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‘This is mourning’ Meduza correspondent Liliya Yapparova reports from Yerevan in the aftermath of the settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh

Source: Meduza
Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On November 7, 2020, Azerbaijani troops occupied the city of Shusha, which has been under the control of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic since 1992. Three days later, the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia signed a ceasefire agreement, according to which almost half of Nagorno-Karabakh’s territory was transferred to Azerbaijan. A Russian peacekeeping force is now set to guard the Lachin Corridor — the only remaining land route connecting Armenia to the unrecognized republic’s capital, Stepanakert. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that he had no choice but to sign the peace treaty, despite the fact that it effectively constituted Armenia’s surrender; otherwise, the entire country’s defense capability would have been under threat. The news of losing a significant portion of Nagorno-Karabakh sent shockwaves through Armenia. Protests broke out in the capital, Yerevan, during which demonstrators broke into the Government House and beat the country’s parliamentary speaker in the street. “Meduza” special correspondent Liliya Yapparova travelled to Yerevan to get an inside look at how the Armenian people are experiencing this defeat in the war for Karabakh.

‘We weren’t fighting Azerbaijanis’ 

On the evening of November 11, 2020, a small army bus dropped off Armenian soldiers returning from the front on the side of Yerevan’s Arshakunyats Avenue. The makeshift way station is noisy; soldier Tigran Kahmisyan is continuously pulled away from his conversation with Meduza’s correspondent to hug another colleague goodbye before his relatives take him home.

Tigran is convinced that Armenia didn’t lose to Azerbaijan. “Terrorist groups from Syria fought against us,” he says — rushing to explain, he switches from Armenian to Russian. “I was in the clashes with them directly — I even recorded a video [of] the bodies that were destroyed by our company. Mercenaries fought from Azerbaijan — and then Azerbaijani soldiers came and took pictures [at the front] with flags. Like, ‘we’ve won’.”

“In our pockets, you can find only the Bible,” Tigran continues, pulling a copy of the Gospel a little larger than his thumbnail out of his breast pocket. “But the [Syrian] militants used drugs: in their pockets these shameless creatures had only drugs and single-use syringes.” 

Asked to talk about the battles, Tigran becomes closed off. “It’s all terrible, it’s impossible to describe everything,” he says, averting his eyes. “Those phosphorous bombs fell 50 meters [164 feet] from us — and everything burned down!” The soldier finds it easier to play a video from his smartphone. “Look,” he shows our correspondent. “Here you can see how they’re firing at us with these shells.” The video gets interrupted: his phone battery is at one percent.

These soldiers were brought to Yerevan from an area near Kanapa, an Armenian city on the border with Azerbaijan. They retreated there from the territory of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, from near Kubatly, a town the enemy captured two weeks ago, Tigran explains.

If the war had continued, the entire region could have been lost in a few days, admitted the president of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Arayik Harutyunyan on November 9. By that point, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh’s forces, exhausted by outbreaks of dysentery and COVID-19, were defending themselves on the outskirts of Stepanakert, he explained.

The ceasefire agreement signed by the two warring parties and Russia on November 10 confirmed Azerbaijan’s victory. By the time Tigran was leaving the front, Russian peacekeepers had already begun to deploy there, in order to monitor compliance with the settlement for the next five years. “We even honked at them [from the bus],” Tigran says, smiling. “Good people, what can I say.” 

According to the trilateral agreement, nearly half of Nagorno-Karabakh’s territory is now under Azerbaijan’s control. In Armenia, Nikol Pasinyan’s decision to put his signature on such an agreement was perceived as a surrender: the protesters who broke into the Government House on the night the settlement was signed were looking for the prime minister. Since they didn’t find the Pashinyan, they dragged Parliamentary Speaker Ararat Mirzoyan from his car and beat him severely.

‘We have a lot of free places in the trenches’

At one point, the soldiers saying goodbye to each other gather in small crowd: the dispute starts out in Armenian, so Meduza’s correspondent can only make out one word — “Pashinyan.”

A man watching the dispute — who was also at the front two week ago — volunteers to translate. “The guys are saying that the people in the city are holding a demonstration against Pashinyan right now — but Pashinyan has nothing to do with it!” he explains. “They’re saying, ‘let’s not [let the protesters] stand here shouting, however many men there are, let them go to the front. We’re prepared to accompany each protester to Shusha!” 

“They weren’t at the front but they gathered for a rally in a minute!” Tigran says, outraged. “Where were they when we needed guys? They could have fought with us there, since they’re so spirited. I already sent them a video message, I said we have a lot of free places in the trenches: a post needs 12 people, but there were only five of us. If you’re so good, then come fight with us.” The crowd hums its approval — it turns out that many have already seen the video from Tigran’s phone. 

On November 10, David Margaryan, a hairdresser from Metsamor, was in the trenches on the frontline. A commander announced the signing of the agreement and the ceasefire; this was perceived not as cause for protest, but as an order. “The shooting ended at that same moment,” Margaryan says, growing serious. “What is there to do? Seventy percent of the world are Christians and they haven’t helped us. It’s a sin, after all.”

“If this decision has been made, then it has been made. Any further and the entire [Armenian] army could have been destroyed,” Tigran argues. “But now in three years they [the Azerbaijani forces] will be able to start shelling Armenia's cities and villages close to the borders! And they will be able to afford it because international organizations don’t give a damn: apparently they feed on money from Azerbaijan and Turkey’s oil wells.”

Tigran describes his reaction to the news of the ceasefire with a single word — “frustration.” “You’re at war, you see how your friends are killed over this land and they simply give this land away. I’m very sorry that I’m 23 years old, that I — a university student, an athlete — dropped everything and went to the front…That is, I don’t regret anything myself,” here, Tigran corrects himself immediately. “I’m happy to die for the sake of my Motherland — this is sacred! But I don’t want to fight, you understand? My nature is such that I don’t want to fight — I want to live a calm life!”

“It’s my mom’s birthday today, to be honest,” he continues, suddenly. “And it’s also really good that they released me today.

Tigran will be late for today’s celebration: he needs to go to the republican hospital to visit a wounded colleague. A sniper’s bullet pierced through his cheek and dislocated his jaw.

Jonathan Alpeyrie / SIPA / Scanpix / LETA

‘The people are experiencing shock’

A short, grey-haired man, who listened silently to all of the soldiers’ stories, starts to speak when nearly all of them have left.

“I had just come to my historical homeland in 1991, after serving in the special forces in Tyumen,” Armen says, recalling the beginning of the first Nagorno-Karabakh War. “I arrived and enlisted in the militia to fight against these Azeris. And in January 1993, I entered into active service — deputy commander of a regiment — and served until 2008.”

The veteran of the first Nagorno-Karabakh War isn’t going to the protest in downtown Yerevan — it’s almost physically difficult for him. “Now people have the jitters, they’re euphoric,” Armen explains. “A very dismal future awaits the Armenian nation. You can’t even explain [it] with words: you can’t imagine the kind of shock the people are experiencing. All the more so the mothers and families whose 18-year-olds and 20-year-olds are dead now.”

“My friend lost an officer on literally the third day of the [2020] war, a very good guy with great prospects,” Armen hesitates before giving the man’s age. “Twenty-three years old. Two years after he graduated from a military school and now he’s left for another world as a hero. Saving his comrade. A sniper took out his classmate [from school] at his post — he wanted to move his body to the dugout, but the sniper got him too.” 

Armen blames the previous Armenian government for the current defeat, because it “didn’t work on the army.” “Both Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharyan are corrupt bastards. They’re traitors from within, you understand?” he says. “Instead of buying technologically advanced, modern weapons and fortifying our distant lines, instead of making fortified areas and dugouts there, they put it all in their pockets and made a wonderful future for their own bastards.” 

The day before the four-day escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2016, Armen’s father passed away. “But literally on the fourth day after the funeral I took my weapon and went [as a volunteer],” the veteran recalls. “And they [Azerbaijan] caved, because they lacked spirit, willpower, and professionalism.” If not for the military support other countries provided the enemy, Armen is sure that the current conflict would have ended the same way — now, the agreement signed by the three countries looks like a complete victory for Azerbaijan’s allies from Turkey, Armen says.

According to the agreements, a center for peacekeeping forces will be established in the conflict zone — as of yet, no one can say for sure whether or not Turkish peacekeepers will be involved, in addition to Russian ones.

Will there be Turkish peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh?

The ceasefire agreement signed by Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan doesn’t say anything about Turkish peacekeepers. According to the text of this document, the parties agreed to establish “a peacekeeping center to monitor the ceasefire.” It doesn’t specify who exactly it will involved.

Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry maintains that Moscow has taken the peacekeeping mission upon itself. However, in a video of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin posted on Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s website, Aliyev mentions a joint Russian-Turkish peacekeeping mission when discussing the terms of the ceasefire.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted that there hasn’t been any coordination regarding the presence of Turkish troops in Karabakh, but said that “the nuances of placing a joint monitoring center [for the ceasefire] have already been the topic of a separate agreement.” 

That said, Armenia hasn’t received any assistance from Russia — despite the mutual obligations between the two countries within the framework of the Mutual Assistance Treaty and the Collective Security Treaty. Here, the veteran asks our correspondent to stop recording. “Because you came from Moscow,” Armen says, explaining his request. “But I want you to know that Russia committed treason.”

‘This will pass’

A shoulder board torn from a police uniform has been lying on the ground near the Armenian Foreign Ministry building for two days now: it’s owner — judging by the silver embroidery and the star, a major — has apparently decided not to come back for it.

On November 10, 2020, after the announcement of the ceasefire and the transfer of part of Nagorno-Karabakh’s territory to Azerbaijan, riots broke out on Yerevan’s main square. Encountering no resistance, the protesters broke into the Government House: in a video recorded on that night, many people can be seen crying rather than shouting, and the building’s security guards simply retreat in silence.

Here was the public response

One truce, two reactions Photos of how Azerbaijanis and Armenians greeted the news of a settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh

Here was the public response

One truce, two reactions Photos of how Azerbaijanis and Armenians greeted the news of a settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh

A day later, the broken glass on the doors to the Government House has already been covered up with cellophane; protesters are gathering in another part of the city, but the police remain on duty here. Upon learning about the abandoned shoulder board, one of the officers asks Meduza’s correspondent where he can pick it up. He needs to go to the other end of Republic Square. Looking over there, the officer hesitates from fatigue. “This will pass,” he replies when asked about the mass demonstrations. 

The opposition protesters on the streets of Yerevan are seeking the annulment of the trilateral agreement on Karabakh. “We must go to the opera,” Artur says confidently (referring to the Yerevan Opera Theater on Freedom Square); he’s hurrying to get to the rally that’s wrapping up near the opera house after finishing his shift at an auto shop.

Artur’s feelings about the protests are mixed: he doesn’t exclude the possibility that the rally’s organizers are simply exploiting a historical moment. “Now they are fighting not for the front but for their seat — it’s all political games, ordinary citizens are not to blame for this, in these games,” Artur maintains. “They’re inciting people to carry out another revolution in Armenia in connection with this agreement [on Karabakh]. I don’t support Pashinyan and I don’t support them — I simply want to look at what’s happening in my homeland independently.” 

Artur has already missed the afternoon rally. On November 11, despite massive arrests, the police failed to disperse the demonstration around Freedom Square — and later in the afternoon, a column headed towards the Armenian Cabinet of Ministers building, demanding a parliamentary meeting to dismiss Pashinyan. By evening, the protest there began to disperse; a new military checkpoint appeared at the entrance to the city, checking all the cars: Meduza’s sources believe that they’re trying to prevent people from coming into the capital to protest.

By 9:00 p.m. only the police, plain-clothes officers, and about fifty protesters remain outside of the parliament building on Baghramyan Avenue — opposite a fence that hasn’t been replaced since it was crushed by protesters the night before last.

A man sobs in the middle of the remnants of the crowd as he tries to make a speech. Another circle has gathered around a screaming woman.

“This isn’t a rally — this is mourning. So many people died and all for nothing. Almost six thousand. And how many more are missing — they haven’t called [home] for a month now,” a man by the name of Grant watches what’s happening, clenching and unclenching his jaw. “We’re just very ashamed, it’s a disgrace.”

“There’s a lot of bitterness,” Artur, who is standing right there, agrees. “I simply couldn’t believe it: it’s like a terrible dream — and you have to fall asleep and wake up so that nothing happened. This is our Motherland, our lands: our churches — seventh, ninth, fourteenth century — prove this!”

“This isn’t a protest — this is my country! We want to respect our nation — this is my country, this is my home!” one of the protesters says, continuing his speech. At that very moment, the police take him aside with difficulty, poking and persuading. When he breaks free again, he continues shouting in Armenian.

“Let’s come together — at least three thousand people — and not tomorrow, but today, now — we must go to the frontline!” someone from the remainder of the crowd quickly relays a translation to Meduza’s correspondent. “If there are forces that hold rallies here, we want them all to get together and come to the front. 

Story by Liliya Yapparova

Edited by Alexey Kovalev

Translation by Eilish Hart