Armenia president pledges national unity government after surrender of rebel group

Armenia president pledges national unity government after surrender of rebel group
By bne IntelliNews August 2, 2016

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has pledged the formation of a national unity government after a rebel group that attacked a police station and took hostages on July 17 surrendered peacefully on July 31.

Ahead of the surrender, Varuzhan Avetisyan, a member of Sasna Dzres (the Daredevils of Sassoun), which demanded the resignation of the president and release of political prisoners, said the group decided to become prisoners of war to avoid the shedding of blood of security officers who “have little to do with the regime” and start negotiations on the terms of its surrender. Avetisyan claimed the standoff with security forces had achieved its aim of starting a “popular movement” against turning Armenia into a “Russian province”.

President Sargsyan’s hold on power has been under pressure since he decided to take Armenia into the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union instead of developing deeper relations with the EU in late 2014. Widespread disenchantment with government corruption, nepotism, poverty, rigged elections and rising utility rates led to large-scale protests in 2015 dubbed 'Electric Yerevan', which saw thousands take to the streets to protest against the electricity tariff hikes and perceived corruption and mismanagement at the Russian-owned power utility ENA.

While branding the former servicemen involved in the standoff as “terrorists”, Sargsyan admitted that the Armenian public had legitimate concerns about social injustices and widespread government corruption. 

“At this stage our aim is also to form a national unity government where decisions would be taken by broad consent,” Sargsyan said in an address on August 1. “A national unity government is not for losers to access power, but its sense is in wider distribution of political responsibility.” 

“I assure you that only in a few months we will have such government,” Sargsyan pledged.

The attack on the police station and the following standoff led ordinary Armenians to rally in support of the group and protest against government policies. Despite Armenia’s close relations with Russia via the EEU and the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organisation, there are fears in some quarters of Armenian society that Moscow is going to surrender Armenia’s interests in the conflict with Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Let me raise another issue that we have talked about many times, which is the Karabakh problem and the so-called ‘surrender of lands’… Let me repeat that on the path of settlement to the Karabakh issue there won’t be unilateral concessions,” Sargsyan stressed in the address. “Nagorno-Karabakh will never [again] be part of Azerbaijan. Let me repeat – this is ruled out.”

Armenia and Azerbaijan were involved in some of the worst ever clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh in April, which claimed the lives of dozens of servicemen on both sides. The fighting resulted in minor territorial gains by Azerbaijan and are seen as an attempt by Baku to draw greater attention to the conflict and away from growing discontent at home over thwe falling livind standards and worsening economy. 

The clashes also tested Moscow’s resolve to come to aid of its ally Armenia in a potential resumption of full-scale hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which bolstered the latter and put pressure on the former.