Protesters picket Yerevan EBRD event demanding Armenian PM’s resignation

Protesters picket Yerevan EBRD event demanding Armenian PM’s resignation
Armenian special police, known as the 'red berets' keep protesters away from international delegates at the EBRD annual meeting in Yerevan. / Clare Nuttall
By Clare Nuttall in Yerevan May 16, 2024

A crowd of protesters gathered outside the opera house in central Yerevan, which was hosting a European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) event, on May 15, to demand the resignation of Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan. 

Protests have been ongoing for several days in Yerevan and other parts of the country after the Armenian government agreed to a transfer of territory to Azerbaijan as part of a border demarcation process. Pashinyan’s decision to give up territory to Azerbaijan sparked widespread public discontent. 

Under the deal, several border villages in Armenia's northern Tavush region are being handed over to Azerbaijan, despite there being no corresponding handovers of territory by Baku to Yerevan. 

The protest, led by Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan of the Tavush diocese, started around 3pm ahead of Pashinian’s arrival at the Armenian National Opera and Ballet Theatre to address the opening session of the EBRD board of governors. 

It continued into the evening, despite several heavy rain showers, when the development bank was hosting a cultural event and al fresco reception outside the theatre. 

A heavy police presence prevented protesters from approaching the building. Protesters were gathered behind metal barriers along the side of Tumanyan Street and the pedestrianised Northern Avenue. 

Dozens of uniformed police and members of the special police unit dubbed the ‘red berets’ lined the street to keep protesters away from the event, as protesters sought to raise international awareness of their cause. 

“Do they even know we are here?” said one protester to bne IntelliNews

Following the loss of Nagorno Karabakh in a rapid Azerbaijani offensive in September 2023, protesters say Yerevan must not give up any more territory.

“Enough is enough,” said one protester, a woman draped in an Armenian flag. 

She referenced historic losses of territory to Turkey and Azerbaijan. “We are a small country and we are getting even smaller,” she said. 

Avoiding war 

Pashinyan was elected with a landslide in 2018 after leading the ‘Velvet Revolution’ that ousted former prime minister Serzh Sargsyan’s government. His popularity slumped after the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh War, although he went on to win a new term in the 2021 snap general election. 

The prime minister has defended his decision to hand over the villages, saying it was necessary to avoid another full-scale war. He also claimed the protests could provoke Azerbaijani aggression

Until last year the mountainous region of Nagorno Karabakh — with a majority ethnic Armenian population but part of Azerbaijan under international law — was de facto independent, with its government backed by Armenia. 

Azerbaijani forces overwhelmed the territory in September 2023, leading to a humanitarian crisis and the mass exodus of around 100,000 Armenians. 

Galstanyan has portrayed Pashinyan as a leader who has betrayed the Armenian people by giving up territory to Azerbaijan. He has vowed that the protests will continue until the prime minister steps down. 

Repeated protests 

The protests, which began as a five-day march from Kirants in the Tavush region to Yerevan, have now entered their second week. 

More than 20,000 people gathered in Yerevan for the May 9 protest, with somewhat smaller numbers at subsequent protests. 

There has been controversy over police treatment of protesters, especially the actions of the so-called ‘red berets’. 

The heavy police presence on May 15 further annoyed protesters. 

“Does this look like a democracy?” one said to bne IntelliNews, gesturing at the crowd of law enforcers. 

She also complained that several police wagons had been left with their engines running for more than half an hour, the exhaust fumes eventually forcing some demonstrators to abandon their positions. 

Earlier this week, Armenian police arrested more than 170 people for acts of civil disobedience. At another recent protest, journalist Nare Gevorgyan was knocked down by a police car in what she claimed was a deliberate incident and part of a pattern of police aggression against journalists.