9. Aug 2016  |  Eastern Partnership  |  Armenia

After a failed military coup in Turkey, another unexpected drama of this summer took place in neighbouring Armenia. Although it received much less coverage in the global media, its implications are also important for the wider region and beyond, argues Jan Cingel (who personally witnessed the recent events in Yerevan) in the following policy brief.

The hostage crisis at the end of July 2016 highlighted so-called “Karabakh syndrome” in Armenian internal politics, and might kill the short-lived window of opportunity for diplomatic conflict resolution in Nagorno Karabakh following the ‘small war’ in April this year with hundreds of casualties. External factors were intertwined with domestic politics leading to more radicalisation within the Armenian society before the upcoming parliamentary elections in spring 2017 and the end of the mandate of President Serj Sargsyan. More civic upheaval, as well as the potential renewal of clashes on the borders with Azerbaijan, could be expected in the near future.   

Armenia, small South Caucasus country of around three million citizens, is a victim of geopolitics – locked in violent conflict over Nagorno Karabakh with Azerbaijan; having more than sour relations with other neighbour – Turkey, with a population of over 75 million - due to its support of ethnically related Azeris in the conflict and century long feud over the “genocide of Armenians” from the last days of the Ottoman Empire. This determines the country’s foreign relations – a marriage of convenience with Russia to balance the potential threats from Turkey and militarily stronger Azerbaijan. Armenia refused to sign the free trade agreement with the EU in September 2013 but, unlike in Ukraine, it did not lead to any major public upheaval (such as the Euromaidan protests) in its support. The country is now part of Russia’s counter-weight to NATO in the post-Soviet space – the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), has at least two Russian military bases on its own territory and it is Russia’s foothold in the South Caucasus region. Since January 2015 it is also a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and Russian capital controls almost everything that has any value within the Armenian economy. The country has careful relations with the West though – as it possesses a huge diaspora living abroad especially in countries like Russia, the US, France and the Middle East. More Armenians are actually living abroad than in the country itself. The country is not only a victim of the geopolitics but also of its own internal politics. As many post-Soviet countries it struggles with democratic transition, rule of law is weak, and the state is captured by the oligarchic system tied to the governing elites. The system is characterized by omnipresent corruption, impunity of the few, difficult living conditions for the many, a high rate of unemployment, lack of jobs and, connected with that, emigration and brain drain. No wonder that many people are more than dissatisfied, some even to the point that they lifted up arms against the Government. During the past weeks the country was rocked by a hostage crisis - dubbed by the government officials as a “coup attempt” - that brought the discussion about the difficult situation within the country to a whole new level. By coincidence I spent the last two weeks of July in Yerevan and therefore had a unique opportunity to observe events developing from up close.   

Hostage crisis

On July 17, 2016 a group of 31 heavily armed Armenian veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh war calling themselves “Daredevils of Sassoun” (arm: “Sasna Tsrerhere) took-over a base of the Police special forces battalion on the suburb of Yerevan – Erebuni. The attack resulted in the death of one police officer, a number of others wounded and others taken as hostages. The following hostage situation lasted for over two weeks until July 31, when the remaining members of the armed group surrendered.

The group of gunmen was affiliated with a fringe nationalistic, non-parliamentary, opposition movement calling themselves “The Founding Parliament” led by another war veteran Zhirair Sefilyan. Sefilyan was arrested on June 20, 2016 for illegal possession of weapons, when he was discovered after a car accident having two AK-47s and couple of hundreds bullets with him - in a country with strict laws on the possession of weapons by civilians. Subsequent home-searches revealed that they were planning an armed take-over of the Radio-TV transmission tower in Yerevan and staging a siege in order to get their strong anti-government messages to the public.

Basically something similar did his followers, when they took the police compound in Erebuni. After that gunmen published their demands in video spread through social media – requesting the release of Sefilyan from detention and resignation of the President of Armenia Serj Sargsyan and his administration. As they claimed, Sargsyan’s government lost legitimacy due to corruption, misuse of power, impoverishment of the people of Armenia and because they are supposed to compromise with Azerbaijan on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict resolution by ceding some of the controlled territory.

Most of the gunmen were war veterans of the Karabakh conflict from the 90s, some of them highly decorated and influential. Most of the population perceived them as heroes – kind of a Robin Hood situation, where the government and its security forces were seen as villains and “Daredevils” as good heroes of the common people. The gunmen asked the public to support them and go to streets, and quite a few did though mostly because of the demand for the Government to step down, not that they would necessarily support the “Daredevils” and their violent stunt. There’s strong discontent among the Armenian society with the current administration and the number of dissatisfied people is growing. There will also be a constitutional change put into place after the general elections in May next year – the current quasi-Presidential system will be changed into a fully Parliamentary system. The opposition sees in this move another attempt by the current government to maintain power, since President Sargsyan cannot run for the office third-time.

Police blocked protesters’ access anywhere near to the seized police compound, which led to clashes with protesters on July 20 and very violent clashes on the night of July 29, when the crowd divided and tried to approach the compound from two different directions. Police used brutal force to disperse the crowd and engaged in mass detention of protesters that resulted in a number of arrests and serious injuries. Even preventive detainment of many opposition activists – including Armen Martirosyan, Davit Sanasaryan, Hovsep Khurshudyan and Andrias Ghukasyan - was employed.

After that, the police managed to seal off the police compound, kept protesters away, was blocking the phone signal on spot and thus those holding the compound were unable to communicate with the outside world. The protesters did not know what was going on in that part of the city. Police could do there whatever they pleased around the compound.

During 15 days of the siege 11 gunmen were either wounded by the police, taken to hospital and subsequently detained, or they surrendered. On July 30 another police officer was killed under suspicious circumstances. The remaining 20 gunmen surrendered the next day in the late afternoon – they laid down their weapons and were detained.    

Impact of the hostage crisis on Armenia:

1. The “Karabakh syndrome” determining Armenia’s internal politics. One of the demands of the gunmen was that Armenia shall not compromise on resolving the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and “shall not give back a square centimetre of land that they won from Turks (as Armenians refer pejoratively to Azeris) and paid for by own blood”. These views found quite a strong reflection among the Armenian population. “Karabakh syndrome” is an integral part of Armenia’s national identity and it is strengthened from time-to-time to solidify national unity in times of crises or when the Government needs to reinforce its own support. It is paradoxical that the current Armenian administration came to power thanks to the policy of “no-compromise” on the Karabakh issue in late 90s and that many of the highest officials – including President Sargsyan - come from Karabakh.

This limits the manoeuvring space for Armenian diplomacy to accept potential compromise on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict resolution, especially now, when Russia seems to be pushing for a diplomatic break-through on the issue. However, with upcoming elections and growing populist and quasi-opposition nationalist movements like the “Founding Parliament”, it will be very difficult, if even possible, for the Armenian government to sell a compromise on Nagorno Karabakh to the public. This could lead to maintaining a 20 years long status-quo, but as the April “small war” has shown, Azerbaijan is losing patience and can continue to test Armenia’s defences along the contact line. That, coupled with quite a weak response from the international community and also Russia (Armenians were expecting more help in April and stronger reaction from their “strategic partner”), could lead to renewed outbursts of violence and even open confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

2. Acceptance of violence as a tool of political conduct in Armenia. The most disturbing lesson-learned from the “Erebuni stand-off” is that a significant part of Armenian society is so fed up with the current administration and at the same time does not see a peaceful way of changing it through ballots (there is a high perception of electoral corruption), that they resorted to violence or support of the use of it for political aims. Even some leaders of the political opposition (including those liberal and pro-Western) went to the streets in support of the gunmen because they saw their desperate act as a possibility to further mobilize the public to finally change the Government. Other opposition figures openly rejected violence but they joined protests for the sake of changing of the government.

Discontent among the political and civic opposition with the Government is understandable, but on the other hand, even silent support of this kind of armed attempt to seize the power can blow-back. Every time an armed group of citizens think that any Armenian Government is doing something wrong, they will go out into the streets and stage a violent coup. This is definitively not the constructive way especially because Armenia has seen bloody attempts to seize power in the past already.

3. Growth of Armenian nationalism and radicalism. There is growing perception that mainstream political parties and politicians are not able to deliver solutions for the problems Armenia is currently facing, therefore they look up to those who offer quick patches for these problems or who use more radical and populistic rhetoric. At the same time there is a growing perception that Armenia should solve its problems on its own and they perceive any voices/support from abroad as mingling into its internal affairs. This applies also towards the long-term ally - Russia.

4. Growing discontent with the relations with Russia. Russia is a strategic ally of Armenia and Armenia is greatly dependent on it bigger partner – economically, militarily and geopolitically. However, for a couple of years already, dissatisfaction of the population about the role that Russia plays in Armenia has been growing. The most critical point is that Russia is selling weapons to Armenia’s arch-enemy – Azerbaijan. On top of that, Russian companies are misusing its nearly monopoly position in some segments of the Armenian economy/industry (energy sector, telecommunication…) and set prices too high. Another complaint is that Russia backs the current administration and therefore “de facto keeps it in power”. One of the incentives for the armed action of the “Daredevils” was supposedly that Russia is pushing the Government of Armenia into a compromise over the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, which would mean giving up significant parts of controlled territories to Azerbaijan.

On the other hand, growing discontent with the partnership with Russia does not automatically mean growing support for EU or the West among the population. Rather on contrary – it fosters Armenian nationalism.     

5. Tighter grip of the Government over the society. One of the underlining causes of the protests was a growing perception among the Armenian public that their country is becoming more and more authoritarian and security forces are one of the tools that the state is using to tighten its grip over society. After the current protests this perception has grown. At the beginning when crowds of protesters were numerous (couple of thousands, but not reaching the numbers of last year’s #ElectricYerevan protests) police showed restraint, but as soon as the numbers of protesters started to thin, the police employed force to disperse protests and to curb the anti-government movement. Apart from that, police employed preventive arrests and kept some of the prominent opposition figures detained. Apart from the gunmen who surrendered, opposition activists remain in custody and awaiting trial too. This could weaken the “leaderless” opposition in the crucial period before the elections.

6. Protests underlined the weakness of the political opposition. The opposition in Armenia is quite divided over a number of division lines – from personal animosities to ideological incompatibilities to pure opportunism. As a result of these frictions people distrust “standard” political parties and even anti-government protests - in order to maintain credibility - are usually led by groups of civic activists rather than parties’ representatives. If party leaders attend anti-government protests, then they act in their capacities as “citizens” or “activists”. Also the current protests were led by a number of individuals/civic activists and not by any particular opposition political party. Members of the “Founding Parliament” initiative were active in organizing people in the initial days of protests, then some of them were arrested and the relay was picked up by more traditional civic activists. This was actually a positive turn because the “Founding Parliament” was poisoning rallies with ultranationalist sentiments and even calling on people to clash with the police and use violence.

Conclusions:

  • A significant portion of Armenian society is discontented and even desperate and could again resort to the use of violence to try to bring about a “change” (whatever that means). The threshold for the use of violence has seemed to be lowered.
  • The hostage crisis cemented the role of the Government just months before the next parliamentary elections. Protests strengthened the hand of the government because it was able to crack down and round up organizers and activists. As a result, they were not able to become the catalyst for a larger revolt or revolution.  
  • Police actions against protesters deepened distrust of the government, its power structures and security services by the population. It will be very important that the international community closely monitors the upcoming elections (before, during and after) in order that the public discontent does not lead to similar actions like this one. There is unfortunately a potential within the Armenian society for that.
  • Due to overblown the “Karabakh syndrome” the Armenian government might find it quite difficult to consolidate public support for any compromise of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict resolution suggested by mediators – especially Russia.