Report

Armenians Rage Against Last-Minute Peace Deal

People trashed the parliament and stormed the presidential palace after Armenia’s PM bowed to the inevitable.

Protesters storm the office of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan
Protesters storm the office of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan after the announcement of a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Yerevan, Armenia, on Nov. 10. Alex McBride/Getty Images

YEREVAN, Armenia—In a night of passion, protest, and anguish, demonstrators took to the streets early Tuesday to excoriate the peace deal announced overnight by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan that ended a six-week war and a decadeslong dispute over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The deal, announced discreetly in a 2 a.m. Facebook post, came as a surprise to many, with sources in the government of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region saying they had no prior knowledge of it. The Russian-brokered cease-fire and peace agreement will see Azerbaijan, which had pummeled the armed forces of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, keep some of its recent territorial gains—sparking dismay among a population that had vowed to keep fighting. The region has been internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, but its population is predominantly Armenian, and Armenia considers it an independent state.

People spilled into the streets of the Armenian capital of Yerevan in the wee hours of the morning, storming both Pashinyan’s official residence and the parliament, while an angry mob beat parliamentary Speaker Ararat Mirzoyan so badly he required minor surgery. Demonstrators ransacked the parliament chamber and offices shouting slogans like “Nikol betrayed us.” In a uniquely 2020 moment, protesters lobbed hand sanitizer to each other from the parliamentary benches. 

“I am empty inside,” a resident of the enclave’s de facto capital of Stepanakert, who asked not to be named, said on Tuesday morning.

Fighting erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan at the end of September and has since left at least 1,300 Armenians dead. (Azerbaijan does not release casualty figures.) In a country of less than 3 million people, hardly a single Armenian is untouched by the horrors brought by six weeks of intense fighting during which both sides have been accused of war crimes.

In what Pashinyan called a “very hard” decision, a cease-fire was agreed to and implemented early Tuesday, with hundreds of Russian peacekeeping forces quickly dispatched to the enclave. The agreement followed a string of Azerbaijani military victories (bolstered by modern weaponry from Turkey and Israel), and the Nagorno-Karabakh region’s leader, Arayik Harutyunyan, said that the deal had become unavoidable. 

Many, like those who took to the streets overnight, read the outcome as a victory for Azerbaijan and a defeat for Armenia. Azerbaijan will be allowed to keep areas taken in the recent fighting, while Armenia has agreed to withdraw from several other adjacent areas over the coming weeks. 

Residents of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, celebrated in traditional fashion, kicking off what one local vowed would be “three days and three nights of partying.”

Meanwhile, Armenians drowned their sorrows. In Yerevan, the raided offices of members of parliament were strewn with broken glass, empty bottles of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, and clumps of squashed cake. File cabinets were emptied, and business cards littered the floor, but computer monitors and other valuable items were left undamaged.

As dawn arrived, men in military fatigues, some missing limbs—most likely volunteer militia—smoked cigarettes, dropping their ashes in the liquid dregs of beer bottles, as opposition members of parliament gathered in the hopes that the ruling party would show up for what promised to be an emotional debate.

Some called for a referendum, or a “less humiliating” agreement. Others called to fight until their last breath. Naira Zohrabyan, a lawmaker from the opposition Prosperous Armenia party, addressed a crowd and said that everything should be done in a national consensus with the will of the people.

With the sudden peace deal, Armenians are wrestling with a lot of old ghosts. Detractors said that protesters were simply doing the bidding of the former ruling elite, pushed from power by the 2018 revolution Pashinyan led. But even protesters who felt his mandate is legitimate were uneasy with the unilateral decision to end the war—and it is leaving a lot of open wounds. 

“People voted for him, and if the majority feels that way then he should be in power,” said Tigran Akopyan, 32, a restaurant owner from Yerevan who was protesting outside parliament.

“But until then, the government shouldn’t be deciding with one vote what the future of the country should be—that is the setup of the crooks who governed the country for 30 years after the Soviet collapse.”

Eventually, the protesters started to clear, with some presumably headed to work. The stray dogs who had joined the fray were suddenly exposed to the early morning cold. Then a voice cut through the chatter.

A young woman from Nagorno-Karabakh, displaced to Yerevan by the fighting, shouted in pain that she had lost her 20-year-old brother only last week. Tears welling in her eyes, she screamed at anyone who would listen that his memory had been betrayed.

“The land he died on has just been given to the enemy,” she said.

Liz Cookman is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul covering Turkey, Syria, and the wider Middle East.

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