Due to its proximity to other violent incidents that made the world headlines at that time, the terrorist attack in Nice on July 14 and a military coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, the armed attack and hostage crisis in the Armenian capital Yerevan on July 17 caused quite a stir. Some people were even quick to see a military coup attempt similar to that in Turkey. (I can imagine many Armenians being offended just by the comparison to anything occurring in Turkey.) The unfolding events would seem quite obscure in any European nation for instance: Group of gunmen attacking a well-armed police compound killing one police officer and taking several hostages including medical staff, followed by protesters taking the streets in riot supporting and almost praising the violent hostage takers. Closer scrutiny, however, shows a nation depressed, disenfranchised and riddled with a ‘culture of violence’.
The danger of military coup in Armenia is relatively small, among others, as Giragosian notes, thanks to relatively solid civil-military relations and little involvement of the military in politics (Giragosian 2016a). Therefore, although the hostage takers were veterans of the Nagorno Karabakh War in the early 1990s, their demands and political affiliations point to a different direction, nevertheless similarly radical. Some of the attackers’ demands included resignation of the Armenian president Serzh Sarkisian; release of their leader Zhirayr Sefilian, detained this June; and change of government politics in the conflict with Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh.
The attackers unite themselves under the name Sasna Ts’rer (Daredevils of Sassoun in English, after a medieval Armenian epic tale), a friction of the opposition Founding Parliament movement. The party is led by aforementioned Zhirayr Sefilian, Lebanese born Armenian who fought in Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war before moving to Armenia and, most notably, played a significant role in the liberation of the city Shusha during the Nagorno Karabakh War. Since about the turn of the century he has begun criticising the Armenian leadership, backed up by his war veteran status, for being corrupt and organising ‘mass disturbances’ for which he has been arrested on several occasions. The Founding Parliament, nevertheless, holds no public offices and deliberately remains out of the political system. Moreover, it has very little public support and many other opposition parties distance themselves from the movement mainly due to its radicalism.
Call from the attackers for the public to take the streets in the first days of the hostage standoff was met with little popular support, however, already on July 20 a smaller protest marked a series of two-week nightly popular unrests, accompanied by violent clashes with riot police. So why has the public taken the streets of Yerevan in riot to support a violent hostage-taking rebels, with no prior popular support?
The short answer can be seen in the April clashes, commonly referred to as the Four Day War, which came like bolt of the blue for most Armenians and left the nation feeling helpless, but also as a wake-up call for political change. Therefore, whereas for instance the Electric Yerevan protests in the summer of 2015 opposing increase of electricity prices or the 100 Dram movement in 2013[i] against rise of public transport fares were distanced form high politics in their demands, largely peaceful, and at last successful; the protests against Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan this spring and the current protests share a pressing political undertone.
Protests are a frequent image in the streets of Yerevan and it is not that Armenians would be attention seekers or unjustifiably unhappy. The country is burdened by slowing economy, high unemployment and rapid emigration[ii]. On top of that, according to Armenian sociologist Artur Atanesyan, the conservative one party government lacks behind the society in terms of progress and freedom (Tert.am 2016). Armenia’s unfavourable economic situation is indeed caused by its unfavourable geographic position and ongoing conflict[iii], but a big part of it is also caused by its corruption and authorities unable to govern the country. As Daron Acemoglu[iv] puts it: “…its [Armenia’s] failure is due to corruption, unscrupulous politicians and weak institutions. It’s not lack of opportunities but squandered opportunities that are at the root of Armenia’s ills…”[vi]
Distance between the society and its ruling elite around president Sarkisian, and their close to arrogance of power, likewise translated into the unfolding events. As Yerevan was convulsed by crisis the ruling elite remained surprisingly quiet, some even joked that they could not be bothered to return from their summer holiday.
Most Armenians feel increasingly depressed due to long-term poor economic situation and hopeless due to lack of tools to influence politics. Many of them naturally see protest and violence as the last resort for political change and reform. The public could, therefore, identify with the desperation with which the gunmen and war heroes from the Nagorno Karabakh War (who still enjoy a place in many Armenian hearts as guardians of the nation) took the matters into their own hands calling for radical reforms. Although some people who went to the streets to express their anger disagreed with the method Sasna Ts’rer chose, others see violence as the last and acceptable resort when all the other, legal, channels fail to bring reform.
It is not unjustified in a country in which the only generally free and fair election were it’s first in 1991 (Giragosian 2016b). Perhaps illustratively an appeal made by president Sarkisian to the gunmen included a promise that if they surrender “the further outcome will strictly comply with the Constitution and laws of the Republic of Armenia”, thus admitting that complying with the laws and the Constitution is not always the case (HCAV 2016).
Two police officers were shot dead and number of both police and the attackers were injured during the two-week standoff. All this thuggery was accompanied by violent clashes between the police and protesters; police brutality, highlighted by the use of tear gas, stun and flash grenades; violent beatings of present journalists by undercover police and number of questionable detentions (Aslanian et al 2016; RFE/RL’s Armenian Service 2016). Use of violence in attempt to change politics is nothing new in Armenia. Most will recall the group of gunmen storming the Armenian Parliament in 1999, slaying the prime minister, parliamentary speaker and six other MPs, or the 2008 post-election violence leaving seven protesters and one policemen dead before declaring the emergency rule. So why did the protests turn violent yet again and why is violence so common in the struggle for political change in Armenia?
It has much to do with what could be called a prevailing culture of violence. This pernicious phenomenon often has its roots at home – in Armenia’s daunting record of domestic violence. According to a recent report on domestic violence at least thirty women were murdered by their husbands in between 2010 and 2015 while most of the accused were not sent to prison, moreover, the number of the murders is largely incomplete as on many occasions the cases are wrongly labelled as suicide (Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women 2016).
Axe attack in Yerevan this June, in which an ex-husband killed his former mother-in-law and seriously injured his former spouse and her father in front of the eyes of his toddler son of which he tried to get custody, sparked the debate again. Not only was the man previously convicted of domestic violence but not jailed, following the attack some Armenians blamed the ex-wife for allowing the attack to happen or the mother-in-law for interfering in other people’s business (Grigoryan 2016).
This case, unfortunately, illustrates the current situation in Armenia – the police rarely helps, the courts are repeatedly on the side of the attackers, the families are afraid of talking about abuse or violence[i] and the public is often blaming the victims. Improvement attempts like police trainings or the long-prepared law on equal opportunities, which was burdened by the accompanying close to ‘homophobic’ debate about gender equality, still struggle to bring improvement. This situation inevitably supports an image that using violence can go largely unpunished.
Another element – the maltreatment and non-combat deaths in the military – is nowadays less of a taboo in the public debate. It, nonetheless, remains a sensitive and personal topic to all when virtually every family in Armenia has at least one recruit serving or soon to be serving in the military. Violence within the military not only damages its combat readiness and morale, but also translates into the society and leaves a mark on every person completing the compulsory service.
Military violence became a hot-topic in 2010 following several horrific events. On July 28 2010 a young conscript stationed in the Nagorno Karabakh region shot five fellow servicemen before turning the gun on himself after a bitter dispute with an officer, the incident was closely followed by a junior sergeant shooting another sergeant less than a month later (Abrahamyan 2010). Only few months after that, in November, four were shot dead and four injured in another Karabakh shooting spree (RFE/RL 2010). Moreover, the July shooting was preceded by a case of alleged suicide of a lieutenant. Forensic investigation found evidence that he had been physically abused and family members claim it was a murder rather than suicide (Abrahamyan 2010). To add to urgency of the topic these incidents were accompanied by leaked video of an officer terrorising and humiliating young conscripts[i].
A Vanadzor based human rights group Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly presented in a report that 42 Armenian soldiers died in 2010, while only 9 were shot in combat by Azerbaijani forces (Harutyunyan and Bedevian 2011). Similarly, a United States Department of State’s annual human rights report states that of the 42 non-combat deaths (!) in Armenia’s armed forces in 2009, 11 were reported as ‚suicides‘ (Abrahamyan 2010). When this internal military brutality was in the spotlight Armenia’s Defence Minister Ohanian said that reforms have improved the situation and that “the average number of soldiers killed each year in non-combat situations, or who committed suicide, has decreased significantly in recent years, in comparison to figures for the period 1998-2005” (ibidem), thus giving you an idea how severe the problem used to be.
Although many reform programmes were introduced the corrupt nature of Armenia’s military is a serious obstacle to success. In words of a prominent human rights advocate Danielian „The army is completely drenched in corruption“ (ibidem). Illustrative is the common bribe given by well-off young men upon conscription to avoid combat, while the poor are the first to be sent on the front (Alibayli and Grigoryan 2016). Many Armenians were left frustrated following the surfacing cases of misappropriation, corruption and theft during the Four Day War in April, possibly affecting the performance of Armenian army, or by the Panama Papers related resignation of general Poghosyan. These are indeed also the driving forces behind public discontent.
Lastly the police practices, highlighted by questionable detentions, tough anti-demonstration policies and ever present corruption should not be left out. On a regular basis, as outlined, Yerevan residents take the streets, mostly with socioeconomic or human right demands, and on a regular basis the police respond with detentions and beatings. The figure of Zhirayr Sefilian this year was symbolic precisely for this reason, as there have been many controversies surrounding his arrest which are common police practices – pretrial detention, pinning of weapons on Sefilian and harassment.
Pretrial detention is a big problem in Armenia as it is often unfounded, longer than its permitted and most of the ‘suspects’ are harassed, often beaten up and then released without charges (Freedom House 2016). Hundreds of people detained during these protests (not only human rights activists, opposition leaders or journalists but general public) were assaulted by the police, humiliated, pressured and deprived of their rights, as a recent Human Rights Watch report states (HRW 2016). As a consequence, the police is accustomed to use violence and to often bend the rules in order to achieve their goals.
Police and military are the pillars of the current rule and in many ways only mimic environment in the ruling circles. Oligarchic practices, intimidation and mafia-style settling of scores are an image that is often seen in Armenian politics (Transparency International 2013). When violence is presented as an effective tool for resolving problems it, indeed, has to be expected in situations like these. Moreover, as outlined, many Armenians have had personal encounters with solving problems through violence, often going unpunished.
The unrests of summer 2016 were not Armenia’s coloured revolution attempt or another Euromaidan for which there is not the opportunity nor the motivation. There is, however, ever more disgust, anger, frustration and urge for change within the society. The regime responds to such calls for change (as always) with an appeal to maintain the current status quo, repeating, yet again, that the only way to stand up to Armenia’s adversary Azerbaijan in Nagorno Karabakh is through ‘unconditional’ unity. This is perhaps the biggest obstacle to the resolution of any conflict in the South Caucasus. While democratization and dialogue in freer societies could lead to improving lives of those affected by the conflict, and to asymmetrical and more rigorous approach to the conflicts, which could bear their resolution or loss of relevance, they are on the contrary still being used as the main argument to maintain closed system and to suppress opposition or discontent.
[i] The practice is often linked to so called dedovshchina, a practice common to Post-Soviet militaries, which includes senior servicemen terrorising and humiliating new conscripts. The described video is still available on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOTt2znYS1c.
[i] Independent initiatives, although few in numbers, are on a promising path to change. Organisations like the Women’s Resource Center or a photo journalist Anahit Harapetyan which published a book Princess to Slave capturing testimonies which are otherwise taboo (Estrin 2016).
[i] There have been protests opposing the result of presidential election in 2013, under the guidance of Raffi Hovannisian which came second, those, nevertheless, did not pick up much momentum.
[ii] In 2015 on average almost 6 persons per 1 000 inhabitants left the country, most of them to Russia (CIA World Factbook 2016). The unemployment is steadily close to 20% (Armstat 2016).
[iii] Highlighted by its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey remaining closed and its debilitating ‘land-locked’ position from its trading partners in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
[iv] The Author of Why Nations Fail: Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (2012).
[vi] Citation from the preface to Corruption in Armenia report by Policy Forum Armenia (2013).
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