Armenia Has Erupted in Protest Over Border Adjustments

Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan’s controversial territorial concessions to Azerbaijan have sparked massive protests. The unrest underscores the deep-seated tensions and vulnerabilities faced by the Armenian state.

Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan speaking at the United Nations on September 22, 2022, in New York City. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Last month, speaking before forty thousand protesters in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan called for Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation. The protesters opposed Pashinyan’s decision to hand over four villages to Azerbaijan, Armenia’s foe, without any concessions in return.

Pashinyan rose to power during the 2018 Armenian revolution, leading protests against President Serzh Sargsyan’s decision to seek a third term. He promised to ensure Armenia’s security against Azerbaijan. However, when Azerbaijan decided to ethnically cleanse the Armenian region of Artsakh last year, Pashinyan withdrew troops. Many Armenians now feel betrayed by Pashinyan’s decision to cede territory to Azerbaijan in the name of peace. They have had enough.

Revolution Betrayed

After a decade of rule, Armenians were furious in 2018 when Sargsyan sought a third term. His presidency had been marred by corruption, including possible election fraud. The opposition movement that emerged was diverse, including the socialist Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the far-right Sasna Tsrer Pan-Armenian Party. However, due to his emphasis on democracy and rule of law, it was the liberal pro-European member of parliament, Pashinyan, who became the most prominent leader.

In March of that year, Pashinyan began a protest walk from the northern city of Gyumri to Yerevan. A week after his arrival, anti-Sargsyan crowds of up to fifty thousand gathered. Pashinyan agreed to meet with Prime Minister Sargsyan, but only if he would resign. The meeting lasted a few minutes, after which Pashinyan and other protesters were detained. The protests then grew to 250,000, roughly 10 percent of Armenia’s total population. On May 8, the Armenian Parliament nominated Pashinyan to become the prime minister.

The day after he became prime minister, Pashinyan visited Artsakh, a majority Armenian breakaway region within Azerbaijan. “The citizens of Artsakh and all Armenians are firmly determined to retaliate should the enemy try to launch another criminal campaign,” Pashinyan declared. But just a few weeks later, Armenian and Azerbaijan clashed in Nakhchivan, with Azerbaijan capturing some territory. Pashinyan was criticized for not doing enough to stop Azerbaijan’s aggression and advance.

Despite this, Pashinyan remained popular due to his anti-corruption reforms. With Sargsyan’s government still in power, Pashinyan called for an election in December 2018, where he won 70 percent of the vote. In August 2019, Pashinyan visited Artsakh again, stating that it “is Armenia, period.”

In 2020, Azerbaijan invaded Artsakh. With a population three times greater and an economy four times larger than Armenia, Azerbaijan was able to command a larger and better equipped military. But had Azerbaijan’s 2018 attack been taken more seriously, Armenia could have been better prepared. While Azerbaijan was modernizing its weapons, Armenia relied on outdated ones from Russia. It was only in June 2019 that a half-hearted and politically motivated review of Armenia’s military failures during clashes with Azerbaijan began.

In his defense, Pashinyan had only been in power for two years before the war began. The failure to modernize the military was also the fault of the previous government. Even with the best weapons, Armenia’s small population and economy left it a strategic disadvantage. But what came next was seen as a betrayal. When Azerbaijan captured the strategic town of Shushi, a cease-fire was reached.

With a much stronger foe, Armenia’s options were limited. But instead of a negotiated outcome that could secure Armenia’s interests, the cease-fire was effectively a capitulation. Armenia agreed to hand over most of Artsakh, with obligations imposed only on Armenia and none on Azerbaijan — not even the requirement to respect the rights of people in the region. Without Armenia making demands, Azerbaijan could simply attack again and repeat the process. Protests erupted.

Pashinyan lamented Armenia’s loss but insisted that the cease-fire would ensure Armenia’s security. However, in 2022, Azerbaijan began blockading the remaining area of Artsakh, which many considered an act of genocide. Rather than resist, Pashinyan, who once insisted that Artsakh was part of Armenia, conceded that it was Azeri. This stance contradicted the wishes of 98 percent of Armenians who opposed Azeri control of Artsakh. Rather than leverage domestic support for Artsakh, Pashinyan capitulated, withdrawing all troops from the region. When Azerbaijan invaded the remaining area of Artsakh in 2023, over 120,000 Armenians were ethnically cleansed.

Hope in a Hopeless World

Every time Pashinyan yields to Azerbaijan’s demands, Azerbaijan asks for more. With Artsakh lost, Azerbaijan now targets Armenia itself. Azerbaijan contends that the de facto border is incorrect, claiming ownership of some Armenian towns. With support from Western nations, many of which benefit from Azeri oil and gas, mediations began, aiming to establish a well-defined border and foster peace between the countries.

In principle, a proper border adjustment will entail some territories of Azerbaijan being ceded to Armenia. However, instead of Azerbaijan initiating this process as a gesture of good will, Armenia is first required to relinquish villages in the Tavush province. In an effort to convince villagers it was a good deal, Pashinyan told them a new border checkpoint would facilitate Azeris coming to Armenia, purportedly boosting the economy — a prospect based on their displacement. Unsurprisingly, 80 percent of Armenians oppose the demarcation process.

Protests erupted, with villagers blocking highways in response. Galstanyan of the Armenian Apostolic Church organized a march, reflecting a growing disillusionment in politicians and a shift toward the Church’s leadership in instigating change. While Westerns are often wary of church involvement in politics, attitudes in Armenia are different. As the first country to adopt Christianity, Armenia’s identity is deeply entwined with the Armenian Apostolic Church. Attacks on the church are perceived as attacks on Armenian identity itself. During the Armenian Genocide, churches were destroyed and Armenians were forcibly converted to Islam. Azerbaijan continues this legacy by demolishing churches in occupied Artsakh. For this reason, Galstanyan enjoys popular support, including from the socialist Armenian Revolutionary Federation.

Galstanyan and his supporters marched from Tavush to Yerevan, demanding Pashinyan’s resignation. When this demand went unmet, he called for civil disobedience, prompting students to leave their classes and join the protests. Streets were blocked to disrupt traffic. Pashinyan, himself once a protester and champion of human rights, sent police to beat and detain hundreds. A month later, the protests show no sign of abating, with tens of thousands gathering in Yerevan.

Meanwhile, Pashinyan continues to push forward with his agenda. Four villages were recently handed over to Azerbaijan. As a final act of defiance, villagers set fire to their properties, denying their use to Azerbaijan.

Going Forward

According to Pashinyan, the border delimitation is a step toward peace. However, history indicates that Azerbaijan consistently disregards peace agreements. In 2020, Azerbaijan pledged to ensure free movement of people and goods into Artsakh, yet two years later, Artsakh was blockaded. In 2023, a cease-fire was reached to hand over the remaining area of Artsakh, only for Azerbaijan to attack Armenia months later. As long as Armenia continues to capitulate, Azerbaijan has no incentive to pursue genuine peace efforts.

Armenians are rightfully outraged. To avoid another Armenian genocide, Pashinyan must be removed from office. A new government must be sworn in that respects Armenians’ desire to safeguard their territorial integrity against Azeri imperialism.

The ongoing protests aim to achieve this goal. Galstanyan has successfully mobilized people, drawing large crowds to voice their frustration. His encouragement of civil disobedience will put pressure on the government to heed the demands of the people.

For the protests to succeed, they must adopt a strategic approach. Galstanyan has at times pursued ad hoc actions rather than formulating a long-term plan. For instance, when protesters gathered in Yerevan, he demanded that Pashinyan resign in an hour — an unrealistic demand sure to end in defeat. Furthermore, Galstanyan wants Pashinyan impeached, but the parliamentary opposition lacks sufficient votes to achieve this, risking the loss of momentum.

This critique is not to disparage Galstanyan but to caution protesters not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Since the 2020 Artsakh war, Armenians have rallied in tens of thousands to oppose Pashinyan, yet each attempt to oust him has failed. Pashinyan even emerged victorious from the 2021 Armenian election, albeit with a small share of the votes.

Ending Pashinyan’s tenure requires medium- and long-term planning. As long as Galstanyan confines his efforts to bringing people to Yerevan square, Pashinyan will continue to ignore him. More disruptive tactics are needed. Galstanyan’s call for disobedience through student walkouts and street blocking is a positive step. His outreach to various groups, such as opposition leaders, retired military officers, doctors, lawyers, and artists is also commendable. However, the absence of trade unions, to which one in five Armenians belong, is a weakness. Despite boasting one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, Armenians have seen a dip in their disposable income. Rent has increased in Yerevan, with some people seeing their rent double. There exists untapped potential in channeling worker resentment against the government.

Should Pashinyan be unseated, a comprehensive long-term plan is needed to protect Armenia from Azeri imperialism. Pashinyan has blundered negotiations with Azerbaijan, but Armenia’s weaker military has also diminished its bargaining power. Modernizing the military is imperative.

While advocates for peace are rightfully wary of increased militarism, oppressed people have little recourse but to defend themselves against imperialism. Ironically, a more balanced power dynamic might deter Azeri aggression enough to guarantee peace. Those who serve should also do so with dignity. Armenian soldiers often live in unsafe barracks and endure such poor conditions that suicide often outpaces combat deaths. They, along with other workers, should get some of the benefits the ultrarich have received during Armenia’s economic boom.

Western countries, which are backing the border demarcation process, will likely reject any Armenian attempts to challenge Azerbaijan. And elites in Armenia will resist any deviation from the status quo. Nevertheless, resistance to Azeri imperialism garners widespread support among Armenians, who do not want their country to be cut up like the West Bank. This popular sentiment should inform decision-making and guide actions. Otherwise, Armenia risks ceasing to exist.