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how loss in the karabakh conflict has affected, or not affected, armenian politics

How Loss in the Karabakh Conflict has Affected, or Not Affected, Armenian Politics

Author: Nicholas Castillo

Mar 8, 2024

Image source: Prime Minister of Armenia

In September, after a short Azerbaijani military operation, the 30-year separatist project in Karabakh dissolved. Soon after, roughly 100,000 ethnic Armenian Karabakh residents left for Armenia proper, grimly mirroring the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis that had marked the first stages of the Karabakh conflict over 30 years before. However, the initial fears that the end of the war in Karabakh would spur chaos within Armenia, or a drawn-out conflict in Karabakh itself, have proven false. Instead, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has absorbed the immediate shocks of the conflict and has gone on to maintain steady control even as sectors of Armenian society oppose his policies.

The flight of the Karabakh Armenians provided an immediate challenge for Yerevan. A relatively poor country with an overcrowded real-estate market in Yerevan, the sudden arrival of 100,000 people, about 4% of Armenia’s entire population, over the course of a week was difficult to absorb. On the grassroots level, many local Armenians mobilized to soften the arrival of Karabakh Armenians, providing reception centers and volunteering to provide food, goods, and medical care. At the policy level, Pashinyan and his government began to implement a series of decreasing stipends for those who arrived, first worth $250 and then decreasing to payments of roughly $125 a month beginning in November.  Undoubtedly, this provided some relief to displaced Armenians, although these stipends were not high enough to rent apartments or homes in most real estate markets in Armenia.

Contrary to initial concerns, absorbing the Karabakh Armenians has been a relatively smooth process. While displacement itself will be a trauma for years to come for many, there are no displaced-person camps in Armenia today, and most of the new arrivals have found places to stay either with relatives, in new homes, or, at worst, in government-run shelters in schools or hotels. A recent survey found that 38% of the displaced Americans are currently in Yerevan, where employment opportunities are much better, and another 15% are in the neighboring districts. Although the long-term future is unclear and challenges remain, for now, things appear to have settled.

On a diplomatic level, Pashinyan has pivoted quickly into a post-conflict political agenda. The prime minister has sought to normalize relations with Azerbaijan, stated his hope to open Armenia’s borders with Türkiye, and proposed a large infrastructure project to connect Armenia to Azerbaijan and Türkiye. Moves like these could well provide peace dividends in Armenia, commercially connecting the country to its economically much larger neighbors. Pashinyan had already recognized Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan in 2022 and, therefore, had already laid the foundations for a post-conflict scenario in which the territory is controlled by Baku.

However, there are signs indicating some Armenians strongly oppose Pashiyan’s agenda. Immediately following Pashinyan’s lack of military response to September’s fighting in Karabakh, thousands took to the streets and demanded his resignation. Broadly, it is difficult to imagine that mass numbers of Armenians had deviated from strident positions held as recently as June 2023, when upwards of 90% of Armenians were found to oppose any solution over Karabakh that placed it under Azerbaijani control. In recent months, the Armenian Apostolic Church has come into sharp conflict with Pashinyan over the outcome of the conflict. The head of the church, Karekin II, has spoken out repeatedly against Pashinyan, calling for his resignation at one point and clashing not only over Karabakh, but also Church involvement in Armenia’s education.

Overall, however, the transition from conflict to post-conflict politics has also been relatively easy.  The protests against Pashinyan quickly fizzled out and never compared to the 2018 mass movement that brought Pashinyan himself to power.

Part of the reason for the limited pushback to Pashinyan appears to be the lack of political alternatives to Pashinyan or organized opposition. When Pashinyan came to power in 2018, it was on the back of a mass movement that aimed to unseat the long-empowered Republican Party. Pashinyan was a popular personality, and he and his allies organized effectively. 

Today, Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party holds a solid majority of seats in parliament. No prominent leader or organization has emerged to channel frustration over the Karabakh conflict into something politically impactful, in part because the opposition remains associated with Pashinyan’s disgraced predecessors. An early 2023 poll found widespread political disenchantment in Armenia, with 63% of respondents reporting no trust in any politician at all. That same poll found that Pashinyan and his party's approval ratings were low, under a third each, but that they were far ahead of any competitors. 

More substantially, however, experts on the ground in Armenian seem to describe a kind of war-weariness or resignation about the conflict. As one Yerevan-based analyst phrased it when speaking with Radio Free Europe: “We’ve become numb.... Karabakh is important to people, but it's probably more important for those people who have a certain kind of privilege.” For Pashinyan’s working-class base, Karabakh is “just one of many issues.” According to a Yerevan journalist, many “will say [Karabakh] is an existential issue,” but when confronted by the realities of the conflict, feel that “[s]omeone else's son should go fight, not mine.” Reflecting this, the Armenian military has suffered from draft-dodging and corruption in recent years. The war in 2020 when Armenia lost the districts it occupied surrounding Karabakh and part of Karabakh itself, and not 2023 when it lost the rest of Karabakh, might have been the decisive turning point, a “shock” that forced Armenians to re-examine what they were willing to sacrifice to fight what now appeared to be a losing battle.

Therefore, it might be important to Pashinyan’s staying power that by September 2023, many Armenians simply were not willing to return to war. The proof speaks for itself: Armenians have a strong bottom-up protest culture and have mobilized en masse in the past to force governments to change course, but not this time. 

It will be two years before national elections are held in Armenia in what will be the truest test of how much the Armenian public will electorally punish Pashinyan for the loss of Karabakh. However, recent events and the lack of a viable alternative point to a steady continuation of the Civil Contract and Pashinyan’s power. By 2026, the high emotions that drove street protests in the immediate aftermath of September’s fighting might have settled even more, possibly replaced with a mix of pragmatism and resignation. However, unless a viable opposition challenger emerges, which remains possible, it will seem that September's events in Karabakh have not prompted a serious political shakeup for Yerevan.

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