Crisis and Opportunity in Armenia



By Edmond Y. Azadian

Armenians in the homeland and around the world were finally able to let out a sigh of relief at the conclusion of the two-week standoff at the police station in Erebuni District of Yerevan, where a group of 31 gunmen had occupied the police station and held the police hostage. Their original demands were the resignation of the president and the release from jail of Jirair Sefilian, a Karabagh War hero and the head of the Founding Parliament, a fringe militant group, who had been arrested in June on charges of plotting to overthrow the government through armed revolt.

After the release of the hostages earlier, the gunmen surrendered on July 31, averting further bloodshed. The action had already taken two lives among law enforcement authorities, Yuri Tepanyan and Arthur Vanoyan.

Armenia’s National Security Service announced that 47 people have been taken into custody in connection with the assault on the police station.

One of the leaders of the group, Varoujan Avedissyan, announced online, before his surrender, that “our task is fulfilled. The popular protest will continue. We feel that our victory is close and I call on the Armenian people to continue the fight.”

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The crisis erupted on the heels of the four-day war in Karabagh in April and in the middle of tourist season, taking a huge toll on the already weak economy of Armenia.

However, the crisis brought to the fore Armenia’s deep problems, which need immediate attention. It was also the culmination of popular discontent that has been brewing for a long time. The crisis caught the imagination of the masses and there was a groundswell of support, even from people who do not endorse violent means.

This kind of action could easily amplify and mobilize the masses when there is a predisposition for action in society. And this one was coming in view of the government’s incredible and intractable insensitivity towards the nation’s rampant and persistent problems: unemployment, emigration, injustice and polarization in society. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the laws of the land are selectively applied. The middle class is practically nonexistent.

People can tolerate, to a certain degree, the war in Karabagh or rigged elections if they have the means to live decently and if they can entertain hopes for a better future. If both the present and the future are bleak, they have little enough reason to stay quiet or trust the authorities.

At the conclusion of the standoff, President Serzh Sargsyan gave a speech where he addressed certain unanswered issues. First, he thanked the law enforcement authorities for their professional conduct while apologizing to journalists who were subject to police brutality. That apology is welcome, yet insufficient because further investigation and disciplinary actions are needed to tame the police in times of heightened tensions. Some of the members of the police went berserk and violently attacked journalists and innocent bystanders. In Sari Tagh, which was one of the nearby hotspots, police raided homes and brutalized families.

That said, foreign-sponsored journalists went out of their way not only to objectively report on the events as they occurred but also to provoke a revolution.

President Sargsyan took a strong stand against the hostage takers. “Yerevan is not Beirut nor Aleppo. Let no one aspire to import Near Eastern solutions of the previous century of the Cold War to Armenia.”

The reference was clearly toward the jailed leader of the gunmen, Jirair Sefilian, who was born in Lebanon and had been active during the Lebanese Civil War before joining the Karabagh forces.

He also said that there would be transparent and fair trials for the gunmen.

Then the president put a positive spin on the events in his speech, saying: “The time has come to draw conclusions. A full analysis of the events will take a long time.” He promised that a government of “national accord” would be formed.

One could ask justifiably why the government let things get to such a point that the people were jolted.

Finally, he addressed the Karabagh issue, which was one of the hot topics of the recent crisis. Rumors had made the rounds that the government was already committed to making unilateral territorial concessions. “There will not be unilateral concessions in the resolution of Nagorno Karabagh issue. Never. Nagorno Karabagh will never be part of Azerbaijan. Never. I repeat once again. It is out of the question.”

No matter what the president says, society is extremely polarized in Armenia. There is intense hatred, disrespect and lack of confidence toward the government. It is a monumental challenge to narrow the chasm.

The crisis was also observed by the outside world. Western news media almost never characterized the gunmen as terrorists; they were either “militants” or “freedom fighters.” They were “terrorists” however in Russian media.

Azeris were witnessing gleefully right across the border the sight of Armenians tearing each other apart.

Russia has a serious stake in Armenia’s peaceful existence. Moscow is as insensitive toward the plight of its only strategic ally in the region, as the Yerevan government is insensitive toward the needs of its own people. When there is rampant poverty and instability in a country where the only Russian military base is hosted, it seems that Moscow should have had some input in the resolution of the problems. But instead, Russia has taken over the economic infrastructures of the country and it treats it in a cavalier manner. Armenia was worried that Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia are colluding to isolate it in the regional development projects. Lo and behold, Paul Goble, in a recent article revealed that Russia also is in the same mode by signing a development agreement for a project of rail system with Iran, India and Azerbaijan, bypassing Armenia.

Diaspora Armenians were fragmented in their reactions to the events evolving in Armenia. Recent refugees from Armenia held rallies in Los Angeles, Paris, Madrid and elsewhere, resolutely condemning the government. The traditional diaspora was divided: one segment was completely indifferent, another active segment advocated a more circumspect approach; while fully appreciative of the underlying causes of the violent action, caution was advised in view of the war with Azerbaijan.

There is no question that the events and the perpetrators need to be addressed properly. However, the gunmen demonstrated as much concern regarding human life as the government. It would not be fair to call them terrorists, as they tried to stem violence after the initial armed takeover of the station. In a typically Armenian show of camaraderie, the men released a police officer they had taken hostage, who had been due to get married the following day so that he would not miss his big day.

Second, these actions, no matter how unjustified, were driven by patriotic motives and the stagnant situation created in Armenia.

And third, any verdict, ignoring the above considerations, will trigger a popular backlash, as was demonstrated during recent events.

They say the other side of the coin for the Chinese word for crisis is opportunity.

Therefore, if the current crisis leads to a new opportunity and all concerned use that opportunity prudently, maybe something positive will emerge and benefit Armenia.


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