By Raffi Elliot
The Armenian capital has been rocked by two weeks of continued civil disobedience which began on July 17, as 30 armed veterans, calling themselves “Sasna Dzrer” after the Armenian epic of the same name, crashed a dump-truck through the gates of a police depot in the Yerevan district of Erebuni. A brief gunfight led to the death of Police Colonel Artur Vanoyan and the capture of eight hostages (including the infamous deputy-chief of police, Valery Osipyan) as well as the capture of the facility by the gunmen. The gunmen, most of which are celebrated veterans of the 1990-1994 Karabagh War, have called for the liberation of Jirair Sefilian, a fellow Karabagh War commander-turned-activist, who heads a fringe political faction known as the Founding Parliament. The hostage-takers initially also called for the immediate resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan and Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian as a precondition for further negotiations, before dropping this condition entirely.
In a press statement, the gunmen’s leader, the mustachioed Pavel Manukian, an iconic hero of the Karabagh War, expressed the motives behind the take-over: questioning President Sargsyan’s legitimacy, and accusing him of having failed to improve the lives of the Armenian people. Rumors that the Armenian government was succumbing to Russian pressure to hand over land in Nagorno-Karabagh to Azerbaijan as part of a potential peace deal have also affected their decision to act. Manukian (or ‘Pavlik’ as he is affectionately nicknamed by his supporters) ended his message by saying “We are doing this for you. This is the path we’ve taken. Come out on the streets, that is our wish,” calling on the Armenian people to rise up in protest.
Social Debate and Causes
The hostage crisis has lead to considerable controversy, and division amongst the Armenian public, tapping into deep-held resentment against the current government while spurring vivid debate within society between those who considered these acts to be terrorism, or vigilantism, and others who saw their actions as necessary, or even heroic; echoing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s famous adage: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
The gunmen’s reputation as fedayee and war heroes from the Karabagh War made it difficult for the authorities to paint them as foreign-funded elements trying to destroy the foundations of Armenian society, as they had done with more liberal protesters in the past. They represent the very ideals of Armenian masculinity and patriotism that the government had been touting for so many years. Armenian culture is permeated with stories of small groups of desperate radicals, armed with bravado, fighting against immeasurable odds for the sake of liberating the Armenian nation.
Indeed, the name which the gunmen have adopted invokes the memory of the sixth-century Armenian epic, The Daredevils of Sasun, which chronicles the feats of the indomitable Sasuntsis, who, for generations fiercely defended their autonomy from Arab invaders. In recent history, the tales of the Armenian fedayi who fought to protect Armenian dignity and for national liberation from competing turn-of-the-century empires have been romanticized in Armenian collective memory, with songs and poems singing their praises.
The notion that desperate means call for desperate measures has long resonated amongst Armenian revolutionaries, culminating in hostage crises, not unlike this one, including the 1896 occupation of Bank Ottoman, the 1983 Lisbon Embassy takeover (the 33rd anniversary of which coincided with the current crisis), and the 1985 Turkish embassy takeover in Ottawa. The gunmen themselves were amongst the first to take up arms to fight a guerrilla war against Soviet and Azerbaijani forces engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabagh, a feat which Baku condemns as an unlawful and terrorist act.
Armenia itself is not unfamiliar with violent attempts at regime change. Nairi Hunanyan, the leader of a group which killed 8 deputies in 1998, including Prime Minister and Karabagh War hero Vazgen Sargsyan, and Speaker Karen Demirchyan, proclaimed that their actions were intended to “punish the authorities for what they are doing to the nation.”
Though the ‘Sasna Dzrer’ in particular do command a lot of respect both within Armenian society as well as within the armed forces, the political faction which they are associated with, the “Founding Parliament,” has largely been considered a fringe group by pundits, and has failed to gather a large following, or public sympathy. The group (which in its four year existence has repeatedly changed names, going by “Sardarabad Initiative,” “Pre-Parliament,” “Founding-Parliament,” “Armenian Renaissance,” and the “New Armenia Public Salvation Front”) believes that all peaceful methods of political transition have been exhausted, and argues for violent revolution as a last resort.
Their plan calls for a transitional government, run by Jirair Sefilian and a group of pre-selected technocrats until they deem it appropriate to allow for a new multiparty system. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with the government, many have expressed skepticism about the armed group’s methods, as well as the Founding-Parliament’s capacity to engage in genuine democratic transition, citing Jirair Sefilian’s lack of governing experience since his time as a military commander during the War.
Initial public response to the gunmen’s call for an uprising was lagging, and mostly restricted to Founding Parliament sympathizers. Many remained hesitant to take the side of the gunmen, despite identifying with their cause, due to disagreement with their violent methods. Within days, prominent lawmaker Nikol Pashinyan, who had gained praise for his efforts to de-escalate the tense standoff with riot police, called for a peaceful rally near the site of the hostage crisis, only to be dismissed by the more radical protest leaders (including Founding-Parliament and former Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia members) who feared that he had gained too much popularity over the issue, and risked “hijacking” their movement for political gain.
This rift over peaceful regime change vs. violent overthrow was exemplified when Pashinyan’s suggestion that “a peaceful nationwide campaign backed by the majority of Armenians can force Sargsyan to quit” was shot down by Varujan Avetisian who retorted “You can fight against a dictatorship only with arms. There is no other option.”
The Authorities’ Response
Throughout the siege, the police, apparently aware of the large sway the Sasna Dzrer carried, were careful not to kill any of the gunmen for fear of turning them into martyrs, and risk escalating the situation. This was evidenced by the fact that all of the wounded gunmen had received carefully inflicted wounds in the leg.
While armored vehicles and SWAT groups maintained a strict perimeter around the compound, exchanging sporadic gunfire, and at times, negotiating the release of the final two hostages, police response to demonstrators was much more incoherent. Violent confrontations with protesters in the first few nights in Erebuni’s blue-collar ‘Sari Tagh’ neighbourhood which included the use of flash-bang and concussion grenades, as well as random arrests of bystanders off the street by security forces, helped to incite larger protests.
The number of demonstrators began to swell as those whose previous reluctance to show support for the gunmen had been overcome by frustration with an excessive use of force by the police, threatening to further destabilize the situation. Two weeks of nightly protests in downtown Yerevan and the Erebuni district saw crowds of up to 10,000 people take to the streets. A lack of coherent leadership and precise goals amongst the demonstrators, exasperated by a series of arrests of protest leaders by police contrasted with complete silence on the part of the president and senior government officials to contribute to a leadership crisis.
The situation reached a focal point on the night of the 29th of July when riot police charged peaceful protesters with the help of plain clothed, iron rod wielding bodyguards of a pro-government MP. Journalists from CivilNet and Radio Free Europe were also beaten in what proved to be a targeted attack on the press. As riot police began methodically searching for and arresting any young men in the Sari Tagh neighborhood, one bystander lost an eye, while a little girl’s dress caught fire after a flash-bang grenade went off. Police also arrested demonstrators while they were receiving treatment at the hospital.
These acts were widely condemned by RFE/RL, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders, leading the president to eventually call an inquiry into these actions. By Saturday, the gunmen ignored an ultimatum, and a second police officer was killed in yet unclear circumstances. The protests culminated in a large-scale demonstration, which blocked Baghramyan Avenue for a number of hours (where one man was self-immolated, and eventually succumbed to his wounds). The gunmen finally announced, on Sunday, that they were ready to “end their armed struggle” claiming to have achieved their goal of inciting a public uprising, bringing an end to a 15-day standoff.
Causes and motivations
Pundits have noted that despite the appearance of an outpouring of support for the gunmen by the general public, the continuous protests over the last two weeks reveal a deeper undercurrent of frustration within the country. Dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the economy, the country’s security situation, as well as a lack of dialogue with civil society has lead many to search for any forum to vent their grievances. Observers have linked the current state of unrest with a failure of the social contract between the Government and its citizens.
Protesters have pointed out that the Sargsyan administration has had a poor record of dealing with some of the most pressing issues facing the nation. Indeed, in his inaugural speech, following a hotly contested, and deeply controversial election process in 2008 in which 10 people lost their lives, President Sargsyan called for unity in order to achieve “reconciliation, development, and future of Armenia.” He also pledged to fight against rampant corruption, nepotism, and soviet-era bureaucratic practices warning that “tax evasion and corruption must be regarded as a disgraceful and condemnable phenomenon.”
Despite Sargsyan’s first term being marred by the wake of the Great Recession, which, due to unsound fiscal policies of the previous administration, disproportionately affected Armenia, and triggering a new wave of out-migration, certain early successes did help distinguish this new government from its predecessor. Under Sargsyan, restrictions on freedom of the press, and public demonstrations were greatly relaxed, resulting in the flourishing of civil society, while close cooperation with European Union and USAID advisors resulted in the creation of e-governance mechanisms, reducing small-scale corruption in the business sector, in addition to streamlining state bureaucracy.
The nomination of the non-partisan former head of the Central Bank, Tigran Sargsyan, as a technocratic prime minister also served to mend differences. He oversaw a considerable improvement of the business climate in Armenia, as the country now ranks as the number one place in Europe to start a business. The effects of modest police reform have also gained recognition.
Although these reforms garnered praise from international observers, much of their effects failed to trickle down to common citizens, who saw their real incomes stall, and economic opportunities dissipate. A lack of serious political will to tackle large-scale corruption and nepotism, as well as reluctance to dismantle prominent commodity-based cartels with links to government officials proved to be a veritable stumbling block for sustainable progress, affecting both real economic growth, as well as a growing feeling of disenfranchisement amongst citizens.
This growing sense of resentment towards real or perceived government impunity materialized itself outside the traditional political sphere, into a wave of increasingly well-organized and principled civil dissent directed towards the Sargsyan administration. Small-scale yet successful protests against restrictions on street vending, and environmental concerns, such as the Mashtots Park protests, gradually culminated in sustained protest actions by the president’s second term.
Though some have criticized opponents of the government for being too impatient for change, or overly cynical, statistical data has substantiated a great deal of these grievances. In the eight years since Sargsyan has been at the helm, indicators have shown that progress has slowed down considerably. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) levels have not yet recovered from the Recession, unemployment rose from 16.4 to 18.5 percent, poverty has increased by 11 percent, foreign direct investment had steadily declined by almost 73 percent, while up to 300,000 people are estimated to have emigrated during the Sargsyan presidency according to the Armenian National Statistical Service.
The fact that Armenia has made only superficial progress in tackling corruption, judicial reform, and democratic consolidation in the past 8 years, according to the Freedom House Index, which classifies Armenia as a “semi-consolidated authoritarians state,” has contributed to a general sense of frustration, due to a feeling of being shut out of any participation in the policy-formulation process. This feeling of disenfranchisement has rendered people susceptible to more ‘radical’ alternatives.
Effect of the Four-day War
President Sargsyan has acknowledged these shortcomings, calling for patience and trust in the government’s ability to address these issues in the 2012 parliamentary campaign, and again during his successful reelection bid in 2013. The party’s slogans in the last two elections “Believe to Change,” and “Towards a Safer Armenia” convey the message that the ruling Republicans are aware of their policy failures while seeking to portray Sargsyan as the “National Security President.” In essence, Sargsyan’s entire platform in his second term has been characterized by selling shortcomings to the public as sacrifices for the sake of national security.
Armenia’s 2013 rejection of a free trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer relations with Russia, for instance, was justified as a necessary decision to strengthen Armenia’s position in Artsakh.
If the government and its apologists could count on national unity and internal stability in the face of foreign existential threats as an excuse not to clean house in the past, the four-day conflict with Azerbaijan in April of this year fundamentally changed this dynamic.
Corruption and bureaucratic ineptitude are now understood to be a much bigger national security threat than internal dissent. Though Armenian forces successfully repelled the aggressors, reports that many casualties could have been avoided had the frontline servicemen been issued with modern detection and night-vision equipment lead to accusations of corruption and mismanagement by the government. By admitting that Armenian forces had lost some eight square meters of land in the fighting, Sargsyan had lost his last leg to stand on. The “National Security President” became the only leader in post-independence Armenia to have presided over a loss of territory.
Sargsyan, who, unlike his predecessors, is known for his more reserved nature, attempted to appease critics in the same way he had dealt with them in the past: by punishing a number of scapegoats (in this case three generals), and calling for more reform, in the hope of returning to the status quo.
These events, within the context of three consecutive years of large-scale popular displays of non-confidence in the government has lead Yerevan-based analyst Richard Giragosian to describe the current situation as “almost inevitable because the current regime is ruling, not governing the country,” as opposition gains momentum.
The police’s erratic behavior, which included excessive use of force, and deliberate targeting of journalists, added to a complete lack of guidance by senior officials, has only helped widen the divide between the government and an increasingly disenfranchised civil society. The president finally made his first public appearance a day after the gunmen laid down their arms, ending the two-week standoff.
In a press conference, he called for a “thorough investigation, a comprehensive and unbiased examination, and an open trial.” He condemned the gunmen’s actions, stating that Yerevan is no Beirut, or Aleppo, where policy can be manipulated by force of arms, all the while acknowledging that these actions served as a wake-up call that reforms need to be expedited.
Analysts have warned that the president’s consolatory speech may not be enough to quell the situation, arguing that it has become too dangerous for the government to continue to ignore mounting public frustration. It is crucial for the government and civil society groups to return to a mood for moderation, concession and compromise, as the president’s final term comes to a close.
In the wake of the recent standoff, Armenian politics have entered a new phase. Though there is now a general consensus that the current government needs to go, credible alternatives are still hard to come by. In the meantime, public support has shifted from older political opposition groups, such as the liberal Heritage Party, and the Armenian National Congress towards newer factions such as noted National Assembly member Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party, and Edmond Manukian’s Bright Armenia party, which promise a more professional approach to opposition politics in the run-up to the 2017 parliamentary elections, the first since the signing of a new constitutional reform package.