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Protests roil in Armenia following military takeover of ethnic enclave in Azerbaijan

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We turn now to Armenia, which continues to see refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan pour across the border. The ethnic Armenian enclave declared independence from Azerbaijan in the waning days of the Soviet Union and has been the scene of conflict ever since. An attack by Azerbaijani forces earlier this month led to the capitulation of the Nagorno-Karabakh government and the exit of most of the enclave's Armenian population.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is now in the Armenian capital of Yerevan and joins us now. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what are you seeing and hearing there? What are people saying?

KENYON: Well, many people are unhappy with the government's handling of this whole situation. Some people are saying they feel abandoned. Things, though, have gotten a bit quieter recently. There were these mass demonstrations here in Yerevan. Now things are sort of quieting down in the last couple of days. Revolutionary Square (ph) was busy tonight, but not anything like a demonstration, except for one very small group calling for universal peace.

There are also relief efforts going on. I came across a group of young volunteers offering food and soft drinks that they say were donated by communities from around the country. Fifteen-year-old Harcun says he felt he had to do something, and he found some others feeling the same way. Here's how he put it.

HARCUN: I'm not alone. I'm with my friend, and I know almost everyone from here. I'm here to help my country, people from my country who are in trouble.

KENYON: Now, there are similar efforts going on here and bigger ones down at the border. And people seem to be gravitating towards attempts big and small aimed at helping others. How long that might last is hard to predict.

CHANG: Well, now that the Armenian government in Nagorno-Karabakh has said it will dissolve itself and cease to exist, basically, what does that mean for the future?

KENYON: Well, people are saying it appears Armenians who do stay in Nagorno-Karabakh would have no choice but to live under Azerbaijani rule. And Baku has said it's ready to govern fairly, but after so many years of mistrust and tension, serious doubts linger. People here in Armenia find it hard to believe that large numbers of ethnic Armenians would take that offer seriously. And of course, Azerbaijan has its grievances as well. In the early '90s, when the ethnic Armenians established this enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh, thousands of Azerbaijanis were killed or displaced.

Now, people here in Armenia say they expect most ethnic Armenians to make the journey to Armenia, some for the first time, most likely. The numbers have continued to rise day by day. The government here says more than 97,000 refugees have crossed out of Nagorno-Karabakh so far, and that's in an enclave that was estimated to hold about 120,000 ethnic Armenians in total.

CHANG: Well, what could all of this mean for the government there in Yerevan?

KENYON: That is also a big common theme among people I've talked to here. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is blamed for mishandling the situation. His traditional ally, Russia, did nothing to stop the Azerbaijani attack, and that had been seen as shocking to some. They thought of it as an alliance stretching all the way back to the days of what historians call the 1915 Armenian Genocide at the hands of Ottoman forces.

But beyond that, Western countries also failed to come to Pashinyan's aid, and people here are wondering where their leaders will turn to chart a path forward. Some wonder if the Armenian prime minister has much of a political future left. But few here seem to be relishing an internal political fight in Armenia right now, saying that hardly seems likely to contribute to healing scars and getting past the events of recent days.

CHANG: That is NPR's Peter Kenyon in Yerevan, Armenia. Thank you so much, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.