A crushing military defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh, in neighboring Azerbaijan, has cost Armenia at least 2,300 lives and sapped support for the reformist government of Nikol Pachinian.
YEREVAN — Clad still in their fatigues, two haggard soldiers returning from the front wander around the streets of Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Barely 18, they've just buried their friend. Farther on, a refugee couple from the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, in neighboring Azerbaijan, rings the bell at the gate of the French embassy, hoping it will bring them help.
"We know that France is a friendly country to Armenia," the woman says. "Maybe it will help us?"
A few hundred meters away, an elderly woman is crying for her godson. "A very patriotic boy," she says. The young man is one of the soldiers missing in the war that pitted Armenia against Azerbaijan, with backing from Turkey. For 45 days they fought in Nagorno-Karabakh, home to a large population of ethnic Armenians and supported by Yerevan.
The euphoria of Armenia's so-called "Velvet Revolution" is a distant memory. Everywhere it has given way to sorrow and desolation.
Still, one doesn't have to go back very far to remember the immense hope generated by the popular, youth-driven uprising that began in the spring of 2018, when Nikol Pachinian, a deputy and former journalist, undertook a long walk across the country to drive out the corrupt, autocratic, post-Soviet regime of Prime Minister Serge Sarkissian, a close ally of the Kremlin.
Hundreds of thousands of people soon joined him. In the streets, crowds of people sang and danced. Citizens began to dream of the "new Armenia" promised to them by the hero of this peaceful and joyful revolution. Pashinyan was elected prime minister and enjoyed unprecedented legitimacy and popularity, the promise of a new era.
Two and a half years later, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh shattered these hopes and plunged Armenia into a state of shock. Suddenly people don't care what'll become of the reforms that were initiated or whether, after having suppressed the small, endemic corruption, Pashinyan will finally attack that of the big oligarchs. Priorities have changed radically.
The country is instead having to grapple with a crushing defeat that left at least 2,300 people dead, absorb an influx of some 100,000 refugees, and deal with an explosion of COVID-19 cases (with one of the highest per-capita contamination rates in the world) as hospitals are overwhelmed. On top of all that, a major economic crisis looms.
Armenians feel like they are in the middle of a nightmare. "It wasn't until 2018 that they finally had a glimmer of hope. But it lasted just two years," says Jonathan Lacôte, French ambassador to Armenia. "Today the country has his hit rock bottom. It's a kind of year zero for Armenia."
Yesterday a hero of the revolution, Prime Minister Pashinyan is now seen as a "traitor" in the eyes of part of the population since signing the ceasefire agreement on Nov. 9, consecrating Azerbaijan's victory. The news, announced in the middle of the night on his Facebook account, took Armenians by surprise. They were unprepared for defeat, and since then, the opposition has ratcheted up calls for Pashinyan's resignation.
"Today the country has his hit rock bottom. It's a kind of year zero for Armenia."
The government, in the meantime, has suffered a cascade of departures, and the president, Armen Sarkissian, whose role is essentially a formal title, has himself called for early legislative elections. The prime minister is nevertheless clinging to his post and just presented a "roadmap" for the next six months. But many of those who brought him to power are today dubious, if not hostile.
Gagik Hakobyan, a 38-year-old professor, was one of those who took part in all the demonstrations during the revolution. "I went with my students. It was something extraordinary for me," says Hakobyan, who teaches at the French University of Armenia. Today, he cannot forgive the prime minister for describing Shushi, the political and religious symbol of Nagorno-Karabakh, as "a sad and colorless little town," and for spreading victorious messages that bear no relation to the reality on the ground.
"We have been deluged with lies," says Hakobyan. "It's a betrayal."
The old regime, for its part, believes it can now take revenge and is trying to exploit the situation make its political comeback. In Yerevan, opposition demonstrations close to the former government are calling for Pashinyan's resignation.
At nightfall on Nov. 18, hundreds of people converge once again on Freedom Square. Approximately 20 opposition representatives harangue the crowd under the pale light of the floodlights.
Pashinyan arriving to hold talks with Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs — Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry Press O/TASS/ZUMA
"Whoever signed this ceasefire agreement should not be alive," shouts a man into the microphone, his eyes bulging out. "He promised to rebuild Armenia and fight corruption, not to give away our land!"
"Nikol, resign!" shouts the crowd.
A looming economic crisis
These speeches make Nancy Mkrtchian wince as she sits in a café on the edge of the square. The 23-year-old is one of the many students who took part in the revolution. "It's horrible to hear that. It makes me feel ashamed," says Mkrtchian, now a parliamentary assistant. "After 2018, we were considered a democratic country. During those two and a half years, I was proud to say that we had caused the ‘Velvet Revolution" and chased away the old regime. But today, I have to admit that it is back."
"The economic crisis will be much more serious and destructive."
The strength of the opposition is very weak, nevertheless, compared to the mobilization that brought about the revolution in 2018. Its demonstrations bring together little more than 2,000 people, and this number is steadily decreasing. Many Armenians prefer not to participate for fear of being assimilated into supporters of the old regime.
People were also shocked by the violence that erupted in the aftermath of the ceasefire agreement, when demonstrators stormed the government building and beat up the speaker of parliament. "Hatred of the former regime and the fear of its return to power are stronger than disapproval of Nikol Pashinyan," says a witness.
If, in other words, the prime minister is able to save his job at this time, it's because of this massive rejection of the former regime, coupled with the lack of a credible alternative. Still, there's is no shortage of disgruntled people. The Armenian youth who carried the revolution are today feeling torn. For them too, the defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh is a tragedy. They are strongly attached to this land, as they grew up with the idea that it was an integral part of Armenia.
"From the first days of the war, my students were extremely worried," says Hakobyan. "Today I lost four of them: They volunteered and died at the front."
Those who believe that the battle over Nagorno-Karabakh does not deserve so many sacrifices are in the minority. "Artsakh is the homeland," says Rafik Rotsanian, a 23-year-old medical student.
Rotsanian, a fervent supporter of the revolution, had confidence in Pashinyan before the conflict. "But with the war, I discovered negative aspects in him that I had refused to see," he says. "At the moment, we have no alternative, but if we did I would prefer him to leave."
The next few months promise to be more difficult than ever for the prime minister. Richard Giragosian, a political analyst at the Yerevan-based Center for Regional Studies, says that even more than politics, what really threatens Pashinyan is the economic situation. "The economic crisis will be much more serious and destructive," he says.
Even before the war, a third of the population lived below the poverty line. With the arrival of refugees and a shortage of employment opportunities, the situation is now expected to worsen. Several observers expect massive emigration when border restrictions, linked to the pandemic, are lifted.
With the revolution, Armenians had dreamed of a new future. But now, deflated after the victory of their Azerbaijani and Turkish enemies, and haunted still by the memory of the 1915 genocide, they wonder how they'll even move forward.