Yerevan, Armenia – Minutes after Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signed an agreement to end the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a fresh crisis erupted at home.
Grief and frustration spilled into the streets of the capital Yerevan following the shock announcement in the early hours of Tuesday, that a peace deal had been signed to end conflict in the breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, including territorial concessions that favour Azerbaijan and at least five years of a Russian peacekeeping presence.
With demonstrators storming parliament and the seat of government in the immediate aftermath, a second day of protest was organised by opposition parties and saw a former prime minister and other well-known public figures give rousing speeches about the need for a new leader.
Beginning at the Opera Theatre, a site significant for hosting meetings of the original movement for Nagorno-Karabakh independence in the 1980s, the crowds then marched in convoy – chanting “Nikol, traitor!” – to the seat of government, before heading to parliament to call for Pashinyan’s impeachment.
People from all walks of life turned out, from ethnic Armenians who had fled to Yerevan from Nagorno-Karabakh amid the violence, to a famous singer, Sofi Mkheyan; the crowds were united by anger and the feeling of betrayal.
Large numbers of riot police prevented a repeat of Tuesday’s demonstrations and many arrests were made.
Anna Mkrtchyan, 26, a lawyer from Yerevan, was arrested for protesting near the Opera Theatre. She was taken to the police station but let go a few hours later.
“I was protesting to protect my land, the land that Mr Pashinyan has now presented to Azerbaijan, where thousands of Armenians have been killed.
“We’re fighting for our motherland and the rights of people living in Artsakh,” she said, bristling with passion and using the Armenian term for Nagorno-Karabakh.
Control of the region, which is inside Azerbaijan but populated by ethnic Armenians, has been disputed since the 1980s, with many in Yerevan believing it to be an extension of their country.
A 37-year-old protester, who requested anonymity, discovered that her elderly father had been arrested after seeing police officers detain him on a Facebook Live stream of the event.
“He will not be let go until the protests are over,” she said.
“All we fought for in the revolution, yet this is exactly what the previous government would have done. Things are no different. People are frustrated and it’s understandable – you need to let people protest to grieve the loss of their sons, their land, their home.”
She said she has lost several friends on the front line, and that there was no other option now but for Pashinyan to step down.
“In a company, if something goes wrong, the CEO resigns. We lost a war, but our prime minister is still in office,” she said.
In more than a month of fighting, more than 1,000 people were killed, including dozens of civilians on both sides.
Many ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh fled the region amid the clashes, while Azerbaijanis in missile-hit areas also sought refuge elsewhere.
“I work with children who have been displaced and I am going to have to see them today and tell them they can never go home because their prime minister gave it away,” said the protester. “If our country was going to be given away it could have been done 44 days ago and we would not have lost thousands of lives.”
Many felt the nation had been cheated because they were only told about the deal after it had happened. The signing, the crowds said, was undemocratic without the consensus of the people.
Despite the intensity of feeling in the streets, Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center think tank in Yerevan, said the protests do not pose a serious enough challenge for Pashinyan to quit.
“Bolstered by self-confidence, derived from a combination of pronounced popularity and a rare source of legitimacy from free and fair elections, the prime minister is unlikely to resign,” he said.
“He has no credible rival or alternative … Nevertheless, the frustration is real, the disappointment genuine.”
The Azerbaijani army had made steady gains during six weeks of conflict.
Yet the Armenian government and defence forces had denied claims of significant defeats, such as losing the strategic city of Shushi, also known as Shusha.
To many, Pashinyan’s move came as a shock.
Giragosian said the anger may shift towards Azerbaijan or Baku’s closet ally Turkey in the coming weeks.
Karineh, who did not want to give her surname, 27, was protesting with her five-year-old son, Arakel, who proudly wore a tiny replica of an Armenian army uniform, puffing his chest out for pictures.
Her husband had been fighting as a volunteer soldier on the front line, even missing the birth of their youngest child, but returned in despair on Tuesday following the announcement.
“The whole male population of Armenia were there and happy to give away their lives to protect the homeland. My husband was willing to die to give our nation’s kids a better life,” she said.
“I want to be a soldier one day,” said Arakel, as he pointed to an Armenian flag patch on his right arm.
“A soldier-scientist,” he corrected himself.