Yerevan police station siege stirs Armenian discontent

Yerevan police station siege stirs Armenian discontent
The hostage takers demanded the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan.
By Carmen Valache in Istanbul July 25, 2016

The armed attackers that took eight hostages in a police station in Yerevan last Sunday have finally released the last four hostages, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty reported on July 23. Armenian authorities spent six days negotiating with the group of war veterans in order to obtain the release of the prisoners, among whom were two senior police officials. The group appears to continue to hold the station and are refusing to lay down their arms.

Armenians have reacted ambivalently towards the attack. On the one hand, calls by the attackers for mass protests demanding regime change went unheeded. On the other hand, several small protests during the past week have condemned police violence and have proven that some of the population does support the attackers' pleas, if not their violent means.

Belonging to a recently founded association of war veterans called the Daredevils of Sassoun, the twenty-odd attackers took social media by storm when they first captured the police station, posting videos of themselves speaking through a loudspeaker while wielding machine guns. They demanded the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan, the release of all political prisoners, particularly of the Founding Parliament movement's leader Jiray Sefilian, and the formation of a committee that would temporarily govern the country while another president is elected.

While the attempt to stage a coup d'etat failed early on, the attackers' criticism of the current government resonated on Armenian social media and on the streets of Yerevan all of last week, with people showing sympathy for the "desperation" that the attackers must have felt in order to act as they did.

Discontent with the slow pace of reform of the Sargsyan administration, widespread government corruption, and declining living standards are on the rise in Armenia, which will hold parliamentary elections in 2017.

Support for the government appeared to be strong following a December referendum in which the population voted to turn the country into a parliamentary republic. But the economy has worsened since December. Remittances- a source of livelihood for many Armenian households - have continued to fall in the double digits, while reports of corruption in the armed forces and government have continued to emerge. A third of the population continues to live in poverty and 40% of it is concerned about unemployment, a recent opinion poll found.

That corruption is entrenched in the Armenian military is all the more worrisome, seeing how a short-lived war with Azerbaijan in April over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh showed just how ill-prepared the Sargsyan administration is to defend itself - and the territories that it occupied in the early 1990s - against a similar attack in the future. During a four-day incursion in the region, Azerbaijan managed to make and retain territorial gains of some 20km in width. Armenian forces were clearly overwhelmed during the flare-up, despite the fact that they had a clear strategic advantage as defenders.  

Following the flare-up, the Sargsyan administration oversaw the dismissal of several high-ranking military officials, but whether or not it has worked to strengthen its security since April remains unclear.

Meanwhile, demonstrators took to the streets in Yerevan to show their discontent with Russia's rapprochement with Azerbaijan. The Kremlin has traditionally supported Armenia in the conflict, but has more recently mended its ties to Baku and sold it some $4bn worth of armament, some of which Azerbaijani forces used against Armenia in April.

But the attack on the police station will not solve any of the problems that Armenians face. On the contrary, it will negatively impact civil liberties in the country, Richard Giragosian, Director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Centre, wrote in an email commentary.

The acts "pose a serious blow to civil liberties in Armenia, and offer too tempting a pretext for bolstering a trend of authoritarianism in Armenia, especially as this criminal act is a sign of desperation and weakness, and confirmation of the danger and risk from such marginal, fringe but radical groups," he believes. Allegations of police violence have already emerged, after law enforcement arrested some 200 Armenians last week who appeared to be unrelated to the attack, human rights groups have complained.

Tellingly, Sargsyan and other government officials refrained from publicly commenting on the incident until Friday, the day when the attackers released all prisoners. While the Armenian security services posted several public announcements a day during the hostage crisis, the government's disengagement with protesters, the attackers or the general population during the crisis shows it has some understanding of how low its public standing is.

On July 22, Sargsyan finally made his first public statement, which had menacing rather than pacifying undertones. "There are many malcontents in Armenia, but let none of you mistakenly think that you can take advantage of some circumstance to undermine our statehood," he said, while acknowledging that "the country is going through difficult times. Of course, I will not touch upon the reasons. It is not the right moment for this". 

The head of state's comments only reinforced the perception that Armenia's leaders suffer from an "arrogance of power", as Giragosian calls it, which characterises elites that rule, but do not govern the country. 

One of the prominent government critics who emerged from the hostage crisis is opposition MP Nikol Pashinian, who was instrumental in containing the protests, negotiating with the attackers and helping to solve the crisis. He was the only person with whom attackers accepted to negotiate when they took over the police station, and, unlike government officials, was present in public squares where there were demonstrations to advise people to refrain from violence. A staunch critic of the Sargsyan administration, the former journalist was also one of the main speakers at the 2008 anti-government rallies in Armenia, which saw him serve a two-year prison sentence for his activisim.

Pashinian and his neophyte Civil Contract opposition party, which was founded in 2013, might see their approval ratings rise after the incident. While the likelihood of the party defeating Sargsyan's Republican Party (HHK) is low, the Civil Contract could prove to be a wild card that boosts Armenia's enfeebled opposition in next year's parliamentary elections.