The New Year was marked by somber reflection and remembrance in Armenia, as the nation grieves the loss of thousands of casualties following the end of the Artsakh War.
On November 24 the Yerevan Council announced that it had redirected 100 million drams from the municipal Christmas fund to the reconstruction of infrastructure in Stepanakert, which was heavily targeted by drone strikes launched by the Azerbaijani military in Artsakh throughout the war. No decorations were put up or celebrations held in the rosy city this Christmas season. The only festivities permitted were those organized for the children of refugees or war casualties by volunteer organizations aiming to spread some holiday cheer.
On New Year’s Eve, people gathered at the Yerablur Military Pantheon in Yerevan for a memorial concert in honor of the soldiers killed in combat. At least 3,000 soldiers died during the war, including at least 60 civilians.
#NewYearEve at Yerablur Military Memorial Cemetery. Paying tribute to the memory of all our heroes who fall defending our homeland- #Armenia and #Artsakh.
We all bear a moral duty to repay your priceless sacrifices by our deeds pic.twitter.com/4en3uonnsb
— Anna A. Naghdalyan (@naghdalyan) December 31, 2020
In his traditional year-end address, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan encouraged an optimistic attitude among the people and a commitment to rebuilding Armenia and Artsakh in the new year. “2021 should come as a year of labor for us, not a year of ordinary work, but a year of striving, where working hard and creating added value should be a primary task for each of us,” he declared.
However, in an unprecedented decision, several television and radio stations, including Yerkir Media, 5 TV, ArmNews TV and Armenian Second TV Channel refused to broadcast the prime minister’s speech in symbolic solidarity with the opposition movement, which has been demanding his resignation following his signature of the November 9 trilateral ceasefire agreement codifying Armenia’s defeat in the war. Instead, these media outlets aired speeches by President Armen Sarkissian and opposition prime ministerial candidate Vazgen Manukyan.
President Sarkissian, for his part, blamed the outcome of the war on the “disorganization, irresponsibility and unprofessionalism in various spheres of state governance.” “The state and the government must exert all efforts to ascertain the destiny of the missing and to quickly return all the captives and hostages home…[and to] ensure the protection and security of the inhabitants and communities of the country’s borders and border zones,” he said.
Manukyan similarly censured the current administration during his address, directing his criticism toward the PM. “We have lost the greatest achievement of our independent statehood, our collective dream of a victorious Artsakh…as a consequence of betrayal, ignorance and deception,” he asserted. “It is the great revenge of a small man on Armenia, Artsakh and the Armenian people.” Manukyan is the candidate selected by the “Homeland Salvation Movement,” a coalition of 17 opposition political parties, to replace Pashinyan as leader of an interim government of national unity until parliamentary elections.
Four days into the new year, Manukyan issued a statement calling for the formation of civilian detachments to defend Armenia’s national borders in light of the security risks arising from border demarcations. The process of demarcating Armenia’s eastern border is ongoing following the transferal of the territories of Zangelan and Kubatli from Artsakh to Azerbaijan under the agreement. Representatives from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia have been using GPS devices to revive the Soviet-era international boundary. However, the new boundary jeopardizes access to farmland, roads and mineral resources for residents of border communities, which have expanded over the past three decades.
“We will change the leadership that is destroying our state. The military force that formed in the past decades will once again be the guarantor of our security,” the statement reads. “But that requires time, during which we continuously experience new losses, our national borders are squeezed, and our border settlements and inhabitants remain unprotected.” Manukyan entreats the youth, residents of border settlements and war veterans to undertake the goal of creating self-defense units.
PM Pashinyan addressed the uncertainty surrounding the border demarcation process in a lengthy article his office published on January 4th. In the article, he reiterates past arguments that his administration inherited an untenable negotiation format regarding the Artsakh conflict due to the diplomatic failures of the former administrations. He stresses that the war could have been avoided only by returning the seven outlying territories of Artsakh (including Zangelan and Kubatli) which have served as a security belt for the past 30 years. “Now, of course, in hindsight it is possible to say, that [handing over the territories] would have been better than what we have now, since at least we would have saved thousands of lives,” the statement reads. “In hindsight, that would have been possible in 1997, 2004, 2011 and 2016. It would have been possible even in 2020.”
In all scenarios, Zangelan and Kubatli would have been handed over to Azerbaijan, and border villages such as Shournukh would have been embroiled in border disputes, according to Pashinyan. Residents of Shournukh, a village near the town of Goris in Armenia’s southernmost Syunik province, have been forced to evacuate their homes by Azerbaijani claims to their private property. “But now we know that before [the border dispute] reached the border of Shournukh we fought for every inch of land,” the article reads. “At least under this scenario war on the outskirts of Shournukh has ended.”
According to studies conducted by the Office of the Human Rights Defender of Armenia, serious threats to the human rights and livelihoods of residents of border communities have already arisen, specifically in the Tegh, Khnatsakh, Vorotan, Khoznavar, Aravus, Nerkin Khndzoresk and Kapan communities of Syunik and the Geghamasar, Sotk, Kut and Norabak communities of Gegharkunik. Threats include access to farmland and pastureland, access to forests and water resources, and loss of homes and private business objects.
Armenia’s Human Rights Defender Arman Tatoyan called for the establishment of a special working group with the participation of specialists and representatives from both Armenia and Azerbaijan that will prioritize the rights of the people to conduct the border demarcation process. He criticized the current approach, by which changes are made to the state borders of Armenia according to administrative divisions, as violative of the rights guaranteed to the people by the Constitution of Armenia, including the rights to physical and mental immunity, property and economic activity.
Tatoyan also condemned a statement by President Ilham Aliyev declaring that the Armenian soldiers held in captivity in Azerbaijan are not prisoners of war, but rather detained terrorists. He stated that the soldiers must be immediately released and returned to Armenia without any preconditions, since they have the status of POWs.
Human rights attorney Artak Zeynalyan, who represents 80 people held captive in Azerbaijan in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), shared that 18 of those people have returned to Armenia as of the end of the year 2020. This week the ECHR accepted a tenth request from Armenia for interim measures to protect POWs in Azerbaijan and demand information about the conditions of their detainment and their medical care. Armenian human rights activists have accused Azerbaijan of artificially delaying the process of exchanging POWs and other detained persons while publicizing videos depicting their torture and inhuman treatment by members of the Azerbaijani armed forces.