Yesterday in Yerevan: Mass Protests and Humanitarian Crisis in Artsakh

Hello gang, welcome to the column. It’s nothing special, just another year abroad column with a painfully alliterative title – don’t sweat it. As the name suggests, I am currently in the great city of Yerevan, Armenia trying my very hardest to get decent enough at Russian to pass finals, and quite possibly failing. It is what it is. I had intended to write about Snoop Dogg’s concert for this first column, which was sure to be a mad one. But sadly events out here took a turn for the worse, and Snoop was cancelled.

I’m not sure to what extent the recent crisis in Artsakh has made it into the news back in the UK, or how much you guys know about the history of the smouldering conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, so we’ll start with some basic context. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia were republics of the Soviet Union, and Nagorno-Karabakh was a semi-autonomous region within the SSR of Azerbaijan due to its ethnic Armenian majority. As the USSR went caput under Gorbachev, fighting broke out between the two mainly over Karabakh, the Armenian majority of which wanted to unify with Armenia. The result was a brutal conflict that lasted until 1994 that left almost 100,000 dead and over a million Azeris and Armenians displaced. War crimes and ethnic cleansing of civilians were widespread on both sides, although Armenia was probably the worse of the two. The Armenian victory saw much of the province of Nagorno-Karabakh under ethnic Armenian control as the internationally unrecognised Republic of Artsakh, and surrounding areas of Azerbaijan under Armenian occupation as ‘buffer zones’.


That’s a gross oversimplification and I’ve not even dealt with the earlier history at all. Nothing happened other than a few skirmishes until the Second NK War in 2020, where a newly oil-rich Azerbaijan took back the Armenian occupied zones with ease, leaving Artsakh completely surrounded by Azeri-controlled territory. The only point of contact between Artsakh and Armenia was the Lachin Corridor, essentially a mountain pass a few kilometres long through Azerbaijan, administered by Russian peacekeepers (!) to allow goods and aid to pass in and out of Artsakh. However, from April of this year, the Azerbaijani military implemented a blockade of the corridor, on the pretence that it was being used to smuggle arms to the Artsakh army, resulting in a months-long humanitarian crisis in which the people of Artsakh were continually on the brink of starvation and lacked other crucial resources like fuel, electricity and medicine. This was a violation of the ceasefire of 2020 and a failure of the Russian peacekeeping force, whose numbers were depleted due to the war in Ukraine. In mid-September things began to look up, as Azerbaijan allowed aid trucks into Artsakh. Then, on the 19th September the optimism was shattered as Azerbaijan mounted an offensive against Artsakh military targets, although civilian settlements were hit too. The next day, the decimated army of Artsakh surrendered and agreed to a ceasefire, whereby the unrecognised republic is to be dissolved by 2024.
This brings us up to date, sorry for the history lesson. I remember the day of the 19th fairly well, it started off like any normal Tuesday. I stumbled into my first class still half asleep, had lunch and a couple more lectures, and then went to my Russian lesson in the centre. At this point, the news of Azeri shelling of Stepanakert (capital of Artsakh) and other places was breaking. However, it was on my way home from my lesson that the weight of the situation hit me. My route back takes me directly through Republic Square, the focal point of the city surrounded by beautiful neoclassical buildings that glow pink in direct sunlight. As I approached, I could sense something was off, the roads around were closed, there was something heavy in the air. A crowd of at least a thousand faced the parliament building, every so often chants of “Artsakh! Artsakh!” and “Nikol is a traitor!” rippling through the mass. The mood was stern; anger and frustration were more palpable than sadness.

I asked someone what was happening, he simply replied “It’s war”. I stayed for a while, soaking in an atmosphere that was entirely novel and fairly frightening to me, talking to people and taking some photos of the standoff between the crowd and monotonous ranks of the stainless-steel shields of the
riot police.


I nipped home to eat and change after a long day, in which time the crowd had grown and begun to clash with the police. As I walked past my local shawarma joint, three coaches packed with riot reinforcements sped past along the deserted road towards the square. When I got there, the violence had already been subdued, the crowd now rallying around a series of black-clad anti-government figures giving speeches in the middle of the square.
Outside parliament, elderly women hurled insults and entreaties at the row of shields, now three deep, and the men behind them. A protestor told me that the attack is the fault of PM Nikol Pashinyan, whose light-handed policy towards Azeri aggression and refusal to intervene is viewed as a betrayal.
The next few days saw a constant riot police presence outside parliament and a steady stream of protests and roadblocks throughout the capital. Away from Yerevan however, an unending column of refugees arrived in Goris, the closest town to the Lachin Corridor. At the time of writing, most estimates put the number of refugees at over 100,000, constituting almost the entire population of Artsakh. The people fleeing believe that it is their only option, they do not trust Azerbaijan’s promises of integration from the autocrat Ilham Aliyev, a man who has frequently referred to Armenians as ‘rats’, threatened to expel them from Karabakh ‘like dogs’ 1 and said that ‘Armenia is not even a colony, it is not even worthy of being a
servant’.
In essence, what has happened here, in the space of less than a month, is a tragically successful ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Karabakh. The west, thoroughly dependent on Azeri gas and reluctant to support a country whose two closest allies are Russia and Iran, have stood by and watched. The distraction of Ukraine nullified any chance of Russia helping their supposedly close ally, as their peacekeepers allowed first the blockade and the subsequent invasion.
Here on the ground the gravity of the crisis is apparent. Around every corner is an aid drop-off point, every day the main hall at my university swells with boxes destined for Goris, as the country bands together to support the influx of refugees. A classmate of mine has left for the army unit near Goris where he completed his military service to help. It’s a sombre time, but at least the bloodshed has been minimal and most people are safe.
I had hoped to share the funner side of my time out here in this first column, but it would
have felt remiss not to shed light on this critically under-reported crisis. Do take the time to
read up on the situation and donate at https://donate.unhcr.org/int/en/armenia if you wish.
Until next time.

Image Credits: Jonah Poulard

References:
1 https://evnreport.com/spotlight-karabakh/the-mixed-messaging-of-ilham-aliyev/
2 https://twitter.com/presidentaz/status/560718307515318272