Unrest Bubbles up in Armenia
Image: Armenian Alliance/Facebook
A rolling series of demonstrations have been underway in Armenia. Led by opposition parties Hayastan Dashink (Armenia Alliance) and Pativ Unem (With Honour), the plan is a week of protests and civil disobedience culminating in a big rally on May 1, which – organizers hope – could topple the Pashinyan government.
Beyond the everyday rough-and-tumble of Armenian politics, at issue is the attempt to whip up a public mood against Pashinyan’s tentative steps towards a lasting peace deal with Azerbaijan.
Opposition parties had led a large demonstration back on April 5, aimed at pressurizing the government not to make concessions in Azerbaijan-Armenia talks chaired by European Council President, Charles Michel. The ‘significant’ meeting itself, aimed at moving towards a full peace treaty, was reported somewhat blandly as having “agreed on the necessity to continue this engagement.”
What worried the Armenian opposition much more were Pashinyan’s unusually frank statements to parliament on April 13. In these, he reported the “international community’s” warning that Armenia should lower its expectations over the territorial status of Karabakh. This was widely interpreted as suggesting that Yerevan was considering recognition of Azerbaijani sovereignty over the whole of Karabakh. That’s a position entirely consistent with international law yet would be highly contested in Armenia, where a large section of society still hopes to create a special territorial status for the ethnic Armenians of Azerbaijan. In the eyes of many Armenians, such a goal is tantamount to betrayal due to a widely held, if hard to prove, belief that Armenians would not be safe and secure if governed by Baku. As part of any final peace treaty, it is assumed that Yerevan will expect some kind of arrangement to assure such safety. However, in quite what form those assurances will be made remains open to speculation.
Meanwhile, the Armenian opposition is not waiting to find out, and protests have been rumbling on ever since. Pativ Unem loyalists started on April 17 with a sit-in on Yerevan’s Freedom Square, which has frequently been the site of anti-government demonstrations over recent years. Nearly two weeks later, the camp is still there. It is led by the party’s leader Artur Vanetsyan, a previous national security chief and former Pashinyan ally.
On the evening of April 23, the crowds were stirred up after the traditional torchlight procession that commemorates 1915’s mass deportations and massacres of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. Marchers gathered in Republic Square as Turkish and Azerbaijani flags were burnt and opposition leaders announced a new phase in their anti-Pashinyan struggle. This would include daily protests and, according to Ishkhan Saghatelyan of the Dashnaktsutyun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation), multi-day marches converging on the capital from four different directions. One of those marches is a 137km route starting, symbolically, from Ijevan – Nikol Pashinyan’s hometown.
The next day, opposition politicians claimed that their protesters had been arrested for blocking access to the ruling party’s HQ and attempting to close one of Yerevan’s major thoroughfares, Komitas Ave. The increasingly volatile situation was not helped by an incident in which a pregnant woman was knocked down and killed by a police car. On the evening of April 26, 29-year-old Sona Mnatsakanyan had been crossing the road at the Leo-Paronyan intersection in Yerevan when the presidential motorcade sped by, and one of the accompanying vehicles struck her. In many countries, high-speed multi-car motorcades are a common feature when transporting a head of state, justified as offering security while also ensuring a projection of power, inevitably leading to suggestions of an elite that is not at ease with the people. Pashinyan later sent condolences in a phone conversation with the victim’s father. Still, the local press remained critical that the motorcade failed to stop immediately and help after the event.
Meanwhile, daily protests have continued and are due to culminate over the coming weekend. In the meantime, however, the Armenian government is pressing ahead with a proposed dialogue working towards another locally controversial (if economically vital) move – reopening the Turkish-Armenian border and normalizing relations between Yerevan and Ankara.