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Probing the wave of unrest in Armenia

The stand-off in Yerevan is not a failed attempt at a 'color revolution' and is not directed against Russia. Nor does it threaten Armenia's links to Russia. It is the result of widespread dissatisfaction with the government and with the internal situation in Armenia.

On the dawn of July 17, an armed group calling itself “The Daredevils of Sassoun” stormed a major police base in Erebuni, outside the capital Yerevan.  The group’s name comes from an Armenian heroic poem where a group of men fight for the Armenian cause of independence somewhere in the middle ages.

Shortly after the operation, the group posted a video on Facebook in which one of the gunman was heard saying “We are doing this for you, come out to the streets, we have taken this path for you”. The gunmen seemed determined, wearing blue and white bullet vests, armed with different variants of AK rifles. During the initial assault, one police officer was killed, and 8 were taken as hostage including the Deputy Police Chief of Yerevan, Valery Osipyan, who arrived at the scene to negotiate with the gunmen. The hostages were released gradually in the coming days, signaling that the situation was not a typical hostage crisis.

Under fresh impressions of the coup attempt in Turkey, some media outlets rushed to report that something similar was going on in Armenia. Some went as far as saying that members of the Armenian Air Force had toppled the president. As the ambiguity surrounding the situation gradually faded, it was clear that no coup had taken place and anything of that sort was implausible. 

The gunmen were identified as loyalists to Jirayr Sefilian, a staunch critic of the incumbent President Serj Sargsyan. Sefilian was a military detachment commander in the first Karabakh war who entered the Armenian political scene through his “Founding Parliament” opposition group. Until his arrest on June 20, Sefilian’s call for protests had little turnout. His opposition to President Sargsyan was extreme and unorthodox, with sometimes calls to take up arms as a last resort.

Sefilian was charged with planning public unrest and illegal possession of weapons. After searching his residency though, no weapons were found. The opposition called the arrest politically motivated, linking it to Sefilian’s press conference where he announced that the Armenian-backed forces in Nagorno-Karabakh had lost around 800 hectares of land during the intense clashes with the Azerbaijani Army in early April, something that was later announced by President Sargsyan. It’s worth adding that Sefilian and his group have been against any territorial concessions when it comes to the settlement of the Karabakh conflict. Something which President Sargsyan has been rumored to be negotiating on lately during his trilateral meetings with Presidents Putin and Aliyev of Russia and Azerbaijan respectively.

Looking into the composition of the gunmen, there are well-known figures from the first Karabakh War who are iconic to Armenians all around the world. Pavel Manoukyan, the leader of the group, was a charismatic freedom fighter. His son Aram, had served in the special forces of the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army lately. There are other prominent figures from the first Karabakh War, such as Arayik Khandoyan. The legacy of the men involved in the operation is probably what has kept the Armenian police forces from an all-out storm on the occupied police base in fear of public outrage. Manoukyan and his son have been shot lately in their leg and transported to hospital where they have been taken into custody. While Khandoyan has been treated for similar injuries inside the occupied base.

The Armenian public and diaspora were left with mixed feelings about the violent methods adopted by the gunmen. People defined the group by a wide range of terms, calling them anything from ultranationalists to “Armenia’s last hope”. But what’s interesting is that most of those who did not condone the methods, did agree with the gunmen’s demands. The popularity of President Sargsyan has been hanging by a thread for years now. The lack of popularity stems mostly from uneasy economic situation in Armenia. Many Armenians feel that the government has not done enough to promote economic growth, fight corruption and take on oligarchic monopolies, many of whom are members of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia itself.

Previously, Armenians have been somewhat reluctant in taking part in protests which would spark public unrest, as most believed that efforts should be directed towards fighting Azerbaijan. The 4-Day War in April and the rumors of ceding land though have acted as catalyst for what is going on right now. There are protests every night, and the number of protesters has been gradually increasing. There have been riots and arrests. Tear gas and sound grenades have been used by the police, but protest participation and demands have not backed down.

What’s happening in Armenia is not another Ukrainian Euromaidan as some pundits would like to call it. The protesters have not come out with any chants against any country, and the issue is far from being related to Armenia’s deep ties with Russia, which has been getting deeper every year. Some Armenians do feel uneasy with the large amounts of modern offensive weaponry that Russia recently sold to Azerbaijan, especially after some of those heavy weapons were deployed and used during the 4-Day War in April.

On the eve of July 31, things took a different turn when one of the gunmen, Varoujan Avetisyan, who was a previous lawyer at the Armenian Ministry of Defense, announced that the gunmen would surrender to the authorities. Avetisyan added that they had the choice to fight against the police, but they decided not to do so, because their ‘struggle’ was not aimed at them. He referred to himself and to his colleagues as ‘prisoners of war’.

It is unclear what will solve the motives behind current status quo in Armenia, and most importantly in the favor of which party. The gunmen have surrendered ending the direct standoff, but not the indirect one. President Sargsyan has surprisingly remained silent on the matter, other than one short public appearance. Some signal that unrest might continue up to the trilateral meeting on Karabakh in August. For the moment though, none of the sides seem to be the clear cut winners.

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