Armenia-Azerbaijan engage in peace talks amid mass protests in Yerevan 

In the South Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at odds for decades over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, a majority-ethnic Armenian region inside Azerbaijan. In September, Azerbaijan’s military seized Nagorno-Karabakh, which resulted in the exodus of tens of thousands of Armenians. Now, the two countries are engaged in peace talks, hoping to normalize relations.

The World

In the South Caucasus, neighboring countries Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, a majority-ethnic Armenian region inside Azerbaijan. 

Now, the two countries are engaged in peace talks, hoping to normalize relations.

But many Armenians feel like their leadership is making too many concessions — and thousands of protesters are demonstrating in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, demanding the resignation of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan, one of the leaders of the protests, said at a rally in Yerevan last week, “Nikol Pashinyan, you have one hour to submit your resignation.”

In September, Azerbaijan’s military seized Nagorno-Karabakh, which resulted in the exodus of tens of thousands of Armenians from the area.

They’re now displaced inside Armenia, unlikely to return to their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh. Nagorno-Karabakh is now fully under Azerbaijan’s control and its status is off the table in the negotiations between the two countries.

That’s part of what’s making Armenians angry with their government.

Tigran Grigoryan is the head of the Regional Center for Democracy and Security, a Yerevan-based think tank.

“The majority of the society is dissatisfied with the government’s policies when it comes to security, foreign policy, the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh,” he said. 

“The majority of the society is dissatisfied with the government’s policies when it comes to security, foreign policy, the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Tigran Grigoryan, Regional Center for Democracy and Security

Grigoryan said that the decision by the Armenian government to give Azerbaijan four border villages was one of the catalysts for the mass protests.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan attends a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council of the Eurasian Economic Union at the Kremlin in Moscow, May 8, 2024. Thousands of protesters gathered May 9, 2024, in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, to demand the resignation of Pashinyan over his government’s decision to hand over control of border villages to Armenia’s longtime rival Azerbaijan.Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool photo via AP

Pashinyan defended the move, citing the need to “convert the theoretical peace agenda into an actual peaceful reality.”

But Grigoryan said that negotiating the border is one of the trickiest aspects of the peace talks, and he said the leadership in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, is negotiating in bad faith. 

“It is interested in peace, but it is interested in its own interpretation of peace. You can call it a concept of victor’s peace.”

Grigoryan said that many Armenians question whether a peace deal with Azerbaijan could deliver the security guarantees that are vital for a lasting peace.

Advocating for prisoner release 

Another unresolved question is the issue of prisoners, which stems back to Azerbaijan’s military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“After the offensive in September 2023, Azerbaijan managed to capture several of the leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh, the military and political elite of Nagorno-Karabakh are in captivity in Baku.”

One of those leaders who was captured was Ruben Vardanyan, the former state minister of Nagorno-Karabakh.

His son, David Vardanyan, has been advocating for his father’s release.

“The Armenian government and Azerbaijan have been very, very silent, publicly at least, on the state of the prisoners, and how they fit into the overall peace agreement.”

David Vardanyan said that his father moved to Nagorno-Karabakh in the summer of 2022 to support local Armenians through philanthropy, and later, as a political leader.

He served as state minister for a short stint but soon, the situation there deteriorated.

Azerbaijan imposed a blockade on Nagorno-Karabakh, which led to the military operation, and eventually, the detention of Ruben Vardanyan and others.

“I learned about his detainment actually from social media because one of my friends sent me an article saying, ‘Is this true? Have you seen this?’ My first reaction was shock and disbelief.”

In this photo taken from video released by State Security Service of the Republic of Azerbaijan on Sept. 28, 2023, Ruben Vardanyan, the former head of Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist government center, stands between Azerbaijani security service agents in Baku, Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani authorities have arrested several former separatist leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh after reclaiming control of the Armenian-populated breakaway region in a lightning military operation last month. Azerbaijan’s APA news agency says that Arayik Harutyunyan, who led the region before stepping down at the beginning of September, has been arrested and is being brought to the Azerbaijani capital. State Security Service of the Republic of Azerbaijan via AP

David Vardanyan said he’s only spoken with his father once since he was captured.

“He was put in isolation and solitary confinement as punishment with no access to anything from the outside world.”

He said Ruben Vardanyan has access to a lawyer in Baku, but that it’s unclear when he’ll have his day in court.

David Vardanyan said that his father is advocating for all Armenian prisoners who remain in Azerbaijan’s custody, and he hopes this issue rises to the top of the peace negotiations agenda.

“The unconditional release of these prisoners must be one of the key topics, otherwise there will be no long-lasting peace.”

‘It will take years to normalize’

One thing that Armenians and Azerbaijanis agree on is that there’s still a long way to go before the two sides reach a peace deal.

Independent Baku-based analyst Zaur Shiriyev said that a deal won’t solve some of the fundamental disagreements between the two countries.

“Everyone is asking the question that when the sides are going to sign a peace agreement, but I think that peace agreement and peace [are] two different things.”

Shiriyev said the two countries made some progress in the border dispute — they’ve discussed the prisoner issue, and even exchanged prisoners in December, which he said is a positive sign.

He also said that despite fears in Armenia, he doesn’t believe that Azerbaijan is threatening further use of force because it fears sanctions and further isolation.

But despite the progress, Shiriyev said signing a deal won’t be enough to fully reset relations.

“I’m against seeing a peace agreement as a magic formula. Majority in our society is believing that [a] peace agreement is going to resolve everything. It is going to remove the threat of the new war between the sides. However, it will take years to normalize and become good neighbors.”  

Invest in global news with heart!

The World is a nonprofit newsroom powered by listener support. When you make a recurring gift, you’re making an investment that allows The World to cover the most important international stories with nuance and care. Our listeners are at the heart of what makes The World such an invaluable source for global news. Will you create a recurring donation today to power The World all year long?