The standoff in Yerevan

The raid by Karabakh war veterans on a police station in Armenia’s capital may appear an isolated incident, but it could herald a deeper crisis.

Mikayel Zolyan
20 July 2016

19 July: Yerevan residents gather in protest near the occupied police station building. (c) Grant Khachaturyan / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved. When it comes to international media attention, this week’s dramatic events in Yerevan have been left in the shadow of the seismic developments unfolding in neighbouring Turkey.

Armenia’s complicated domestic and international situation, however, means the consequences could be unpredictable. 

What happened 

In the early hours of 17 July, an armed group, which included well-known opposition activists and veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, seized a police headquarters in the Erebuni district of Yerevan.

During the attack on the police building, there was an exchange of fire in which one senior police officer was killed, several policemen and attackers were wounded. The militants also took hostages, though some were later freed. However, by the evening of 19 July, the militants still held four hostages, including two high level police officers: the deputy chief of national police and the deputy chief of Yerevan police. Videos circulated shortly after showed that the members of the group are well armed, though it is not clear which weapons they had prior to the attack and which were captured in the police building. 

The group calls itself Sasna Dzrer (“the daredevils of Sassoon”, it can also be translated as “the madmen of Sassoon”) after an Armenian epic tale that tells the story of heroes who defy common sense by challenging and overcoming enemies far superior in strength. On the morning of the attack, the group spread its manifesto through social networks, demanding the resignation of president Serzh Sargsyan and calling for the people of Armenia to take to the streets and to start an uprising against the regime. They also demanded the release of Zhirayr Selifyan, a well-known opposition figure and Karabakh war veteran. 

The group’s criticism of the government blends concern for social justice with nationalist rhetoric, such as accusations that the authorities have betrayed Armenia’s national interests by succumbing to foreign influences

Both Sefilyan and several members of the armed group have been associated with an opposition political organisation known as “Founding Parliament”. This organisation has criticised the Armenian government for corruption and election fraud, and claimed that the situation in the country cannot be changed through elections or other democratic mechanisms, since these have been completely destroyed by the regime. They have also criticised Armenia’s other opposition parties for ineffectual methods of political struggle, particularly by participating in elections that were doomed to be falsified. Instead, Founding Parliament have advocated civil disobedience and peaceful mass protests. 

Various members of the group, including its leader Sefilyan, were detained or arrested several times with allegations of planning a coup and/or owning illegal weapons — most recently in late June. However, in Armenia the public is used to arrests of opposition activists on dubious charges, which often involve possession of illegal weapons — the arrests of Sefilyan and his friends were often perceived as a hoax. 

Indeed, Sefilyan is considered a hero of Karabakh war, and the group that stormed the police building includes other war veterans, including Pavel Manukyan, another charismatic fighter and activist. (You can find more details here.) As for group’s political views, it is hard to place the members of the group on the left-right scale. The group’s criticism of the government blends concern for social justice with nationalist rhetoric, such as accusations that the authorities have betrayed Armenia’s national interests by succumbing to foreign influences. It is obvious, however, that for the members of the group, Nagorno-Karabakh is a priority and they oppose what they call “one-sided” concessions to Azerbaijan from the Armenian side, especially after the “Four Day War” in April 2016. 

As the prospect of concessions is extremely unpopular in Armenia, and are considered verging on treason by many, this may have triggered the group’s action. However, this remains pure speculation, unconfirmed by the statements of the members of the group themselves.

Nervousness and inconsistency

Armenia’s government appears to have been caught off guard — an obvious reaction of the government would have been to use force.

However, there are good reasons to refrain from it. Several members of the group are well-armed professional soldiers with combat experience — an attack on the militants could result in heavy casualties among the special forces. Besides, the group now commands a certain level of respect among the Armenian public and, what is probably more concerning for the government, among the armed forces. So, even if such an operation was successful, it would certainly do tremendous harm to the image of the government. 

That said, the continuing standoff is also dangerous for the government. As for any authoritarian regime, it is important for Armenia’s rulers to project a sense of power, to show society that they are in control. In this sense, a prolonged situation in which a major police installation is occupied and high level police officials are held by rebels would be a blow to their image.

The government’s nervousness has resulted in a mix of inconsistent and nervous actions that have exacerbated an already complicated situation.

First of all, there have been no statements or media appearances from high level government officials so far. There have been statements on behalf of the police and national security service. But neither the president, nor members of the cabinet or leading members of the ruling Republican Party have addressed the situation.

The highest level official who has so far communicated with the public has been a deputy chief of police. TV channels have kept silent on these events for long time, and then started reporting them on them very briefly. Moreover, for a short time in the morning of 17 July, access to social networks like Facebook and Twitter was blocked. This block, however, was soon reversed, as the government probably realised that such restrictions could backfire.

It seems that the police actions have potentially set a self-perpetuating cycle of escalation in motion

Another sign of the authorities’ nervousness was the fact that, since morning of the attack, police have begun rounding up opposition activists and individuals suspected of links to “Founding Parliament”. Police also patrolled the central squares of Yerevan and other major cities, detaining people who it suspected of the intention to demonstrate in support of the militants. As a result, in two days, roughly 100 people have been detained according to human rights advocacy activists. According to opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan, so many people have been detained that there was not enough place in the police stations, so that some people were taken to the territory of police regiments, where holding detainees is illegal. In some cases, people have been beaten up, and videos showing police brutality against detainees have appeared on social networks.

Not surprisingly, the police overreaction has backfired: opposition activists came out to the streets. On the evening of 18 July, the second day of the standoff, somewhere between several hundred and a thousand protesters demonstrated in central Yerevan and clashed with the police. There was also a rally in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city.

The protesters included both those who supported the actions of the militants, as well as those who said they did not support the actions of the militants, but condemned police brutality. More detentions and more beatings followed, further angering the public. More protests followed on the third day of the standoff, with hundreds of protesters moving to the Erebuni district where the siege was taking place. More clashes followed here amid rumours (later refuted) that Russian special forces had arrived in Armenia to help the authorities to deal with the crisis. 

What is potentially even more dangerous was an incident in the neighbouring district of Sari Tagh (the Mountain Quarter), where locals clashed with the police, preventing them from entering the the area. In scenes reminiscent of the Arab Spring, people threw stones and burned tires. It seems that the police actions have potentially set a self-perpetuating cycle of escalation in motion.

Sympathy or condemnation? 

The government’s nerves are understandable. Social networks are full of statements of support for the armed group. Of course, there are also plenty of users who condemn the members of armed group terrorists, as well as those who express support for their aims, but disapprove of their methods. But there are numerous voices, from “common people” to public figures, political parties and civil society organisations, who claim that the ultimate responsibility for the current situation lies with the government, whose mismanagement of the country has led to the current situation. 

When Erdogan addressed his supporters on the day of the coup, thousands of ordinary citizens poured onto the streets to defend their leader. Sargsyan can hardly expect the same support in Armenia. While Sargsyan won two presidential elections (in 2008 and 2013) with a clear majority, in both cases the elections were marred with allegations of electoral fraud and large post-election protests.

Since then, the current government has successfully neutralised Armenia’s opposition, stripping it of access to political, financial and media resources.

Even if the current standoff is resolved successfully, it is obvious that Armenia has to undergo significant changes to prevent it from sliding into a deeper crisis

But the weakness of Armenia’s opposition does not automatically transform into support for the incumbent government. For years, the country has underperformed economically, prompting an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Armenians as migrant workers, mostly to Russia. The government has been accused of corruption, cronyism, as well as links to monopolies and so-called “oligarchs”.

The “Four Day War” between Azerbaijan and Armenia in April this year revealed that the corruption is so widespread that it affects Armenia’s military security, which had been considered a top priority for a country involved in a protracted conflict. The April war also led to erosion of support for the government in another sense: for the past two decades, many Armenians believed that, even though the government could be corrupt and ineffectual, it has at least maintained a status quo relatively preferable for Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. The events of April showed that this may not necessarily be the case: the probabilty of another escalation across the contact line is quite high and Yerevan is under pressure to make concessions in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

As ever, the situation in Yerevan and the rest of Armenia remains relatively calm. The streets of central Yerevan are full of locals and tourists enjoying their evening walk or relaxing in restaurants and cafes. Certain things may seem quite bizarre: young men with hipster beards and young women in short skirts circulating between Liberty Square, where protest rallies have taken place, and the nearby pubs on Parpetsy street, or well-dressed customers drinking “to the success of the boys” in trendy wine bars on Saryan street.

This calm can be deceptive. Tension is in the air. The cycle of escalation set in motion by the events in Erebuni and the police overreaction may soon become impossible to stop. Even if the current standoff is resolved successfully, it is obvious that Armenia has to undergo significant changes to prevent it from sliding into a deeper crisis. 

How can marginalisation of activism fuel violence? Armine Ishkanian gives further context to the events in Yerevan

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