Pashinyan says Armenians should stay in Karabakh
The Armenian prime minister said that, while Armenia was prepared to accommodate those leaving Karabakh, they would not be under direct threat if they stayed put, under Azerbaijani rule.
With the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh falling apart, and no deal between local leaders and the central government in Azerbaijan, the future of Armenians in the region remains precarious.
While the vast majority of Armenian society, the Armenian foreign minister, as well as international observers are gravely concerned for their security, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan says otherwise.
"At this moment, our assessment is that there is no direct threat to the civilian population of Nagorno-Karabakh," Pashinyan said in a live address on September 21.
In a complete contradiction, Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan told a UN Security Council meeting on the same day that "Azerbaijan's intention is to complete the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh."
Since March 2021, access to Armenian-administered Nagorno-Karabakh has been tightly controlled by the Russian peacekeepers, making information difficult to verify. But three days after the beginning of Azerbaijan's 2023 offensive, credible reports are starting to emerge of civilian casualties and war crimes. The prime minister's statement triggered widespread outrage and led his critics to repeat their accusations of treason.
"I believe the PM was talking to the domestic audience and trying to avoid panic in Armenian society, while fighting against Russian state attempts to weaponize the suffering of the Armenians of Artsakh to bring down democratic governance in Armenia. He failed in doing so and even angered many of his own supporters," analyst Eric Hacopian told Eurasianet.
The timing of the statement, right before the UN Security Council meeting, couldn't have come at a worse time, according to human rights attorney Sheila Paylan. "The statement is puzzling, and also obviously untrue."
"Perhaps in trying to calm people down, the prime minister thought he needed to make that statement," she told Eurasianet, noting the angry protests on the streets of Yerevan.
As of September 20, the de facto Karabakh authorities were counting 200 people killed and over 400 wounded. The streets of Stepanakert are filled with "displaced people, hungry, scared, and in uncertainty," said Karabakh Human Rights Ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan.
According to Stepanyan, his office has received more than 600 cases of people missing in the region, as of September 22nd.
"Lack of communication made it almost impossible to find them or find out whether they were killed or not. Residential areas are cut off from each other, people's fates are unknown," former Armenian human rights defender Arman Tatoyan said. There have been reports of a bounty of $500 being placed on the head of a particular Karabakhi Armenian woman on an Azerbaijani Telegram channel. She is to be given to a man named "Murad'' as a birthday present, the alleged Telegram post reads.
Some Armenians on social media recalled video evidence of atrocities by Azerbaijani troops against female Armenian soldiers during Baku's incursions into Armenian territory in September 2022.
Against this backdrop, many found the prime minister's comment about Armenians not being under threat in Karabakh inexplicably tone-deaf.
He did say in the same remarks, however, that his government was prepared to handle an influx of 40,000 families from Karabakh (which should roughly cover the region's entire population that Armenian sources estimate at 120,000).
So far there has been no sign of Karabakh Armenians leaving through the Lachin corridor, the only route connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Azerbaijan has been tightly restricting and at times completely closing the corridor in one form or another for the past nine months, resulting in acute shortages of food and supplies.
"It's not opening anytime soon," said journalist Shant Khatcherian, who is standing by on the Armenian side of the border alongside other journalists, NGO representatives and Armenians who have relatives in Karabakh.
Meanwhile in Armenia, today marks the fourth straight day of protests. Roads have been blocked and dozens of people have been arrested. While the anger against Russia, the European Union, and other international institutions has been palpable, many Armenians are looking closer to home for someone to blame.
Fin DePencier is a journalist based in Yerevan
Fin DePencier is a Canadian freelance journalist and photographer based in Yerevan.