Inside Armenia’s geopolitical shift to the West

Omar Hamed Beato is a visual journalist based in the Middle East covering conflict, climate change, migration, and social issues. You can find him on Instagram and follow his work here.

Protesters march across Yerevan the night before the commemoration of the Armenian genocide on the 23rd of April. Manifestations like this are often used by political parties to foster nationalism. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Protesters march across Yerevan the night before the commemoration of the Armenian genocide on the 23rd of April. Manifestations like this are often used by political parties to foster nationalism. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

As the sun sets over Yerevan –Armenia’s capital– on the verge of the 109th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, thousands of people flock to Republic Square to remember past and current struggles with neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan. This genocide, often referred to as the first of the 20th century, claimed the lives of as many as 1.2 million Orthodox Armenians in the Anatolian peninsula during World War I. Over one hundred years later, the wounds of war and mass displacement remain wide open in the minds of the Armenian people. Continuous wars with neighboring Azerbaijan over the majority Armenian-populated territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s and recent years have only exacerbated militaristic and nationalist sentiments within Armenian society. The territory,  known by locals as Artsakh, is a self-proclaimed republic within the borders of internationally recognized Azerbaijan. A mix of anger, sadness, and worry can be felt in the ambient – it’s been only seven months since the latest chapter in the war came to a close. Nagorno-Karabakh was completely taken over by Azeri forces prompting almost its entire population of 120,000 to flee to Armenia.

“In the second decade of the 21st century, the Armenian nation has been subjected to genocide once again,” said a speaker at a political rally in Yerevan the day before the commemoration of the genocide on April 24th –a cry that attracted the attention of attendees. “Genocide is the policy of the Turkish state [referring to Turkey and Azerbaijan], the enemy wants to destroy us. One part of Armenia [from Karabakh] was displaced from its homeland of thousands of years.”

Every year, Turkish and Azerbaijani flags are publicly burned in Republic Square, Yerevan. This is the portrayal of a society that is deeply hurt and humiliated after decades of conflict. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Every year, Turkish and Azerbaijani flags are publicly burned in Republic Square, Yerevan. This is the portrayal of a society that is deeply hurt and humiliated after decades of conflict. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Yet, despite all the nationalistic sentiment, not everyone at the manifestation agrees on a way forward for Armenia.  Mariam, a young Armenian woman who took part in the event, whose real name is being withheld due to the sensitive nature of the topic in the country, sees it as simple rhetoric rather than a realistic possibility. “I think this gathering is quite populist,” she says while crowds prepare to march across the city. “Don’t get me wrong, I would like Armenia to retake Nagorno-Karabakh to allow everyone to go back home but I don’t think it is possible, Azerbaijan has more power,” Mariam says before the interview gets abruptly interrupted by other people overhearing it from the crowd.

Many in Armenia have lost loved ones to the different wars between these two neighbors since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, a collapse that reignited the dispute over the territory that remained relatively calm when Armenia and Azerbaijan were coexisting within the Soviet umbrella. For a while, Russia, as Armenia’s historical security guarantor and main economic partner, prevented Azerbaijan from escalating the conflict into a full-out war.

During the 2020 war –when Azerbaijan conquered adjacent territories of Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenia took in the 1990s– Russia played an important role in brokering a peace deal between both states. However, things changed in February 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Unable to divert resources from the war effort, Russia was in no position to defend Karabakh from any incoming Azeri invasion. This was put to a test when Azerbaijan began the 10-month-long blockade of Artsakh in December 2022, rationing medicine, food, and fuel, practically isolating this territory from the rest of the world.

Russia’s inaction to the blockade triggered the belief in Baku that there would be no Russian intervention if it decided to go ahead with a complete takeover. Almost a year later, in September 2023, Azeri troops began to hit Karabakh with artillery and drone strikes making Armenians lay down arms within the first 24 hours of the incursion. The mass exodus of the population to Armenia began in September 2023, and on January 1st 2024 Azerbaijan forced the dissolution of the self-proclaimed republic.
 

Coping with a humanitarian crisis on its own

Despite a strong post-pandemic economic recovery, Armenia is still, by many means, a developing economy. According to a 2022 World Food Program report, about one-fourth of Armenians suffers from food insecurity and one in three lives below the poverty line of USD 115 per month.

Hence, since the fall of Karabakh, refugees have been struggling to start anew. The government has promised benefits to the newcomers: a one-off payment of $250 to every adult and a monthly allowance of $125, or about 65 per cent of the minimum wage in Armenia, to cover rent and other basic needs. Yet many refugees complain the much-anticipated money is stuck in bureaucratic backlog. Due to the global focus on the crises in Palestine and Ukraine, only 47 per cent of the $97 million pledged by the United Nations for the emergency phase of the crisis has been raised.

This has affected refugees like Andranik, 47, and his family. Like most displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh, they are living in a small village on the outskirts of Yerevan. He is living with his wife, mother, and three other children –all of whom complain about the lack of aid coming from the government since they arrived in Armenia.

Andranik in front of his house in Yerevan. During the 2020 war –which also claimed the lives of his nephew and younger brother– he was hit by Azeri bullets three times, which has hampered his mobility and consequently, hurt his prospects of finding employment. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Andranik in front of his house in Yerevan. During the 2020 war –which also claimed the lives of his nephew and younger brother– he was hit by Azeri bullets three times, which has hampered his mobility and consequently, hurt his prospects of finding employment. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

He claims to only be receiving a $50 stipend for his disability –for some reason, he stopped receiving the $125 monthly allowance in February –which is insufficient for a large family like his to survive in Yerevan. “Our economic situation is very bad,” he explains. “We are not expecting any support from the government… [our only hope] is going back to Artsakh one day.”

Due to their economic situation, his family can barely afford any food or essential medicine for his aging mother. They rely on food donations to support their subsistence. “My friends support our family; time to time bring some wood, some food etc. My old friends from Armenia who served in [the military] in Artsakh supported us many times,” Andranik laments while speaking in front of his family. “I am cultivating the land of this rental house to support ourselves [with] some food. We grow some greens, onions, and potatoes. We [are also] keeping some chickens and turkeys as well.”

Andrianik’s mother, Nina, 86, shedding tears when talking about her home in Artsakh. Due to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, she has been forcibly displaced four times in her life, having to start from zero on every occasion. Humanitarian workers comment refugees haven’t received proper psychological support since they were displaced to Armenia. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Andranik’s mother, Nina, 86, shedding tears when talking about her home in Artsakh. Due to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, she has been forcibly displaced four times in her life, having to start from zero on every occasion. Humanitarian workers comment refugees haven’t received proper psychological support since they were displaced to Armenia. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Difficult living conditions and lack of job opportunities across rural areas in Armenia have prompted about three out of four refugees to settle in Yerevan and adjacent provinces.

“The situation for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians is really bad” says Benyamin Poghosyan, a senior research fellow at the Applied Policy Research Institute of Armenia –an independent Armenian think tank. “They lack housing and many of them have no jobs. What the government is paying is barely enough to rent an apartment, especially in Yerevan.”

Beyond the Armenians displaced from Artsakh, the country has seen a significant influx of Russians opposing the regime since the war in Ukraine broke out. These recent arrivals en masse mean that the Armenian labor market is struggling to absorb all these new workers –especially as the country has historically been characterized by high unemployment amongst the most vulnerable.  A December 2023 report by the International Monetary Fund estimates these influxes to account for a 3.5 per cent increase in the labor force relative to 2021. Figures show a grim outlook for Karabakh Armenians –it will take until at least 2028 for them to be fully integrated into the job market.

Adella, 65, and her son Radik, 41, are examples of this. Once considered well-off in Karabakh, now they find themselves living in a warehouse in the town of Masis, some 30 minutes away by car from Yerevan. Since they moved here, they have struggled to find jobs – they are only able to generate some extra income when they sporadically sell on the streets some shipments of perfume sent by their relatives living in the UK and Russia.

“I would like to find a job, any kind of job. I will do heavy jobs if necessary,” explains Radik. “[Unfortunately], there are no jobs here.”

Lack of jobs and aid means mother and son live in an unhygienic house with no running water or electricity. “There’s no furniture inside the house –they just gave me a blanket. It’s just cold at night. [We have a] heater but it is not powerful enough,” says Adella as she gazes at Mount Ararat in the background. Due to inadequate infrastructure at home, Adella and Radik have to visit their relative’s house two to three times a week to shower.

Life on pause. Adella video calling one of her relatives living in Russia inside the warehouse where she lives. Due to her age, she is struggling to find work as employers prefer younger workers. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Life on pause. Adella video calling one of her relatives living in Russia inside the warehouse where she lives. Due to her age, she is struggling to find work as employers prefer younger workers. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

To address the housing issue, the government initiated a program aimed at assisting Karabakh refugees in securing permanent housing. However, this initiative has encountered opposition within the refugee community. The government offers up to $13,000 for families to construct or purchase homes in sparsely populated areas, where employment opportunities are scarce, and $5,000 in areas near Yerevan. Benyamin argues that “this scheme only allows Nagorno-Karabakh refugees to buy old Soviet-era houses on the borders of Armenia,” where they do not want to live.

Anna, 45, together with another family from Artsakh, currently rents a house for $390 a month in the surrounding areas of Yerevan. She works at a tobacco factory six days a week, while her husband, Artur, 59, works in the land. They express concern that the government is failing to acknowledge the refugees’ apprehensions about living near Azerbaijan. “We are not prepared to endure another displacement disaster,” Anna laments, humorously remarking that the pledged funds would only enable them to afford “half a house.”

Portrait of Ararat, Anna’s relative who died during the 2020 war against Azerbaijan. Most families from Artsakh and Armenia have relatives who have died fighting in the last few years. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Portrait of Ararat, Anna’s relative who died during the 2020 war against Azerbaijan. Most families from Artsakh and Armenia have relatives who have died fighting in the last few years. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Greta, Anna’s 80-year-old mother-in-law, adamantly rejects the idea of purchasing a house in Armenia. Her thoughts are fixated on returning to her home in Artsakh –where she lived her entire life until September 2023. “I would love to return if the Azeris were not present. I long to visit the graves of my son and husband, and to see my house and everything again”, Greta emotionally expresses, wiping away tears. “During the day, I am in Armenia, but at night, my heart is in Artsakh.”

Greta next to the window in her rental house. Due to the inability to afford rent individually, many families have joined together, residing in crowded accommodations. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Greta next to the window in her rental house. Due to the inability to afford rent individually, many families have joined together, residing in crowded accommodations. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.
 

Is the West the answer to Armenia’s woes?

Unable to handle the humanitarian crisis on its own and with its security constantly under threat of further Azerbaijani attacks, Armenia has –in recent months– begun diversifying its alliances’ portfolio by mainly decoupling from Russia and looking to Western partners for economic aid and security assistance.

Since the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh, repeated meetings have been taking place –in Yerevan and Western capitals alike– between Armenian officials and their Western counterparts looking to establish new economic partnerships. This culminated in a meeting between Ursula Von Der Leyen, Josep Borrell, Anthony Blinken, and Armenia’s Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, in Brussels on April 5th leading to a $293 million aid package from the EU over the next four years and another further  $65 million coming from the US.

“This shows that the European Union and Armenia are increasingly aligned in values and interests,” commented Von der Leyen during the press conference that followed the meeting. “The humanitarian situation of refugees in Armenia remains a priority…we’re ready to do more to support the long-term integration of refugees.”

In a recent meeting between US and Armenian officials in Yerevan on June 11th, the US reiterated its commitment to support ongoing efforts to accommodate refugees. “The United States acknowledges the ongoing economic and social challenges Armenia faces in supporting displaced persons and refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh and intends to continue to assist the Government of Armenia’s efforts in this regard,” reads  the press release. “The United States praised Armenia’s efforts to shelter displaced persons and refugees, and Armenia offered appreciation for the more than $21 million in humanitarian assistance the United States has provided to support displaced persons and refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh since September 2020.”

To avoid repeating history and the events of the last years and decades, Armenia is not only seeking new economic partnerships and aid, it’s also modernizing its defense capabilities. For instance, since 2020, Armenia has purchased artillery, radar, and missile systems from India and last November, France began supplying precision rifles, radars, and armored vehicles to the Armenian armed forces. “For Armenia, enhancing military capabilities is the least it can do because they can’t trust Russia anymore,” says Marylia Hushcha, a southern Caucasus and eastern Europe researcher at International Institute for Peace, a Vienna-based NGO promoting peaceful conflict resolution across the world.

Praying for a better tomorrow. Armenian youth has embraced Western values more than any other generation in the country. Despite the desire to pivot West, many feel uncertain about how, and if, this will be achieved. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Praying for a better tomorrow. Armenian youth has embraced Western values more than any other generation in the country. Despite the desire to pivot West, many feel uncertain about how, and if, this will be achieved. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

“There is this fear in Armenia that Azerbaijan may attack again in the future, especially in the south,” she continues, referring to the dispute over the Zangezur corridor, a narrow strip of land connecting Azerbaijan proper to its western region of Nakhchivan and Turkey alongside the Armenian-Iranian border.

“The decision of the Soviet government to separate West Zangezur, our historical land, from Azerbaijan and hand it over to Armenia led to the geographical separation of the Turkic world,” posted Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, on X (formerly known as Twitter). “We will implement the Zangezur corridor, whether Armenia wants it or not,” he threatened back in 2021.

The geographical location of Armenia has made finding security all the more difficult. To the East and West, it is surrounded by adversaries Azerbaijan and Turkey. To the south, it borders Iran –which despite its historically strong ties with Armenia is increasingly cooperating with Azerbaijan on a variety of infrastructure projects like the recently inaugurated Qiz Qalasi dam. “Armenia has no allies in the region whereas Azerbaijan feels secure because it has its own military power but also it has the support of Turkey,” adds Marylia via video call. “Armenia has had a military alliance with Russia which isn’t working and Azerbaijan has an alliance with Turkey that is working”. An example of this close cooperation between Azerbaijan and Turkey, Turkish-made drones supplied to the Azeri armed forces played a major role in the 2020 war and the subsequent takeover of territories surrounding Artsakh, as did the provision of arms by Israel.

“You need two armies with similar power not to start a war. By acquiring more weapons from the West, Armenia is, to some extent, trying to counter Azerbaijan’s military advantage on the battlefield and enhance its security,” Marylia tells the Center for International Policy.
 

Armenia’s Russia problem

While Armenia has been taking concrete steps to decouple from Russia, the high degree of interconnectedness between them means there is still a long way ahead before the vision of the Armenian government becomes reality.

While former Soviet republics such as Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia –all of which are now candidates to join the EU– took concrete steps in the 2010s to get closer to the West, Armenia’s government at the time decided to strengthen its cooperation with Russia. In 2013, Armenia announced it would join the Eurasian Customs Union, a free trade zone comprised of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Armenia. To this day, Armenia is officially still part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a security alliance akin to NATO formed of ex-Soviet states –although the government claims their membership is now on pause.

Graffiti showing resentment towards Russia. it reads "no water can wash the blood off putin's hands"

Graffiti showing resentment towards Russia. Many in Armenia blame Russia for leaving them vulnerable against Azerbaijan. Negative feelings against Russia will likely last for decades if not generations. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Historically, Russia has been the biggest arms exporter in the region –to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Given Armenia’s lack of indigenous military Industry, in the 2010s, 94 per cent of all the weapon imports came from Russia. This has served Moscow’s purpose of enhancing profits for its military industry and destabilizing the region. Achieving a quick modernization of its armed forces with Western equipment seems unlikely after decades of investments in Russian-manufactured gear. “The EU is not a military power and the US is unlikely to fill the gap to substitute Russia as a major weapons exporter to Armenia, especially as both are focused on Ukraine and Gaza,” Marylia comments.

Furthermore, Armenia’s former imperial power maintains control over all energy infrastructure in the country, along with key transportation systems like railways, where it continues to maintain approximately 3,000 soldiers until at least 2044. “Russia’s presence in Armenia is very strong”, explains Marylia. “Armenia is trying to reach out and connect with the West but practically it is very difficult –quite impossible I would say. It is unlikely Russia would not intervene if Armenia goes against Russian interests.”

According to Benyamin, the feasibility of this shift depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. “If Russia doesn’t lose the war, it will have more resources to look into other neighborhoods like the South Caucasus. Russia will say ‘ok guys, games are over and you were dreaming or making some steps against Russia. I am back and you will do whatever I want’. [This will happen] regardless of who is Prime Minister in Armenia.”
 

The road towards peace

The Armenian government has been signaling that it is ready to make concessions to Azerbaijan in order to reach a permanent settlement to the conflict. There have been no indications from PM Nikol Pashinyan and his environment suggesting any military action against Azerbaijan.

On the contrary, in January, the Armenian government launched the so-called ‘Crossroads for Peace’ initiative with the intention of enhancing “diplomatic initiatives, dialogue, and cultural exchange” in the South Caucasus. In an article by Armenia’s President Vahagn Khachaturyan published in the World Economic Forum, he wrote “Armenia is committed to turning the aftermath of the crisis into an opportunity for building lasting peace and promoting regional cooperation.”

“There is a belief in the Armenian government that Armenia cannot develop without normal relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. [They think] Armenia should pay whatever price to get this normalization,” adds Benyamin. Hence, in April, the Armenian government gave up four villages to Azerbaijan in the Tavush region, located in Armenian’s north, villages it had conquered from Azerbaijan during war in the 1990s.

Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan. Many families visit graveyards of soldiers on a weekly basis –mandatory military service in Armenia means many of these fallen soldiers were 20 years old or younger –a painful reality still highly present for many. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan. Many families visit graveyards of soldiers on a weekly basis –mandatory military service in Armenia means many of these fallen soldiers were 20 years old or younger –a painful reality still highly present for many. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Yet despite the government’s good intentions, it is unlikely it will sail through smooth waters. The transfer of these border villages has sparked widespread protests around the country demanding the government revert this decision. The fall of Karabakh has created a sense of humiliation in Armenian society. It is unlikely that a peace deal –signed on Azerbaijan’s terms– will provide the much anticipated lasting peace to the region.

“At the end of the day, one day there will be a new government which may want to take some of the losses back. This [one-sided deal] will be the recipe for the next Armenia-Azerbaijan war,” says Benyamin.

Center for International Policy contacted the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan and Armenia requesting comments on their respective views on the peace process. However, no responses have been received by the time of publication.

Armenia is in a weaker position than Azerbaijan militarily and politically speaking. Arguably, it needs the peace treaty more than Azerbaijan. Marylia believes the Armenian government is caught between a rock and a hard place as its approach to peace faces “resistance from the public and Azerbaijan is not the easiest negotiating partner.”

The shift to the West may try to provide the Armenian people with some economic relief and a renewed sense of security. However, it will take many decades until peace can be achieved, not only between governments but between societies, allowing cultural communication, trade, shared infrastructure, etc. “The EU [and the US] don’t have enough leverage over Azerbaijan to make it more accommodating with Armenia,” she adds. The West’s ambition is “to act as a mediator but their attempts have not worked.”