In Brief

Armenia’s Postwar Crisis: What to Know

Armenia has been riven by disputes over its leadership since its military defeat by Azerbaijan last fall. Newly called elections are unlikely to reconcile the divisions in Armenian society caused by the battlefield losses.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has called for early elections after weeks of protests and a standoff with his own army. What’s going on? 

Pashinyan, Armenia’s forty-five-year-old prime minister who was elected in 2018 on the back of a so-called Velvet Revolution, is banking on early elections set for June 20 to quell a political crisis that has its roots in Armenia’s bitter defeat in a forty-four-day war with neighboring Azerbaijan last year.

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Pashinyan himself triggered the crisis on February 23, when he suggested in a TV interview that Iskander missiles provided to Armenia by Russia had underperformed during the war. When a senior military official scoffed at these remarks, Pashinyan fired the official, only to find himself publicly challenged by the chief of the general staff and some forty top military officers, all of whom demanded his resignation.

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Defying what he called a military “coup d’état,” Pashinyan summoned his supporters to the streets of the capital, Yerevan, to face off against demonstrators calling for his ouster. The rival protests came to a head on March 9, when the opposition—a coalition of sixteen parties— barricaded the parliament building.

The debate about the performance of the Russian missiles was beside the point. (Moscow denied they were even used.) The main issue is Pashinyan’s leadership during the war and his continued defense of the tripartite cease-fire agreement brokered by Russia. That deal forced Armenia to cede Azerbaijani territory seized almost thirty years ago, after the first war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

 Protesters hold Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan's picture in front of a massive Armenian flag at a rally in Yerevan.
People attend a rally organized by supporters of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Republic Square in Yerevan. Hayk Baghdasaryan/Photolure/Reuters

Major opposition parties signed off on Pashinyan’s March 18 announcement of early elections, but some minor parties vowed to continue their protests, pressing for the formation of an interim government ahead of the balloting in June.  

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What is at stake if the country’s political crisis continues?

Prolonged instability in Armenia could endanger the fragile truce that went into effect on November 10. Even if Pashinyan’s government survives the June elections, his authority has been damaged, and opposition to the truce negotiated last November remains high.

Already, much about the peace settlement remains unclear. The mandate for Russia’s 1,960 peacekeepers is still undefined; so is the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnic-Armenian-majority region whose self-declared independence remains tenuous.

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The Russian troops deployed as part of the deal have generally been welcomed by Armenians, but their presence has raised concerns in Azerbaijan, given the checkered history of forces Russia has deployed as “peacekeepers” in other regional conflicts, such as in neighboring Georgia. Russia backed separatist forces in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s and continues to hold sway over those regions.

Tensions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region peaked again in recent weeks as both Armenia and Azerbaijan announced on relatively short notice that they were conducting large-scale military exercises.

Why are Armenia and Azerbaijan in conflict?

The first war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh began in 1991 as the Soviet Union was collapsing. Armenia then launched a military operation to take control of a region that historically had been home to an ethnic Armenian population living within the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

The victorious Armenian army not only liberated the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also occupied seven surrounding Azerbaijani districts as a buffer zone. The land grab led to an exodus of more than six hundred thousand Azerbaijanis [PDF], whose displacement remained a festering wound for the next three decades.

Last November, after Azerbaijani forces overwhelmed the Armenian military with help from drones provided by its ally Turkey, Azerbaijan took back the seven districts, plus one-third of the so-called Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Has Russia gained influence over Armenia and the region since brokering the peace deal?

Russia has been widely credited with bringing last year’s war to an end, an achievement that will allow it to keep its peacekeepers in the region for at least five years. This has assured Moscow a major role in the region’s future, likely at the expense of France and the United States, Russia’s partners in decades-long efforts to negotiate peace through a forum known as the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

But Russia now has to maintain a delicate balance in its relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, a difficult task given that the status of Nagorno-Karabakh remains unresolved. And although Moscow’s influence has increased, so too has its vulnerability because of the position of its peacekeepers, who are in both Armenia-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh and the critical Lachin Corridor, now back under Azerbaijani control, that links the disputed region with Armenia.

Russia has had cool-but-correct relations with Pashinyan since 2018, when he led a peaceful movement that ousted a Moscow-friendly government. Pashinyan has also steered a calibrated “multi-vector” foreign policy, seeking cooperation with Europe and the United States while avoiding any challenge to Russia, which remains Armenia’s major military ally.

Correction: A previous version of this In Brief incorrectly referred to the number of Azerbaijanis displaced from occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts as 250,000. This error was corrected on April 8, 2021.

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