The new public unrest in Yerevan might have serious implications for Moscow. At the very least, it might lead to a re-thinking of the political status quo in the South Caucasian region.
Riot police secure a police station, which is being hold by an armed group, in Yerevan, Armenia, early Wednesday, July 27, 2016. Photo: AP
On July 17, Armenia became the center of media attention. However, this time the country’s appearance in the top newsfeeds did not happen due to the escalation of the armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, but because of the socio-political unrest inside the country triggered by an armed seizure of a police station in Yerevan. That event then led to massive protests in the streets of Armenia’s capital and calls for reviewing Armenia’s stance on Nagorno-Karabakh.
It’s clear that Nagorno-Karabakh remains one of the key issues on the agenda of the Armenian opposition, and events in this hot spot of the Caucasus cannot be underestimated for their ability to affect the future of the region.
However, before thinking about the future, one should understand what led to this current turbulence. In mid-July, a group of armed men seized a police station in Yerevan. For six days, the armed group held hostages, but then sent them away, refusing, to surrender to the authorities. The situation developed rapidly, and that’s leading to unpredictability about what will happen next.
The members of this armed group identified themselves as “Sasna Tsrer” (a name that comes from a medieval Armenian epic, meaning “The Daredevils of Sassoun.”). The group demanded that the authorities release from prison the leader of the Founding Parliament (previously known as Pre-Parliament) movement, Jirair Sefilian, who was arrested by the law enforcement authorities of Armenia shortly before the trilateral talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sargsyan in St. Petersburg, where they discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Born in Beirut, Sefilian was a member of the Armenian Self-Defense Forces during the Lebanese Civil War. After the beginning of the armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, he took an active part in military operations against the Azerbaijani army, and after that war ended, he served in the army of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). Since the beginning of the 2000s, he has stood in fierce opposition to Armenian authorities with his radical nationalist positions. And today, Sefilian is claiming that official Yerevan has assumed a defeatist attitude and is ready to make unreasonable concessions to Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Until July 2016, Sefilian and his supporters were not considered a serious alternative to the authorities. Sefilian’s so-called Founding Parliament movement was not represented in the National Assembly or in the Yerevan City Council (the highest legislative body of the capital city). His supporters did not undertake many actions, although their rhetoric stood out because of its hardliner radicalism.
Why did the Armenian authorities not dare to launch an assault on the very first day that the police building was captured, even after one of their own police officers was killed? Instead, they preferred to take the path of negotiations.
In responding to this question, it is necessary to keep in mind that among the supporters of Sefilian are many Karabakh war veterans. At one time, these supporters were all on the same side as representatives of the government and law enforcement agencies, including the third Armenian President, Serzh Sargsyan (who was the head of the Committee of Karabakh Self-Defense Forces during the initial period of the conflict, and from 1993 to 1995 headed the Armenian Defense Ministry).
The Karabakh factor for Armenians, no matter where they find themselves on the political spectrum, is of particular importance. Every politician is forced to deal with this issue, whether he or she is part of the ruling elite or the irreconcilable opposition. However, it would be a mistake to reduce the current crisis to the personal history of the head of the Founding Parliament movement and his opposition to the authorities. The seizure of the police building would have remained an isolated event, if it had not triggered massive demonstrations by the opposition. Estimates of the number of participants in these events differ.
Some are saying that these protests do not reflect the views of the majority of the population, while others consider that the demonstrations were undertaken by the most active and civically conscious part of Armenian society. In any case, they do represent a major challenge for the authorities. At least, they are no less dangerous than last year’s protests, during the so-called “Elektromaidan” (provoked by an increase in electricity tariffs).
At the same time, it would be wrong to view the current situation in black-and-white terms, in which there are only two sides: representatives of the current government and its opponents (who are defending Sefilian and demanding his release). Many Armenian citizens do not approve of the harsh methods of the radical opposition, being discouraged by the lack of a clear vision for the future of the country on the part of opponents of the government. However, at the same time, these people are critical of the current president’s administration.
What we are seeing today in the country is a new political divide. The changing sentiment of the population needs to find some new form of political expression. Yes, Armenia does have opposition parties - Armenian National Congress, Heritage and the Civil Contract – but none of these can be considered a powerful force ready to oppose the current authorities.
However, this July, Nikol Pashinyan, a member of the National Assembly of Armenia, made a serious attempt to give the opposition movement greater political form. From the first days of the seizure of the police building, he negotiated with law enforcement officials and members of the armed group.
Pashinyan is an journalist, politician, and an active participant in the election campaign of Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who was placed on the wanted list by authorities after the events of “Bloody Saturday” [This is the name given to the clash that occurred between participants of mass demonstrations and police on March 1, 2008, after the results of the presidential elections were announced, giving victory to the incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan – Editor’s note]. In 2009-2011, Pashinyan was held in custody, and soon after his release, he was elected to the national parliament.
Later, he broke with Ter-Petrosyan, and became one of the founders of the Civil Contract movement. In July of this year, Armenian bloggers gave him the nickname of “Gandhi” because he called for using peaceful methods when it came to the struggle for changing the government. However, between the announcement of claiming leadership and its confirmation, there remains a long way to go. In the meantime, the main problem of the opposition, despite the validity of many of its demands, is the lack of constructive programs and a real populist movement to give it expression.
The same Pashinyan, trying to gain popularity among the participants of the protest actions, announced the alleged readiness of Sargsyan to implement the so-called “Lavrov Plan,” involving concessions to Azerbaijan in the form of transfer to its control of some areas near the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region. Meanwhile, this “plan,” the details of which have been circulating in the media for several years already, may be quite different from the actual program proposed by Russian Foreign Ministry, Sergey Lavrov.
The current crisis was largely triggered by this April’s escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, dubbed by media as the "Four-Day War." Certainly, there is widespread discontent with the authorities, above all, due to internal reasons. These are related to socio-economic problems and fears that Sargsyan, on the pretext of constitutional reform, will try to extend his rule, not as president, but as the head of government or of the ruling party.
However, the “Four-Day War” has become a kind of moment of truth, as it exposed the problems in the military organization and the diplomatic capacity of Armenia to protect the national interests of the country.
The fact that the Azerbaijani army used weapons supplied by Moscow during the confrontation added a foreign policy dimension to the crisis. All the more so, given that the Russian leadership has consistently voiced its support for Sargsyan. As a result, the Armenian opposition identifies their discontent with him as discontent with Russia. However, this identification is mostly emotional.
The demands of some bloggers and social activists to review the country’s strategic relationship with Moscow seem unrealistic and dangerous, because there is so far simply no power that can replace the “Russian factor” in Armenia today. However, all Armenian politicians will be forced to deal with this discontent, as indeed will their Russian counterparts.
And the lessons from this situation should be learned. This is all the more important given that, in 2017-2018, Armenia will enter an elections cycle, with first the parliamentary elections being held and then the presidential race.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.