Protests Erupt As Armenia Pursues Controversial Peace With Azerbaijan

The first week of May saw the arrest of hundreds of anti-government protesters as Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia faces increasing criticism over his efforts to secure a peace deal with Azerbaijan. Armenia’s capital city Yerevan has witnessed weeks of unrest, with protesters blocking roads and bridges, and opposition parties calling for Pashinyan’s resignation. This represents the worst protests in the country so far this year and comes in the wake of Pashinyan publicly speaking about the need for a peace agreement with Azerbaijan regarding the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Protesters worry that the prime minister plans to give in to Azerbaijani demands and cede control of the territory.

Opposition leader Ishkhan Saghatelyan illustrated the attitude of the protesters, saying: “Pashinyan is a traitor and permanent street protests, which are mounting, will force him to resign.” Pashinyan is perceived as having abandoned Nagorno-Karabakh, with AFP citing one protester who said, “he [Pashinyan] is a symbol of defeat… he is ready to give away Karabakh for which we have shed our blood.”

However, some experts argue that the protests are unlikely to succeed. In a statement to Radio Free Europe, Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation’s Russia and Eurasia Program, wrote that despite an effort by the opposition to tarnish Pashinyan’s image, “none of this has stuck because the opposition controlled by the former regime, former presidents — all of whom have been in the public eye for far too long [—] offer no new ideas, and are deeply disliked by many Armenians.”

Events in Armenia, together with recent instability in other countries like Ukraine and Kazakhstan, highlight the complexity of maintaining peace in a region that is still struggling to deal with the legacy of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan, with the resultant conflict claiming tens of thousands of lives. In 1994 a ceasefire was signed that gave Armenia de facto control of the region, although conflict has flared up multiple times since, most recently in 2020. The conflict in 2020 resulted in Azerbaijan reclaiming large amounts of territory in a six-week war that ended with Russia, an Armenian ally, brokering a truce. With Russia now occupied with Ukraine, and with Azerbaijan having effective control over much of the region, Azerbaijan has been pushing harder for a permanent settlement that supports their claims.

As Pashinyan finds himself militarily defeated and increasingly politically isolated, his options are limited, making a peace agreement a more palatable option than it was before. Prime Minister Pashinyan should be applauded for his efforts to pursue an agreement and settle the dispute, but the widespread backlash in Armenia illustrates the depth of feeling regarding the issue and suggests a mutually satisfactory peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan may be hard to achieve. While current protests are unlikely to derail negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, both countries should keep in mind that peace remains a controversial issue. Any peace agreement should be accompanied with a guarantee of the rights and freedoms of Karabakh Armenians, otherwise a future incident may well see the region plunge once again into conflict.