This week’s armed attack on a police station in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, has raised questions about whether the use of violence is now seen in the South Caucasus country as an acceptable way to push for reform.
The gunmen who seized control of the Erebuni police station on July 17, killing one law enforcement officer, wounding a few others and taking several hostage, have long advocated the government’s overthrow – not via the ballot box, but by force. They are members of an organization called Founding Parliament, which comprises primarily veterans of the 1988-1994 conflict with Azerbaijan over the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh territory.
Founding Parliament does not have representatives in any elected body. It vehemently opposes territorial concessions to Azerbaijan in exchange for a Karabakh peace deal, now rumored to be under consideration by officials in Yerevan. The group also has taken issue with various alleged civil rights abuses under President Serzh Sargsyan, whose resignation its members now demand.
Generally seen as a radical fringe group, Founding Parliament has not, until now, enjoyed large public support. But over the past six days, many Armenians have started to support these veterans’ notion that force can be a first resort.
People in the streets and on social media comment that the armed takeover of the Erebuni police station “is the only way” to force reforms, using the “only” language the government can understand. Some go further, saying even that the authorities “should be gunned down.”
Armenia does not have a post-Soviet history of armed uprisings, but there have been episodes of politically related gun violence. The 1999 gun slaying of the prime minister, parliamentary speaker, a minister and several parliamentarians is the most prominent example of violence influencing politics.
Political analysts and human rights activists alike believe that the gunmen’s sudden popularity springs from years of Armenians seeing violence prevail over rule of law. Building frustration over the lack of change has fostered a public mood in which radical means, including violent methods, are gaining acceptance as a way to promote reforms.
These days, even among those who are advocates of liberal, democratic reform, support exists for the gunmen. Opposition activist Davit Sanasarian, one of the co-leaders of the non-violent Electric Yerevan protests in 2015, is among those who justify the gunmen’s actions.
“When every day you see in the media how oligarch lawmakers talk, how they behave violently, solve their issues by means of beatings, it cannot but cause a culture of violence in society,” said psychologist Arshak Gasparian, head of the Social Justice organization which trains police to address domestic violence. “Every day, they keep prodding us into thinking that this is the way, that only through force can one solve problems.”
Events cited to explain this phenomenon run the gamut: from the 2008 killings of eight protesters and two police officers in a clash over presidential election results and signs of police brutality toward protest prisoners to murders by those connected with powerful government-linked allies that go unpunished.
A contributing factor is repeated incidents of non-combat soldier deaths and widespread domestic violence. The government’s record on such issues is inconsistent.
The hostage crisis “happened because injustice has reached its climax,” asserted Avetik Ishkhanian, chair of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, a human rights non-governmental organization. “The roots and causes of this, and those responsible, should be sought within the government.”
Senior government officials have not commented on the violence or the hostage crisis, now in its sixth day. On July 21, Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Eduard Sharamazanov, spokesperson for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, broke that silence.
Calling for calm amid “a very nervous moment,” Sharamazanov told reporters that “We don’t need new bloodshed. We have no enemies in Armenia. All are our brothers and sisters.”
The situation, as Sharamazanov noted, remains tense. On July 20-21, protesters threw rocks and bottles at riot police blocking access to the Erebuni police station. Police responded with tear gas, stun grenades and beatings with batons. At least 136 people were detained and about 70 people were hospitalized.
Clashes had erupted also on July 19 when young men living near the seized police station pelted police officers with rocks after the neighborhood’s only road was blocked for security reasons.
“The public mentality has changed, as the elites have provided the model of solving problems with the use of arms and beatings,” Gasparian said.
Violence has also been reported in police departments where hundreds of activists and other individuals have been taken, as law enforcement mops up anti-government protests. Human rights activist Ishkhanian alleged that police used force against more than 50 detained demonstrators. The police have claimed that they investigate each report of abuses by law enforcement.
Officials appear aware that trying to resolve the hostage crisis by force could easily backfire.
“If they disperse this protest today, tomorrow people will go into the streets … because the roots of the problem remain,” asserted Ara Papian, director of the Yerevan-based think-tank Modus Vivendi.
Protesters have moved steadily from brandishing “wooden sticks” to, now, Kalashnikovs, he added.
Relative calm has prevailed since the hurly-burly crackdown on the July 20-21 protest. On July 22, President Sargsyan issued his first public comments about the hostage situation, stating after a meeting with police, prosecutors and security officials that "In Armenia, problems will not be solved through violence, attacks, or hostage taking. We will not allow that".
Terming the crisis' peaceful denouement "the most serious test for Armenia, for our society and the maturity of our state," he urged the gunmen to give up their weapons and hostages, and for protesters to keep their demonstrations peaceful and within "the framework of the law."
The authorities will be patient, Sargsyan said, but added that "I believe this is going on longer than we can allow."
Observers consider the gunmen’s chances for success slim to none. “Against force there is always a greater force that has authority,” noted Hovhannisian.
Ultimately, she added, whatever the provocation, use of weapons only “leads to a crisis, which we witness today.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a freelance reporter and editor in Yerevan.