A group of armed men seized a police station in the administrative district of Erebuni in Yerevan on 17 July. They demanded the release of Zhirayr Sefilyan, hero of the war in Karabagh and opposition figure, and a change of power in the country. Although the Armenian leadership called their actions illegal, it did not resort to the use of force to resolve the situation since the criminals were famous participants in the war in Nagorno-Karabagh.
As a result, the police station has remained under capture for two weeks already, and permanent protests are simultaneously being held – these having recently ended in clashes with the police and arrests. Europe Insight asked Armenian experts to talk about the reasons for and consequences of the crisis.
Stepan Grigoryan, head of the Analytical Centre on Globalization and Regional Cooperation (ACGRC)
The main reasons for the crisis in Yerevan are tied to the fact that over the last decade all election results without exception (presidential, parliamentary and local) have been challenged by the opposition. Even the constitutional referendum held on 6 December 2015 gives rise to serious doubts as to its legitimacy. In other words, it is clear that there can be no change of power in Armenia by means of election procedures and that the opposition political parties have understood this, as well as civil society.
Those in power are completely divorced from reality, which is apparent from announcements made by the state’s leading figures. If we add to this the very difficult social situation in the country and vast-scale corruption, then it is completely unsurprising that there are people in Armenia who have decided to change things by means of force.
The armed group (called “patriots” among the people!) enjoys massive public support and is supported by large demonstrations where calls for the resignation of the Armenian president and release of all political prisoners, including war hero Zhirayr Sefilyan, are heard.
It is difficult to say how the crisis will end, but the fact is that the authorities, who have not fulfilled their agreement with the armed group (As is known, all policemen taken prisoner were released, but the state authorities did not supply water, food or medical aid to members of the armed group.) and are initiating terror against Armenian citizens (harshly dispersing the peaceful demonstration of 20 July in Yerevan, acting violently against activists, carrying out mass detentions and arrests of citizens on 25-27 July, placing people in hastily set up camps, and arrests of citizens by plainclothesmen inciting particular outrage), will be condemned to banishment from the country.
Babken Matevosyan, Research fellow, ERA Institute
It seems counterintuitive for ordinary people to support a group of armed gunmen that had very few followers before this desperate act, but take into account the fact that there is an extremely high level of mistrust in procedural democracy, especially towards the results of the recent constitutional referendum, and an extremely high level of mistrust towards the ruling elites and president. Mass protests and demonstrations of varying forms and nature – mostly triggered by corruption, bad socio-economic conditions, selective justice, etc. – happen in Armenia on a yearly basis. Another sensitive subject for the Armenian public is the current state of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, which tends to consolidate society. People are dissatisfied with how the government handled the four day war in April between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh and the subsequent processes while rumors about Russia pushing for possible concessions do not bring any good either.
As for the foreign dimension, the protesters and the group have no clear pro-Western or anti-Russian position per se (excepting some specific individuals); rather, Russia lost most of its vast sympathy among Armenian citizens by not acknowledging Azerbaijani aggression in the April events and by continuing arm sales to Baku while refusing any expected support to Armenia. Moreover, Russia is starting to be perceived not as a provider of security or a partner, but as a sponsor of the ruling elites that ordinary people are so frustrated with.
The main consequence would be the ruling elite’s acknowledgement of the urgent need for changes. Otherwise, they risk bringing further instability to the country – something they cannot afford. Furthermore, this situation in Armenia, along with the constitutional referendum in Azerbaijan set for late September, may also delay Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations.