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Border disorder The return of four villages to Azerbaijan sparks turmoil at Armenia’s political and literal frontiers

Source: Meduza

Border disorder The return of four villages to Azerbaijan sparks turmoil at Armenia’s political and literal frontiers

Source: Meduza
Thousands of Armenians assembled in Yerevan’s Republic Square for a rally led by Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan. May 26, 2024.
Thousands of Armenians assembled in Yerevan’s Republic Square for a rally led by Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan. May 26, 2024.
Anthony Pizzoferrato / Middle East Images / ABACA / Scanpix / LETA

Story by Sona Hovsepyan and Arpine Hovhannisyan for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

Yesterday, demonstrators blocked Yerevan’s central Republic Square while the government was in session, demanding Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation. The protests resumed today outside of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, where police detained more than two dozen people. The protest leader, the prominent Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan, hails from the northeastern Tavush province on the border with Azerbaijan, which ceded four villages to Baku last week. Since the demarcation process began in April, Galstanyan has channeled public backlash into weeks of anti-government demonstrations and even announced plans to run for prime minister. The opposition, meanwhile, is trying to jump on the bandwagon. But Armenians remain deeply skeptical of any and all political figures. For The Beet, journalists Sona Hovsepyan and Arpine Hovhannisyan report on the ongoing protests in Armenia over the delimitation of its shared border with Azerbaijan.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

Thousands of demonstrators shut down streets in Armenia’s capital and blocked roads throughout the country earlier this week, demanding the resignation of Nikol Pashinyan. The Armenian prime minister has been under pressure for weeks, following the government’s decision to hand over four disputed villages in Armenia’s northeastern Tavush province to Azerbaijan. 

The transfer officially took place on May 24. Armenia’s security service announced that its border guards had taken up new positions in the Tavush province. In turn, Azerbaijan confirmed that its border guards had taken control of the villages of Baghanis Ayrum, Asagi Eskipara, Heyrimli, and Kizilhacili. In Kirants, one of the villages on the Armenian side of the border that ceded territory, residents demolished buildings and even attempted to set fire to agricultural plots, leading to scuffles with police. 

When The Beet visited Kirants days before the handover, on May 19, locals were still in shock over Yerevan’s decision. Khanum Tamrazyan, whose home was one of two private residences slated for transfer, described it as “unexpected.”

“There’s no way I’m going to leave [my home]. I’ve been living here for more than 25 years,” the 56-year-old said. “Even when Azeris lived in the neighboring village of Heyrimli before the first war, none of them thought these houses or the bridge belonged to them. Somehow, it turns out now they belong to Azerbaijan. How?”

‘The border passes where it passes’

In April, Yerevan and Baku reached a preliminary agreement on redrawing certain sections of their shared borders and agreed to base the delimitation process on the 1991 Alma-Ata Declaration. Pashinyan later clarified that this would reproduce the boundaries shown on maps from 1976, which remained Armenia and Azerbaijan’s de jure borders at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse. “We have adopted the principle that the border passes where it passes,” the prime minister explained.

The four villages Armenia returned fall within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders but had been under Yerevan’s control since the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in the early 1990s. The decision on the handover came after Baku took full control of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in a lightning military offensive last September, forcing ethnic Armenians to flee the region en masse.

Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh await evacuation to other cities. Goris, Armenia. September 30, 2023.
Diego Herrera Carcedo / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

In 2021, Pashinyan declared that he’d sooner “cut off his hands” than sign an agreement to transfer the villages to Azerbaijan. But after the fall of Karabakh, an emboldened Baku increased its demands, setting the return of disputed territory as a necessary condition for a peace deal with Armenia. 

Pashinyan also warned that refusal to compromise over the villages in the Tavush province could lead to another war. Nevertheless, locals, opposition groups, and the Armenian Apostolic Church opposed the decision. Protests broke out in the Tavush province in mid-April and then spread to Yerevan in early May. 

The Tavush for the Homeland movement, spearheaded by Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan, then organized a march to the capital to halt the demarcation process. Upon reaching Yerevan on May 9, Galstanyan issued an ultimatum to Pashinyan, demanding his immediate resignation, despite his earlier claims that the movement did not seek to oust the prime minister. 

The following Monday, thousands of protesters in Yerevan responded to Galstanyan’s calls for civil disobedience and blocked streets; police detained more than 170 people.

Protest leader and Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan gives a speech during a rally on Yerevan’s Republic Square. May 10, 2024.
Anthony Pizzoferrato / Middle East Images / ABACA / Scanpix / LETA
Units of Armenian riot police line up on Yerevan’s Republic Square during a rally against land transfer to Azerbaijan. May 10, 2024.
Anthony Pizzoferrato / Middle East Images / ABACA / Scanpix / LETA

Pashinyan did not respond to the calls for his resignation, and the street protests fizzled out. Back in Kirants, locals who spoke to The Beet on May 19 were preoccupied with more practical concerns. A group of young men nervously smoking cigarettes near a memorial to local soldiers killed in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War said they didn’t trust any politicians.

“All I’m thinking about is our village and our lands. What the opposition is doing isn’t really my business,” said an 18-year-old resident, who asked not to be identified due to safety concerns. “We don’t even know what the opposition will do if they come to power. The deal has been made, and no one can change it.” 

Political analyst Tigran Grigoryan, the head of the Regional Center for Democracy and Security in Yerevan, said these initial demonstrations “lost momentum” because the opposition failed to present a rational alternative to resolving the border dispute. “The opposition is trying to defeat the current authorities with its own methods, that is, with populism,” Grigoryan told The Beet.

‘Unilateral concessions’

After the demarcation process got underway in late April, Galstanyan condemned the first border marker as “Armenia’s first tombstone” and claimed that the size of Armenia’s territory depends on “where its soldiers stand.” Opposition politicians, meanwhile, accused the government of making “unilateral concessions” to Azerbaijan. 

“We have a government that gives [Azerbaijan] everything and demands nothing in return,” said Nane Karapetyan, the vice president of the Armenian Republican Party’s student organization. 

A picture of Serzh Sargsyan, Armenia’s former president and prime minister, still hangs on the wall in her office six years after the anti-government protests now known as the Velvet Revolution removed him from power. Back in 2018, few could have predicted that Pashinyan’s revolutionary government would also face massive public outrage. But the ruling party’s abandonment of nationalist statements in favor of peacebuilding rhetoric has exposed it to intense criticism. 

Angin Movsisyan, a student and volunteer at Armenian Project, an opposition-leaning science education NGO, actively participated in the Yerevan protests in May. She said she initially supported Pashinyan and his Civil Contract party when they came to power in 2018 but became disillusioned with the government after Armenia’s defeat in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020. 

“When I saw how the political discourse was transformed, it was obvious that the ruling party wasn’t what we had imagined during the revolution,” Movsisyan said. 

“We’re going downhill,” said Ani Ghevondyan, an Armenian State Pedagogical University student who also joined the protests. Although she doesn’t support any political force, Ghevondyan said the Tavush for the Homeland movement’s nationalist slogans drove her to demonstrate. 

Protesters attend a rally against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Yerevan. May 26, 2024.
Stepan Poghosyan / Photolure / AP / Scanpix / LETA

According to public opinion data from the International Republican Institute (IRI), 60 percent of respondents in Armenia do not trust any political figure. The loss of Karabakh, unresolved humanitarian issues stemming from the 2020 war, and the ongoing border delimitation have made Armenians skeptical of both the ruling party and the opposition’s rhetoric.

That said, Pashinyan and his government have weathered such backlash before. Even after Armenia’s defeat in the 2020 war, Pashinyan’s party won re-election with nearly 54 percent of the vote; former President Robert Kocharyan’s Armenia Alliance party came in a distant second with around 21 percent. 

Kocharyan’s influence has also loomed over the recent protests, with Armenia Alliance’s backing of Galstanyan’s Tavush for the Homeland movement sparking public skepticism. A close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kocharyan has a controversial history, having faced allegations of rigging the 2003 presidential election and criminal charges in connection with a deadly crackdown on opposition protesters in 2008. 

Speaking to reporters at a rally in Yerevan on May 10, Galstanyan denied having any connection to Kocharyan. He also addressed the rumors while on stage, saying, “I don’t understand who those people are so afraid of, the second president or me?”


Dispatch from Margara One year after ‘earthquake diplomacy’ opened the Armenian-Turkish border, a newly rebuilt checkpoint remains closed 


Dispatch from Margara One year after ‘earthquake diplomacy’ opened the Armenian-Turkish border, a newly rebuilt checkpoint remains closed 

‘Foreign’ interests

Over the weekend, heavy rainfall led to severe flooding in Armenia’s north; at least four people died and hundreds were evacuated. The Armenian government formally declared dozens of flooded settlements “disaster zones.” 

Meanwhile, at a mass rally in Yerevan on Sunday, Galstanyan announced that he had asked the Armenian Church to “freeze” his priesthood so he could run for prime minister. He then directed the protesters to march to the prime minister’s residence to demand a meeting with Pashinyan, who was visiting flood-affected areas at the time. 

Outside the residence, the protesters danced and sang along to Queen’s We Are the Champions before returning to Republic Square. Galstanyan called for acts of civil disobedience to resume the next day. By Monday afternoon, Yerevan police had detained more than 284 people as protesters blocked streets (the vast majority were released without charge that same day). 

Under the Armenian Constitution, Galstanyan’s dual Canadian citizenship disqualifies him from running for office — a fact he has previously tried to dismiss. “I have neither such ambitions nor any desire [to run for prime minister], but if the people want it, and it’s God’s will, and the Armenian patriarch blesses it, who am I to say no?” he said amid the protests in early May. 

The Archbishop refers to the protest movement as a “holy struggle” and even uses this phrase as a hashtag on social media. Galstanyan and his supporters have also accused the ruling party of being a “puppet government” controlled by Azerbaijan that “betrayed” Armenians. 

Protesters demanding Pashinyan’s resignation gather at the Sardarapat memorial complex ahead of the prime minister’s appearance for a ceremony marking Armenia’s Republic Day. May 28, 2024.

Armenian politicians regularly trade accusations of serving foreign interests. Based on IRI’s opinion poll, Armenians view Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Russia as political threats. Supporters of Pashinyan’s government have accused the protest leaders of wanting to drag Armenia into a new war and seeking to establish a Kremlin-backed “puppet government.” 

Movsisyan echoed these talking points, as well. “Through a change of power, we will at least reach the point where the authorities operating in Armenia do not support the interests of any foreign state, especially a hostile one,” the student said.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hailing the land handover as “yet another victory” for Baku hasn’t helped matters either. “We showed the enemy their place, and today, the enemy is powerless against us,” he said during a visit to the Nagorno-Karabakh region on May 10. 

‘A great success’

At the same time, Aliyev has dangled border delimitation as a step towards “historic opportunities for peace in the region.” Pashinyan, in turn, has attempted to frame the demarcation agreement as a “great success” that will bring security and stability to Armenia. However, after 30 years of conflict, locals in the Tavush province fear living closer to the border with Azerbaijan, viewing increased proximity as a security risk. 

“The most painful part is that we never had a proper school building, and we were really happy about this new one,” said Nane, a 20-year-old from Kirants who declined to give her surname. She was referring to the unfinished schoolhouse near her home. Construction began in 2021, with much fanfare from Armenia’s Education Ministry. As a result of the demarcation, however, Nane’s house and the neighboring school are now right on the border. “Now, no one is likely to allow their child to attend a school so close to Azerbaijan,” Nane told The Beet.

Until Pashinyan met with village residents in March to discuss the impending demarcation, Nane and her family had no idea that two houses in their village and a part of the interstate highway connecting Armenia to neighboring Georgia would pass to Azerbaijan. 

Nane’s family home near the unfinished school in Kirants. May 19, 2024.
Arpine Hovhannisyan
Kirants residents gather at a house slated for transfer to Azerbaijan. May 19, 2024.
Arpine Hovhannisyan
The local memorial to soldiers killed in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. Kirants. May 19, 2024.
Arpine Hovhannisyan

Since the April agreement only lays out plans for redrawing certain sections of the shared border, many fear Azerbaijan won’t cooperate going forward. Baku has repeatedly refused to withdraw its forces from the Armenian territories it occupied between May 2021 and September 2022 and has also rejected Yerevan’s proposals for a mutual troop withdrawal to allow for demarcation. 

“As I understand it, Azerbaijan is not interested in a full delimitation and has simply started the process in the area that is beneficial to it, having received concessions from Armenia,” speculated political analyst Tigran Grigoryan.

Asked about her plans for after the border delimitation, Nane said she’s considering moving — but not too far away. “If we understand it’s not safe to live so close to the border, we will move closer to my uncle’s place on the other side of the village and build a new house there,” she told The Beet. “There’s no way we’ll leave this village,” she added.

Hello, I’m Eilish Hart, the editor of The Beet. Thanks for taking the time to read our work! Our newsletter delivers underreported stories like this one to subscribers every Thursday. Like all of Meduza’s reporting, it’s free to read, but relies on support from readers like you. Please consider donating to our crowdfunding campaign.

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Story by Sona Hovsepyan and Arpine Hovhannisyan for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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