The modern Armenian state has survived many conflicts with hostile neighbors. While tiny, it is the inheritor of a national history that once stretched from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea. But today, after losing a war with Azerbaijan, the country is on Russian life support, and time is running out on what little independence it has left. Having tried to remove Armenia from Russia’s sphere of influence, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has ironically made it the most subservient to Russia it’s ever been since the country was released from Soviet rule. With a weak military and political leadership, Armenia is faced with a tough choice: whether to become a vassal of Turkey or of Russia.
In November 2020, I began a three-week journey documenting the aftermath of Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan, and recently returned to the country to continue reporting on its precarious and uncertain future. The war was fought over the disputed mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding territories. It ended in Armenia’s near-total defeat, with a Russian-brokered peace deal finalized on November 9th. I spent four days visiting the region itself, in what is left of the independent Republic of Artsakh, an ethnic Armenian breakaway state which is claimed by Azerbaijan. But the peace deal is fragile, and many expect another war.
Armenians were shocked to find out just how incredibly unfavorable the November peace deal was. Armenia relinquished control of the seven provinces it had gained in the 1990s, including the strategically and culturally important city of Shushi, the region of Kelbajar which hosts the historic Armenian Dadivank Monastery, and other Armenian enclaves like Hadrut. What little territory Armenia was able to retain from the contested regions is being guarded—and, more accurately, controlled—by Russia. The Armenian military’s reliance on weapons and training from the Soviet era, combined with the neglect of the armed forces by successive governments, ensured their defeat.
My trip began with a rocky and inhospitable start. I was pulled aside at customs and had my passport confiscated because my visa hadn’t yet been approved. Several Armenian military and customs officials looked over me, then my passport, and then at each other, discussing what to do with this foreigner whom “no one invited to Armenia.” I was directed upstairs to an empty terminal where I spent the night, seemingly the only one in the entire place. After a frantic and sleepless night, my visa turned up approved around 9 AM. Having finally cleared customs, it was time to make my way towards Yerevan.
As I was leaving the airport, I was immediately solicited by the large numbers of cabbies milling about the area. Around $4 (or 2000 Dram) easily gets you across the entire city in full traffic. Armenia is an extremely poor country, with a GDP per capita of only around $4600 USD. For my part, I already had a ride. But explaining this was difficult—the Armenian language is one of the hardest on Earth to learn, with a completely independent alphabet and vocabulary.
As we approached downtown Yerevan, two police officers with AK-47’s were conducting seemingly indiscriminate searches of cars, a precaution due to assassination threats that had recently been made against Armenia’s prime minister. On the night when Pashinyan signed Armenia’s surrender, protestors stormed the national assembly and seriously assaulted the speaker of the parliament. For the next few days, a coup or assassination seemed imminent. But Pashinyan and his government have thus far survived despite the pressure. By the time I arrived, the war had been over for three weeks, with Russian boots on the ground and Pashinyan showing no signs of stepping down. Since the war, a deep sense of betrayal and abandonment has gripped Armenia: its government surrendered, Russia failed to intervene early enough, and the Western world ignored their struggle. However, the country had largely accepted that there was no way to reverse the peace deal. Although anti-government demonstrations were still taking place daily at Republic Square, their attendance and intensity were steadily decreasing.
Nevertheless, these demonstrations seemed like a good place to start reporting, and so I headed to Republic Square on my first full day in Armenia. A thick line of police was blocking the door to the Government House building as a senior officer called out Armenian names. The names were those of family members of soldiers who were missing in action or prisoners of war. As each name was called, the police line broke to allow the families into the building. The government was giving them a long-awaited update on the fate of their sons, husbands, and fathers. Among the crowd of family members were protestors, including several men who had fought in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in the 1990s. One man was highly decorated, displaying medals on his jacket and holding up a sign denouncing Pashinyan.