By Raffi Elliot
The Armenian capital has been rocked by two weeks of continued civil disobedience which began on July 17, as 30 armed veterans, calling themselves “Sasna Dzrer” after the Armenian epic of the same name, crashed a dump-truck through the gates of a police depot in the Yerevan district of Erebuni. A brief gunfight led to the death of Police Colonel Artur Vanoyan and the capture of eight hostages (including the infamous deputy-chief of police, Valery Osipyan) as well as the capture of the facility by the gunmen. The gunmen, most of which are celebrated veterans of the 1990-1994 Karabagh War, have called for the liberation of Jirair Sefilian, a fellow Karabagh War commander-turned-activist, who heads a fringe political faction known as the Founding Parliament. The hostage-takers initially also called for the immediate resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan and Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian as a precondition for further negotiations, before dropping this condition entirely.
In a press statement, the gunmen’s leader, the mustachioed Pavel Manukian, an iconic hero of the Karabagh War, expressed the motives behind the take-over: questioning President Sargsyan’s legitimacy, and accusing him of having failed to improve the lives of the Armenian people. Rumors that the Armenian government was succumbing to Russian pressure to hand over land in Nagorno-Karabagh to Azerbaijan as part of a potential peace deal have also affected their decision to act. Manukian (or ‘Pavlik’ as he is affectionately nicknamed by his supporters) ended his message by saying “We are doing this for you. This is the path we’ve taken. Come out on the streets, that is our wish,” calling on the Armenian people to rise up in protest.
Social Debate and Causes
The hostage crisis has lead to considerable controversy, and division amongst the Armenian public, tapping into deep-held resentment against the current government while spurring vivid debate within society between those who considered these acts to be terrorism, or vigilantism, and others who saw their actions as necessary, or even heroic; echoing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s famous adage: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
The gunmen’s reputation as fedayee and war heroes from the Karabagh War made it difficult for the authorities to paint them as foreign-funded elements trying to destroy the foundations of Armenian society, as they had done with more liberal protesters in the past. They represent the very ideals of Armenian masculinity and patriotism that the government had been touting for so many years. Armenian culture is permeated with stories of small groups of desperate radicals, armed with bravado, fighting against immeasurable odds for the sake of liberating the Armenian nation.