Armenia Surmounts New Challenges In Consolidating Democracy
A Summer of Unrest
This summer, the Armenian capital of Yerevan was rocked by two weeks of continued civil disobedience which began on the 17th of July, 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 lead to the death of 3 police officers, and the capture of 8 hostages (including the infamous deputy-chief of Police, Valery Osipyan) ending with the gunmen’s surrender on the 31st of the same month.
The gunmen, most of which are celebrated veterans of the 1990-1994 Karabakh War, have called for the liberation of Jirair Sefilian, a fellow Karabakh 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 Serj 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 moustachioed Pavel Manookian, an iconic hero of the Karabakh War, expressed the motives behind the take-over: questioning President Serj Sargsyan’s legitimacy, and accusing him of having failed to improve the lives of the Armenian people.
A History of Taking up Arms for Justice
The hostage crisis has lead to considerable controversy and division amongst the Armenian public, tapping into deep-held resentment against the current government. This spurred vivid discussions 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”.
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 6th-century Armenian epic, “The Devils of Sassoun”, which chronicles the feats of the indomitable Sassountsis, who for generations fiercely defended their autonomy from Arab invaders.
The notion that desperate means call for desperate measures has long resonated amongst Armenian revolutionaries, culminating in hostage crises, all similar to this one, including the 1896 occupation of Bank Ottoman, the 1983 Lisbon Embassy take-over and the 1985 Turkish embassy take-over in Ottawa.
Armenia itself isn’t unfamiliar with violent attempts at regime change. Nairi Hunanyan, the leader of a group which killed 8 deputies in 1998, including Prime Minister, and Karabakh 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”.
Stirring the Pot of Social Unrest
There was no immediate response by public officials to the gunmens’ call for an uprising, existing ones were mostly restricted to Founding Parliament sympathisers. Many remained hesitant to take the side of the gunmen due to disagreement with their violent methods, despite identifying with their cause.
Within days, calls by liberal opposition leaders such as Nikol Pashinyan for non-violent civil disobedience were sidelined by more radical voices. This rift over peaceful regime change versus 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.”
Silence and heavy-handed Response by the State
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 not to risk escalating the situation. Armoured vehicles and SWAT teams maintained a strict perimeter around the compound, exchanging sporadic gunfire and negotiated the release of hostages. In contrary, police response to demonstrators was much more incoherent.
Violent confrontations with protesters during the first few nights in Erebuni’s blue-collar ‘Sari Tagh’ neighbourhood as well as random arrests of bystanders on the street by security forces, helped to incite larger protests. The number of demonstrators began to swell into the tens of thousands: those who were reluctant at first to show support for the gunmen had been overcome their fear after the use of force by police became excessive. This threatened to further destabilise the situation.
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 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. 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, forcing the President to call an inquiry into these actions.
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 – after a massive protest blocked the major thoroughfares across the city – 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 seek a forum to vent their grievances.
Armenia-watchers 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 “.
After coming to power in the wake of the Great Recession, the Sargsyan government scored a few successes, including increasing freedom of expression, the digitisation and streamlining of government services, modes but toothless police reform, and greatly improving the business climate in the country.
Despite these reforms, eight years worth of data has 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%, poverty has increased by 11%, foreign direct investment had steadily declined by almost 73%, while up to 300 000 people are estimated to have emigrated during the Sargsyan presidency according to the Armenian National Statistical Service.
Initially scattered protests gradually transformed into a large-scale organised opposition movement, criticising the administration for the slow pace of reform and inability to tackle government corruption. President Sargsyan has aknowledged his government’s failure in dealing with these issues numerous times, but failed to act decisively to alleviate these issues.
The Effect of the 4-day war
Concerns about government incompetence were highlighted when Armenian forces successfully repelled a surprise incursion by Azerbaijani troops into the unrecognised (but Armenian-controlled) Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh over a 4 day period in April. The revelation that many casualties could have been avoided if troops in the field had been issued with proper communication- and night-vision equipment fostered the notion that corruption and ineptitude should be seen as a national security issue.
These events, analysed within the context of three consecutive years of large-scale popular displays of non-confidence in the government have lead Yerevan-based analyst Richard Giragosian to describe the current situation as “almost inevitable because the current regime is ruling, not governing the country”.
Sargsyan 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. During a press conference he called for a “thorough investigation, a comprehensive and unbiased examination, and an open trial”. A parliamentary reshuffle also followed suit.
In the wake of the recent standoff, Armenian politics has entered a new phase. Despite these hurdles, the country’s democratic credentials far surpass those of most neighbouring states, and civil society is showing signs of democratic maturity, even though a clear trajectory to this end has not yet been achieved.
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 MNA Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party, and Edmond Manoukian’s Bright Armenia party, who 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.
Picture: Creative Commons DubeFranz
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