An armed opposition group’s takeover of a police station in the Armenian capital Yerevan has deepened longstanding divisions in this South Caucasus country as government critics and supporters exchange blame for a deadlocked crisis that already has led to the death of one person.
Early in the morning of July 17, roughly a dozen men, many veterans of Armenia’s 1988-1994 war with Azerbaijan over breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh, broke into the Erebuni district’s police station with a truck, taking several policemen hostage. One policeman, Colonel Artur Vanoian, was killed in the attack, and two other individuals were wounded.
The group, led by Pavel Manukian, a mustachioed, rifle-toting, 50-something-year-old war veteran, called for the freedom of Zhirayr Sefilian, the leader of the Founding Parliament group of which the gunmen are members. Sefilian was jailed in late June for allegedly plotting a government takeover. The group also demanded freedom for another dozen suspected political prisoners, as well as the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan.
Police have since blocked the entrance to the street leading to the police station, and brought in armored vehicles, special forces and, allegedly, snipers. Negotiations with the “Daredevils” are ongoing.
As of early evening on July 18, three hostages had been released. Five remain, according to the deputy chief of Armenia’s national police, General Hunan Poghosian.
Onlookers sympathetic to the gunmen, who call themselves the “Daredevils of Sassoun” (Sasna Tsrer) after a legendary Armenian epic poem, blame President Sargsyan’s government for the standoff.
“Those who stand by the government, and the government itself, call this a terror attack, but the actual terrorists are the current government,” charged one male activist gathering with sympathizers near downtown Yerevan’s Opera House on July 17. “They drove people to this condition…”
Taking note of the Daredevils’ calls for Armenians to take to the streets for the government’s overthrow, police responded on Sunday by scooping up, apparently at random, scores of individuals from Liberty Square, a central gathering place. Resisting arrest, some had to be carried into waiting police vans.
The arrests show that “the police … have nothing to say anymore,” charged the Opera House activist, who declined to be named.
Weary of violent demonstrations, locals have not responded in number to the Daredevils’ calls.
But one Daredevil supporter said the group will persist “to the end.”
“We are doing this whether or not the people will join us… Let them live in this country, but we will not,” said Areg Kyureghian, the brother of so-called political prisoner Hayk Kyureghian, sentenced in September to nine years in prison for firing off an air gun to protest an activist’s jailing.
Sefilian’s supporters claim that he was arrested because of his group’s opposition to the government’s willingness to let Azerbaijan keep what “insignificant” territory it gained from Armenian troops during fighting in Karabakh this April.
Sargsyan, a former interior and defense minister, shows no sign of giving in to the gunmen’s demands to release the former Karabakh fighter, however. The president, a wartime head of Karabakh’s armed forces, has not appeared in public.
Other officials could not be reached by phone and also have not appeared in public.
Pro-government media and the National Security Service (NSS) now describe the “armed attack” as a “terror attack” and have underlined that an Armenian killing another Armenian is unacceptable. They have compared the Daredevils with the 1999 gun attack on the Armenian parliament that killed Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, Parliamentary Speaker Karen Demirchian and several other senior political figures.
That symbolism resonates with one Yerevan resident.
“How could an Armenian kill another Armenian? One policeman dead, and can you imagine the situation for his family? Why could this happen?” asked one young woman who declined to give her name. “This is just unbelievable. They are just terrorists who even have no idea what they’re doing and what exactly they demand.”
Avetik Ishkhanian, chairperson of the Armenian Helsinki Commission, a human rights NGO, countered, however, that while it is “quite easy” to criticize the Daredevils of Sassoun for their actions, blame lies with the government and ruling Republican Party of Armenia as well.
“[D]on’t you have your share of guilt that people are forced to turn to such measures? With the steps you take each day, applying pressure [on critics], you did not improve the atmosphere…”
Popular blogger Izabella Abgarian chimed in as well, writing that the government’s lack of response to previous rights abuses has prompted opponents to think that “issues are set to be resolved through arms.”
But despite TV footage (shown on Georgian TV) of a military aircraft flying over central Yerevan, some believe that the government has no interest in a forceful response to the crisis. Doing so, they reason, would simply spark protests and fighting.
Nonetheless, the government appears to be trying to stifle chances for criticism of its policies to spread. Activists also have been arrested in the northern towns of Gyumri, home to a Russian army base, and Vanadzor, according to the Vanadzor office of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, another NGO.*
Aside from the arrests on July 17, Facebook was blocked for at least an hour, while pro-government TV channels, borrowing a tactic from the Soviet past, switched their programming to light movies.
Parliamentarian Vahan Babaian, a member of the Prosperous Armenia Party, a sometime government ally, believes, though, that soon the gunmen will have to surrender, for lack of alternative options.
Writing on Facebook, he encouraged the NSS to take note of those Armenians who support “the terrorists” on the social media site.
“They, as a matter of fact, live in our country,” he warned. “They walk among us and protect terrorist killers, justifying and making heroes of them.”
Human rights activist Artur Sakunts, however, urged caution. The police station takeover, he said, is not terrorism. “It is clear that, as a result of the armed group’s actions, the public is not terrified,” he said.
At least, for now.
*The Helsinki Citizens' Assembly Vanadzor Office receives assistance from the Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org is run under the auspices of the Open Society Foundations' New York City office.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Armenia and editor of MediaLab.am.