Armenian Government Faces Domestic Pressure Over Handling of Border Dispute

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 53

(Source: Armenian Public Radio)

Executive Summary:

  • Armenia and Azerbaijan’s recent discussion of the ownership of four border villages has stoked tensions regarding both countries’ territorial integrity.
  • Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has voiced his openness to ceding these villages to Baku and establishing peace in the region.
  • The Armenian opposition and parts of society have voiced their discontent with Pashinyan’s response, and some have called on the army to disobey any orders to withdraw from the border villages.

On November 9, 2020, the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia signed a trilateral ceasefire statement ending the Second Karabakh War (Kremlin, November 10, 2020). An initial draft of the agreement was mistakenly uploaded to the Kremlin’s website (Meduza; RFI, November 10, 2020). According to the draft, in addition to the return of the remainder of territory under Yerevan’s control immediately surrounding Karabakh, four villages in the Gazakh region of Azerbaijan were mentioned. These villages are contiguous to Armenia’s Tavush region and have been out of Baku’s control since the early 1990s. The document stated that “the territories held by the Armenian side in the Gazakh region of the Azerbaijan Republic will be returned to the Azerbaijani side.” Although the draft statement was hastily taken down and did not hold any legal weight, it highlighted that those villages had been up for negotiation. Three and a half years later, the status of these villages is once again up for discussion between Yerevan and Baku (see EDM, April 2). Some opposition figures in Armenia admit that there might have been verbal agreements between the signatories of the 2020 ceasefire document to resolve the matter, but this remains unconfirmed (Hraparak, April 2).

The latest round of Armenian-Azerbaijani border demarcation talks on March 7 provided insights into these new developments (Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Armenia, March 7). Baku’s main representative, Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev, declared that the four villages in question—Baghanis Ayrim, Lower Askipara, Kheyrimli, and Gizilhajili—should be “immediately” returned to Azerbaijan (Azatutyun, March 11). Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has made similar demands in the past, most recently in January (Turan, January 11). Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was quick to respond to Mustafayev’s statement during a live press conference just days later. “There have never been villages with such names on the territory of Armenia,” he stated, at times, holding aloft a cutout map of Armenia (Azatutyun, March 12). “We must proceed from the de jure reality. What is Armenia is Armenia, what is not Armenia is not Armenia,” he said, ostensibly confirming that Yerevan had no claim on the villages (, March 12).

The declaration surprised many observers of the Armenian-Azerbaijani peace process, mainly because attention had been focused elsewhere regarding enclaves/exclaves (see EDM, November 3, 28, December 5, 2023; January 24). During more recent negotiations, no clarification had been provided on whether four of the eight Azerbaijani villages under Armenia’s control were situated in Azerbaijan proper (IDD, March 15). Aliyev became particularly vocal on this subject earlier this year (Turan, July 21, 2021, January 11).

The issue of the enclaves themselves, including one formerly Armenian-inhabited village in Azerbaijan, look to be resolved during the border demarcation process. Whether the enclaves will be returned to the jurisdiction of the other or simply swapped remains unclear. One Armenian lawmaker recently noted that the matter is complicated because any exchange of enclaves will have to be determined by referendum per Article 205 of the Armenian Constitution (Radar Armenia, March 3; Constitutional Court of the Republic of Armenia, accessed April 7).

The general response to these developments from Armenian society has been rather muted. Some Armenians, however, view Pashinyan’s unilateral pronouncement as a step too far (see EDM, January 31). The opposition has sought to capitalize on such concerns, with some calling for the army to disobey any orders to withdraw from the border villages (Azatutyun, March 21). Pashinyan has already warned villagers that failure to return to the non-enclave villages in Armenia could result in a new war “by the end of the week” (APA; Azatutyun, March 19; see EDM, April 2). Later, Lilit Minasyan, a parliamentarian from the ruling party, stated that talks on the transfer of territory were ongoing, including any speculated withdrawal of Armenia’s 3rd Army Corps (Azatutyun, March 26).

Allegations are already circulating that Armenian villages, such as Voskepar, would be cut off from the rest of the country or that Armenia would no longer have access to Georgia. Pashinyan, in an effort to allay such fears, especially among local residents, recently declared: “In the near future, we must take action, and where, for example, our communications are beyond our borders, we must reconstruct our communications in those areas so that all communications of Armenia pass through the de jure territory of Armenia” (Azatutyun, March 22).

Such words have not been convincing for more radical elements of the Armenian population. On March 24, Combat Brotherhood, a local militia, attempted to converge on Voskepar, where it had already been providing weapons and training to residents (Combat Brotherhood, March 27). Law enforcement prevented them from doing so, arresting 49 people. Among them were supporters of the National Democratic Pole (NDP), a radical ultranationalist, extra-parliamentary opposition group. The NPD also includes Sasna Tsrer, another ultranationalist group. Following the events in Voskepar, three NDP supporters attacked a police station in Yerevan’s Nor Nork district (Azatutyun, March 24). Two were injured by shrapnel from one of their own grenades, while the other surrendered to the Armenian National Security Service following hours of negotiations (Azatutyun, March 25, 29). The primary reasons for the assault on the police station were to demand the release of detained Combat Brotherhood members, force Pashinyan’s resignation, and prevent further concessions to Azerbaijan. It seems that this attack will not be the last. In April, four other people, not connected to the NPD, were arrested and face terrorism charges after allegedly attempting to assassinate members of the ruling party (Azatutyun, April 14).

The Armenian Apostolic Church and its head, Catholicos Karekin II, have increasingly criticized Pashinyan, demonstrating deeper societal discontent with the Armenian premier (Eurasianet, January 3). On March 26, Primate of the Tavush Diocese Bishop Bagrat Galstanyan shared a video on social media directly opposing the return of any Azerbaijani villages controlled by Yerevan (, March 26). In response, one media outlet declared, “In Armenia, politicians speak with the verses of the psalms and gospels, while the priests use the language of politics and war” (Asia News, April 5).

Pashinyan will likely be able to ride the maelstrom of discontent as negotiations to resolve the status of the four non-enclave villages continue. It is becoming clear, however, that the issue of enclaves/exclaves could prove a stubborn obstacle for any peace agreement between Yerevan and Baku. While some Azerbaijani analysts urge that ceding the four villages to Azerbaijan would maintain the fragile peace process, their Armenian counterparts argue the opposite (Armenian Mirror Spectator; Commonspace, April 3).