Aftermath of Armenia’s Hostage Standoff: Quest for Change Picks Up Momentum


Richard Giragosian

Richard Giragosian

By Olya Yordanyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BOSTON — A mere few months after an Azeri attack blindsided Nagorno Karabagh and Armenia, resulting in 92 deaths and hundreds of injuries, a two-week hostage standoff took place, leaving three dead and dozens injured.

The situation is contained for now. The 31 members of the Daredevils of Sassoun, an armed opposition group, who had seized a police station in Yerevan and taken hostages, had demanded the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan and the release of Zhirayr Sefilian, a Lebanese-born Armenian oppositionist who had won distinction in the Karabagh War in the 1990s.

“We surrender, as we don’t want bloodshed,” the group’s spokesperson Varuzhan Avetisyan announced when the group surrendered last week.

The message the group sent out to the public was clear: a call for “civil disobedience,” sparked by their takeover. And people keep on rallying in quest for a change, despite fears of arrest, suppression and reprisals.

In the meantime, Sargsyan, who kept silent during the takeover, hinted at hope for change and reforms on his August 1 speech.

“The time has come to draw conclusions. A full analysis of these events will take a long time,” he said. “However one thing is clear: the process of the radical changes in Armenia’s social and political life must be expedited.”

Following the president’s statement, a few officials were dissmissed and Prosecutor General Gevorg Kostanyan resigned.

While there is some hope for change, given the president’s statement and on-going protests, people ask: “What is next?” There have been a couple of movements over the past a few years that eventually declined. And the echo of previous movements is still in the air.

Dr. Stepan Grigoryan, director of Analytical Centre on Globalization and Regional Cooperation, a think tank and advocacy group, foresees progress in this movement.

“There is no way back. There will be smaller or bigger rallies, but this process will stimulate and lead to change of authorities,” Grigoryan said during a Skype interview.

He added that current developments in Nagorno-Karabagh conflict and absence of trust towards the authorities are two main causes for further growth of the popular unrest.

“Authorities crossed the limit of trust. Nobody believes them,” Dr. Grigoryan concluded.

Garegin Choogaszian, president of the Founding Parliament, who is in hiding deems civil disobedience is a successful mean of political struggle.

“We are sure that peaceful mass civil disobedience is the main method for the political system change,” Choogaszian said in an online interview.

But Choogaszian sees a “short window of opportunity” for authorities to understand the “open wounds” and seek an immediate treatment, as the confrontation slows down.

Richard Giragosian, director of Regional Studies Center, a Yerevan-based think tank, and a longtime critic of the government, links the government’s ability “to heed the warning signs and embrace the necessity for real reform” to the country’s stability.

“But with an obvious end to apathy, Armenian civic activists are no longer content with the egregious levels of corruption and authoritarian rule,” Giragosian added.

Regardless to the outcome of protests, the standoff itslef has already immensly influenced the country’s political envirnment.

Dr. Sergey Minasyan, a political scientist and deputy director of the Caucasus Institute, a policy think tank aimed at involving young people in the political system,  believes that Armenia’s “hybrid, semi-authoritarian” political system cannot remain the same after the crisis.

“It might either lead to a change of authorities and revolutionary processes or the authorities will go down the authoritarian path, even against their will,” he said.

Minasyan said he doubts that the authorities will make a shift towards more democratic reforms.

“I think we will have a more closed and restrained authoritarian and power tendencies,” Minasyan added. “The authorities are not ready for the level of radical reforms the society expects them to carry out.”

The Armenian Embassy in Washington did not answer questions regarding the events in Armenia, citing the heavy commitments of the ambassador.

Although the stability holds for now, serious international or domestic developments could undermine it.