Police in Armenia have detained hundreds of people as protests mount against the government’s ongoing negotiations with Azerbaijan.
Protesters have been rallying by the thousands against the government’s apparent willingness to compromise on Armenians’ sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, the territory at the heart of Armenia’s decades-old conflict with Azerbaijan. They especially gathered steam after Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said, in an April 13 speech, that the international community has been pushing Armenia to "lower the bar a bit on Nagorno-Karabakh's status.”
That potential concession on Karabakh’s status – and the resulting uncertainty over the fate of the territory’s current Armenian population – has put the government at odds with many Armenians, as well as the de facto leadership in Karabakh itself.
Police have been treating both protesters and the media covering the events with force that activists have described as “brutal.”
“Today's violence is just as unacceptable as it was in 2016, 2008, 2004, and so on until 1991,” analyst Tatul Hakobyan wrote on Facebook, referring to the violent break-ups of protests during former governments, when many of those protesting today were in charge and many of those in government now were among the protesters.
At the largest of the recent demonstrations, on May 1, protesters chanted slogans including "Armenia without Turks," a reference to Pashinyan and his government, whom the opposition has been branding a “Turk” since last year’s election campaign.
While the opposition political parties leading these protests lack broad popularity as a result of their long years in office before Pashinyan came to power, the government is taking the demonstrations seriously.
Armenia's National Security Service (NSS) warned on April 30 of "a real threat of mass unrest.” The NSS statement urged Armenians “not to give in to provocative calls and exhortations to destabilize the country's internal security.” It called on the opposition to refrain from “the unacceptable practice of spreading hatred, enmity in public, and calling for violence in public speeches."
The protesters have used tactics like blocking streets and appeals to police apparently modeled after Pashinyan’s own 2018 Velvet Revolution, when he led street protests that succeeded in forcing the resignation of the former regime then led by Serzh Sargsyan.
Sargsyan himself attended the May 1 march, as did another former president-turned-opposition leader, Robert Kocharyan. Reporters asked Sargsyan about Pashinyan’s statement about the international community pressuring Armenia to give up Karabakh. ”For 10 years, the international community was saying that Artsakh [an alternate Armenian name for the territory] must have self-determination. Do not pay attention to what he is saying,” Sargsyan responded.
“Any political status of Karabakh within Azerbaijan is unacceptable to us,” Ishkhan Saghatelyan, vice speaker in the parliament and leader of the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation – Dashnaktsutyun, said at the rally. He said that starting on May 2 a large-scale civil disobedience campaign would begin. "I call on everyone to begin strikes. I call on students not to attend classes. Traffic will be completely blocked in the center of Yerevan,” he said.
The situation amounts to “a crisis accompanied by a dead end,” said Boris Navasardyan, the head of the Yerevan Press Club, in an interview with local news outlet CivilNet.
“The authorities don't have a solution for the growing problems and the opposition doesn't have an alternative agenda that would provide those solutions,” he said. “I think the police have an order to open the streets by any means necessary for the civil disobedience rallies not to gain momentum. On the other hand, we see the opposition rallying their supporters to not back down."
But these protests are not likely to enjoy the same success as Pashinyan’s in 2018, Navasardyan said.
"In 2018 public energy had built up over time and concentrated; this time it's all over the place,” he said. “If the protests aren't engaging people and even the small ones aren't consistent, they won't have any success."
Ani Mejlumyan is a reporter based in Yerevan.