Armenian Protests Over Return of Four Villages to Azerbaijan Threaten Peace Process

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 62


Executive Summary:

  • On April 19, Armenia agreed to hand four contested villages back to Azerbaijan and continue talks on four more based on the 1991 Alma-Ata accord.
  • Yerevan hailed this as the first step in improving bilateral talks, Western countries welcomed it as a step toward peace, while Russian commentators said it represented Armenia’s willingness to recognize realities on the ground.
  • Residents of the four villages and the Armenian opposition are outraged, with citizens taking to the streets and the opposition warning of new countrywide demonstrations against Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

On April 19, Armenia agreed to return four villages along its northern border to Azerbaijani control. Yerevan had controlled these villages since the 1990s and has agreed to continue discussing four other settlements that Baku claims sovereignty over based on the 1991 Alma-Ata accord (see EDM, April 17). The agreement specified that the borders of the post-Soviet states should follow Soviet administrative boundaries (Kavkaz Uzel, April 19). Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan celebrated this move as the first step in improving bilateral talks with Baku. He said that border guards from the two countries would now replace the Russian forces that had been patrolling the border area and that Armenia’s concession on this point is justified in preventing a renewed military conflict (Vestnik Kavkaza, April 20).

The Second Karabakh War in 2020 reduced Armenian holdings in Azerbaijan, and Baku’s military advance in Karabakh last fall disbanded the Armenian breakaway statelet in Karabakh (see EDM, April 22). Since then, the focus of Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as other powers shifted to two territorial issues. First, debates resurfaced about the exclaves that had existed in both countries during Soviet times. Second, the final status of villages along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan has become a central point of discussion (see EDM, April 8, 17). In recent months, the exclave issue has receded in importance given their small size and the lack, in many cases, of any population (see EDM, November 28, 2023; Kavkaz Uzel, April 19). This has elevated the focus on and importance of the contested villages—eight in areas Yerevan still controls but that Baku has long said must be part of Azerbaijan based on the Alma-Ata protocols and 31 villages in Azerbaijan that Yerevan insists are Armenian and should be part of Armenia (Jam News, March 25; Kavkaz Uzel, March 27, April 19). 

Yerevan has now conceded unilaterally to Baku’s claims, while there has been little movement on Armenia’s demands. The Armenian government’s concession has sparked protests in the villages and Yerevan. Villagers are blocking highways and demining efforts, while observers in the Armenian capital complain that the villagers’ rights are being violated and that these issues are in fact of concern to the Armenian population more broadly (Kavkaz Uzel, April 18, 22). The anger of both contingencies has been stoked by fears that Baku will use what they see as Yerevan’s weakness to launch new attacks on Armenia. These worries are especially severe in Syunik Oblast, what the Azerbaijanis call Zangezur or the corridor between Azerbaijan proper and its exclave Nakhchivan (Kavkaz Uzel, April 20, 21; Nezavisimaya Gazeta; Window on Eurasia, April 21).

The leaders of Western countries and major international organizations joined in praising this agreement as an important step toward a broader peace agreement. Russian commentators pointedly suggested that this move shows that Yerevan is finally recognizing the new realities in the South Caucasus (Vestnik Kavkaza, April 19, 20).

Residents of the four villages and members of the Armenian opposition, however, were outraged. The villagers took to the streets to protest in response (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 21). The opposition said the concessions were unjustified and weakened Armenia, adding that the villagers’ protests may soon grow into disorder and lead to a nationwide challenge to the Pashinyan government, especially if these protests receive support from Moscow (Kavkaz Uzel, April 18, 22). Yerevan is seeking to calm the situation by dispatching forces to the region and promising to ensure transportation and communications links between Armenia and these villages stay open (Kavkaz Uzel, April 20). The protests are a clear reminder that the road to peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia will be long and hard and that the populations involved will play as pivotal of a role as their political leaders (see EDM, April 8).

In the days since, the villagers’ protests have continued (Kavkaz Uzel, April 19,  22 [1], [2], 23). How long they will continue and whether they will grow into more general “disorders,” as some in Yerevan suggest, remains to be seen (Kavkaz Uzel, April 21). Still, there are reasons for concern. Radicals from Yerevan have traveled to the villages and may be urging people to continue their protests (Kavkaz Uzel, April 22). The risk is growing that anti-Pashinyan radicals, possibly backed by Moscow, could use these protests as an occasion to bring down the Pashinyan regime and thus block Yerevan’s turn to the West. The Armenian government has arrested some of these activists (Kavkaz Uzel, April 21, 22), and its forces in the region now appear ready to rein in the population (Kavkaz Uzel, April 22).

Whether such actions will be enough is unclear given the genuine fears of the villagers. These people now must face a new reality in places where state borders pass near or even through land they have used without any problem for generations. They worry that, without the Red Cross or Russian peacekeepers, Yerevan may sell them out to strike a deal with Baku, especially as many countries are pushing for a peace agreement (Kavkaz Uzel, April 21; see EDM, April 22). These worries will likely make them and others more prepared to listen to anti-Pashinyan groups in Yerevan that are speaking in increasingly apocalyptic terms about what they see as the current government’s willingness to make unilateral concessions and threaten Armenia’s survival as a state.

The situation along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border is a clear illustration that the two most difficult times in any project are the beginning, when a decision to do something has to be taken, and the end, when the final details must be worked out. That is certainly proving to be the case here. Any celebrations of Yerevan’s ceding of the four villages to Baku are, at the very least, premature. This means that both sides and citizens at all levels must be convinced that they have won something, not simply lost. Otherwise, revanchism will grow, and a renewal of conflict will be all but inevitable.