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Armenia’s war defeat prompts bitter vote on rebuilding country

By Rayhan Demytrie

BBC South Caucasus correspondent

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionAmid a fierce election campaign, the opposition front-runner even challenged the acting prime minister to a duel

Armenians vote on Sunday in a snap parliamentary election that will decide their post-war future following defeat in last year’s conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“We must establish a dictatorship of law, a dictatorship of the free will of the people,” acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told supporters as he waved a steel hammer.

“This is the symbol of construction, we must build Armenia anew.”

Armenia needs a new start, after losing swathes of territory during a six-week war last autumn that cost thousands of lives.

‘Return of the dinosaurs’

The question is who can deliver it. Twenty-two parties and four political blocs are contesting the Sunday vote, called by Mr Pashinyan to put an end to repeated protests demanding his resignation.

All three former presidents since Armenia became independent in 1991 are taking part in the race. And they are all in opposition to Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party.

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionNikol Pashinyan has faced calls to resign since last autumn’s six-week war

“This is a Jurassic Park political contest, the return of dinosaurs in many ways,” says analyst Richard Giragosian from the Regional Studies Centre in Yerevan.

The opposition frontrunner is Karabakh-native Robert Kocharyan – president from 1998-2008 – who heads the Armenia bloc.

A personal friend of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, he has been campaigning on the ticket of rebuilding national security, regaining lost territories and strengthening Armenia’s borders.

image copyrightReuters

image captionRobert Kocharyan leads the Armenia bloc, which is in a tight race with Mr Pashinyan’s party

“It is a contest of lesser evils,” adds Richard Giragosian, who sees a difficult choice for voters between what he calls the authoritarian arrogance and corruption of the past, and the more impulsive and reckless leadership of Mr Pashinyan.

The prime minister came to power after leading a popular revolution in 2018.

But Armenia has been in a political crisis ever since he signed a Moscow-brokered truce with Azerbaijan in November 2020 to end the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

The defeat has been a shock and humiliation for Armenians.

With strong backing from Turkey, Azerbaijan regained control of much of the territory around the separatist enclave, which it lost to Armenia during the first Karabakh conflict in the 1990s.

Officially, 2,904 Azerbaijani servicemen lost their lives in the 2020 war. Armenia lost an estimated 4,000 servicemen.

A vote overshadowed by war

Seven months on, many post-war issues remain unresolved.

Tensions are at breaking point in disputed border areas between armed Azeri and Armenian troops. Frequent anti-government protests have demanded the return of some 200 Armenian servicemen and civilians held captive by Azerbaijan.

Last week, with the help of the US and the EU, 15 Armenian prisoners of war were sent back home via Georgia. In exchange Armenia handed Azerbaijan a map of 97,000 mines in its recently regained Agdam region.

But this week 14 other Armenian war prisoners went on trial in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.

Azerbaijan insists it has returned all POWs and the ones that remain are described as “saboteurs and terrorists” captured after the fighting officially ceased, and therefore not prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention.

Former Armenian President Serzh Sargysyan, who was ousted from power by Mr Pashinyan’s revolution, has even suggested that the acting prime minister should exchange his son for prisoners of war.

Mr Pashinyan responded by announcing that he is ready to do so.

“You should never think this is an emotional announcement,” Mr Pashinyan said at a recent campaign rally, after offering his 21-year old son Ashot in exchange for all the prisoners. “I say it officially, go and negotiate.”

Ashot Pashinyan has said he is prepared to go.

image copyrightAFP

image captionAn Armenian border position (file pic) – tension remains high

Another former leader, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who was Armenia’s first democratically elected president, has warned of clashes between rival supporters in the election race.

Where Russia fits in

What has become non-negotiable for all sides, however, is Armenia’s dependence on Russia. After the war Moscow deployed 2,000 of its troops in a peacekeeping mission in Karabakh.

For ethnic Armenians living in the enclave now surrounded by Azerbaijani forces, Moscow is the main guarantor of their safety and security.

And while the opposition and the ruling party have been engaged in vicious attacks on each other, including an invitation from Robert Kocharyan to fight Nikol Pashinyan in a duel with any weapon, voters in the streets of Yerevan appear to be largely undecided.

“I do not want the former leader, I am tired of the present one,” says Anahit Ghazaryan. “I want a candidate who can lead us to live in peace, in a country where children have a future.”

media captionHow lives on both sides of the divide in Nagorno-Karabakh were changed by the last year’s fighting

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