YEREVAN, Armenia -- Armenia's leader is facing a tough challenge at the polls after a humiliating defeat for Armenian forces in last year's fighting with Azerbaijan over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Moscow-brokered agreement ended six weeks of fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, but saw Azerbaijan reclaim control over large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas that had been held by Armenian forces for more than a quarter-century.
The deal was celebrated as a major triumph in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, but thousands of Armenians took to the streets in Yerevan and denounced it as a betrayal of their national interests.
“This is very much a referendum or an election defined by security — or more correctly, insecurity — given the unexpected and very much unprecedented loss in the war for Nagorno-Karabakh,” Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center, told The Associated Press. “The attack by Azerbaijan, with Turkish military support, has redefined the political landscape in Armenia.”
Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but was under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by the government in Yerevan since a separatist war between the two Caucasus Mountains neighbors ended in 1994, leaving the region and substantial surrounding territory in Armenian hands.
Hostilities flared in late September 2020, and the Azerbaijani military pushed deep into Nagorno-Karabakh and nearby areas in six weeks of fighting involving heavy artillery and drones that killed more than 6,000 people.
Pashinyan, who came to power after leading large street protests in 2018 that ousted his predecessor, has defended the deal as a painful but necessary move that prevented Azerbaijan from overrunning the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region.
He stepped down as prime minister as required by law to hold the early vote but has remained in charge as acting prime minister.
In Sunday's election, more than 2,000 polling stations will open across Armenia, with nearly 2.6 million people eligible to vote. The ballot includes 21 political parties and four electoral blocs, but two political forces are seen as the main contenders: the ruling Civic Contract party led by Pashinyan and the Armenia alliance, led by former President Robert Kocharyan.
Both have used harsh rhetoric while campaigning. Kocharyan suggested a duel against Pashinyan “with any type of weapon” instead of debates, while Pashinyan brandished a hammer at his rallies, promising “political vendettas” and staff purges, referring to officials supporting the opposition as “rusty nails.”
Recent media reports cite polls showing Pashinyan’s party and Kocharyan’s bloc neck and neck, and it's unclear if either will be able to win 54% of parliament seats necessary to form a government.
Pashinyan, a 46-year-old former journalist, seemingly continues to enjoy broad support despite the humiliating defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh and demonstrations demanding his resignation. When opposition protests swelled in Yerevan, he drew thousands into the streets to rally in his support.
During his final campaign rally Thursday, Pashinyan told supporters in Yerevan that he has visited “all corners” of Armenia and spoken to “tens of thousands of people.”
“After eight months of hell, exhausted and followed by threats, curses and insults, we entered this election race. And the Armenian people welcomed us, as one welcomes relatives returning from captivity,” Pashinyan told a crowd of about 20,000.
Kocharyan, a Nagorno-Karabakh native who was president between 1998 and 2008, ran on promises of reinforcing the country’s shaken security, encouraging economic growth and reconciling a society divided by the war and the political tensions.
“We must overcome the loser complex,” Kocharyan said at a campaign rally. “We’re rejecting the crisis, rejecting the hatred, rejecting life on our knees!”
Alexander Iskandaryan, founding director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, believes that those who would vote for Kocharyan don't support him as much as they dislike Pashinyan. “It’s not about people who love Kocharyan. Maybe there are some, but not a lot. The majority of people who would vote for Kocharyan are people who hate Pashinyan,” Iskandaryan told the AP.
Voters, in the meantime, remain polarized.
Some continue to back Pashinyan and believe it is time to leave the bitter defeat behind.
“The back of our nation is broken, but we are strong. We have already seen three wars. But life goes on and we will always honor those who died,” said Nelli Karapetyan, a Pashinyan supporter from the city of Sisian.
Others say Kocharyan needs to win in order for Armenia to do well. “We want Armenia to be strong, ... and all prisoners of war to come back. I want Kocharyan to be elected and Armenia to prosper," Mariam Gevorgyan told the AP at a rally Friday.
“We came (to the rally) to free our homeland from the defeatist (Pashinyan),” added Narek Markosyan, who also attended the rally. “He can't stay, period. Just period. He can't stay in our homeland.”
And some cannot get past the war with Azerbaijan.
Anahit Aleqyan, a 65-year-old from the village of Shurnkh in southern Armenia, says she will “vote for anyone who will make (Azerbaijan President Ilham) Aliyev shut up.”
Her village was cut in two by a newly defined border with Azerbaijan, and she lost her house in the peace deal.
“Every day I come here to gather thyme, look at (my house) and cry,” she lamented.
Associated Press writer Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed.