describing the ceasefire as a “treacherous agreement” that had led to “the most shameful page of our history [being] written.”

Announcing the deal, Pashinyan described the terms as “unbelievably painful for me and our people,” but said the decision was made “based on a deep analysis of the combat situation.” Arayik Harutyunyan, the leader of the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh that lies within Nagorno-Karabakh, said the decision was unavoidable, as to fight on would have risked losing the entire enclave.

“If the fighting had continued, we would have lost the whole of Artsakh within a few days, and we would have had more victims,” he said in a video posted online, using the name used by Armenians for the territory.

Analysts say the deal will result in serious pressure for Pashinyan’s reformist government, which was installed after the so-called Velvet Revolution in 2018. “There will certainly be a backlash now against Nikol Pashinyan. Many will reject the agreement, although it is significant that … Harutyunyan has spoken out saying there was no choice,” Laurence Broers, associate fellow at the Chatham House international affairs think tank told VICE News.

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Melvin agreed, saying there was “obviously going to be a threat to the government.” 

“That project of a democratic Armenia will be called into question,” he told VICE News. “There will be a big question mark over the future of their leadership, and the whole strategy that Armenia has pursued around the conflict.”

He said that aside from Azerbaijan, which would also be given a land corridor linking it to its own exclave of Nakhchivan, which borders Armenia, Iran and Turkey, the major winners were Turkey, which gave resolute political and military support to Baku throughout the conflict, and Russia, which had long sought to have boots on the ground in the region. Both were now established as the dominant power brokers in the South Caucasus, with Turkey gaining a direct land link to Azerbaijan through the new corridor to Nakhchivan, while previous key international players in the region, such as the U.S. and France, were entirely absent from the conflict and its resolution.

“The big outcome now is that Turkey and Russia are the leading forces in the South Caucasus,” he said. “The key factor is that Turkey has been resolutely standing behind Azerbaijan, so they’ve been able to press forward even when the U.S., France and Russia have called for ceasefires, which have always managed to dampen things down in the past.”

Broers said the deployment of 2,000 Russians to the region was also likely to create issues.

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“Without a political process to settle the conflict, peacekeepers may be vulnerable to provocations and incidents,” he said. “Beyond a certain period of time, they will also begin to look like an occupying force.”

Melvin said that while the agreement ended the current war, it left the conflict over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh essentially unresolved, with the potential for the fighting to roar back into life once again.

“There’s no actual statement in the agreement on the final statement of Karabakh, but Azerbaijan controls the situation on the ground. They could still move at some point to take the whole of Karabakh,” he said.

“That’s now a sword of Damocles hanging over the future of Karabakh under Armenian control.”

Ani Ucar contributed to this report