Armenia: Besieging terrorists or besieged by a Maidan?

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July 27, 2016 – 

By Eduard Popov for Fort Russ

Translated by J. Arnoldski

The armed confrontation in the Armenian capital of Yerevan is still underway. On July 17th, a group of armed militants attacked the headquarters of a police unit in Yerevan, took hostages, and demanded that Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan resign and the head of the “Constituent Parliament” organization, Zhirayr Sefilyan, be released. The standoff between police and rebels in the seized building has not subsided, in addition to which rallies and clashes with police have broken out on Yerevan’s streets. On some days, the number of protesters reached up to 10-20,000 people. 

Although those first taken hostage at the police headquarters were freed, the doctors who later came to provide medical assistance to injured militants have been captured. On July 27th, six residents of Yerevan were charged by the country’s law enforcement agencies with “organizing mass riots.” 136 people have been detained for participating in riots. 

Some Armenian political analysts predict that the Armenian government will give the order to storm the building, which would inevitable mean massive bloodshed. In addition, violent suppression would case sharp discontent among many in society given that, despite the terrorist nature of the action, many in Armenia support the rebels and consider their actions to be an unavoidable move. Thus, the establishment of some kind of compromise would be desirable for preserving peace in Armenia. However, the probability of such is low as the rebels’ operation is very radical in nature and they themselves are not prone to compromises. 

The hostage-taking of doctors, which was condemned by many even among supporting protesters, could play into the hands of the authorities. Armenian political analysts have also referred to another factor strengthening the position of authorities: the protest movement is acting without leaders and lacks coherent political goals besides the resignation of Sargsyan. Armenian authorities could thus gradually seize the initiative from the rebels and steer the situation in the country into their control. 

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I would add another factor which seriously distinguishes the situation in Armenia from the situation in Ukraine during the Euromaidan. In Ukraine, the majority of TV channels were in the hands of the “opposition” and even formally pro-government information resources sabotaged the orders of President Yankovich and Prime Minister Azarov. In Armenia, however, television is controlled by the authorities, a fact of special importance in the provinces and rural areas where internet connection is poorly developed. This is an enormous advantage for the government.

What has caused such broad support for this terroristic action? Armenia is a small and poor country with a Christian population of 3 million, up to 1 million of which are migrant workers mainly in Russia. Corruption is strongly developed in Armenia to the point that the acting president and his entourage themselves are accused of being corrupt. But corruption, on the other hand, is a distinctive feature of all post-Soviet states, including neighboring Azerbaijan (predominantly Shiite and Sunni Muslim) with whom Armenia is in a state of enmity over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. At the beginning of April, a full-scale war in the breakaway republic populated by Armenians all but broke out. Armenia was almost dragged into an armed conflict, but was stopped largely thanks to Russia’s efforts.

In short, Armenia has a number of internal and external problems and any escalation of the conflict into a civil war would be a real gift for Armenia’s foreign political enemies (Azerbaijan and Turkey). The US and the West have moderately supported the hostage-takers by preferring to call them “rebels” rather than “terrorists” and by calling on the Armenian authorities to solve the problem through compromise.

The escalation of the conflict is highly undesirable for Russia. Armenia is Russia’s strategic ally in Transcaucasia and Russia has a military base stationed in the Armenian city of Gyumri. Even Armenia’s borders are guarded by a joint Russian and Armenian service. Therefore, the situation in Yerevan is reminiscent of a zuzwang in chess: any move by the authorities could bear negative consequences. On the other hand, the worst option would be allowing the problem to drag on and thus repeat the mistakes of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych. President Sargsyan is apparently determined not to let this happen. It is possible that the government will finally give the order to storm the occupied building or starve them into surrendering.

In any case, the rebels have lost by choosing the passive tactic of maintaining defensive positions in a single building, a mistake which resembles that of the unsuccessful Turkish putschists. 

But even a successful storm of the headquarters would be an intermediate solution to the problem. The fight against poverty and corruption is an infinitely more complex and extensive task. The capability of Armenia’s authorities to resolve this problem is highly questionable. 

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