In Turkey / Türkiye

By Rafael Babikian, The Duran, July 31, 2016

The stand-off in Yerevan is not a failed attempt at a ‘color revolution’ and is not directed against Russia. Nor does it threaten Armenia’s links to Russia. It is the result of widespread dissatisfaction with the government and with the internal situation in Armenia.

Protest on July 29, 2016 in Erebuni district of Yerevan, capital of Armenia (Karen Minasyan, AFP)

Protest on July 29, 2016 in Erebuni district of Yerevan, capital of Armenia (Karen Minasyan, AFP)

On the dawn of July 17, an armed group calling itself “The Daredevils of Sassoun” stormed a major police base in Erebuni, outside the capital Yerevan. The group’s name comes from an Armenian heroic poem where a group of men fight for the Armenian cause of independence somewhere in the middle ages.

Shortly after the operation, the group posted a video on Facebook in which one of the gunman was heard saying “We are doing this for you, come out to the streets, we have taken this path for you”. The gunmen seemed determined, wearing blue and white bullet vests, armed with different variants of AK rifles. During the initial assault, one police officer was killed, and 8 were taken as hostage including the Deputy Police Chief of Yerevan, Valery Osipyan, who arrived at the scene to negotiate with the gunmen. The hostages were released gradually in the coming days, signaling that the situation was not a typical hostage crisis.

Under fresh impressions of the coup attempt in Turkey, some media outlets rushed to report that something similar was going on in Armenia. Some went as far as saying that members of the Armenian Air Force had toppled the president. As the ambiguity surrounding the situation gradually faded, it was clear that no coup had taken place and anything of that sort was implausible.

The gunmen were identified as loyalists to Jirayr Sefilian, a staunch critic of the incumbent President Serj Sargsyan. Sefilian was a military detachment commander in the first Karabakh war who entered the Armenian political scene through his “Founding Parliament” opposition group. Until his arrest on June 20, Sefilian’s call for protests had little turnout. His opposition to President Sargsyan was extreme and unorthodox, with sometimes calls to take up arms as a last resort.

Sefilian was charged with planning public unrest and illegal possession of weapons. After searching his residency though, no weapons were found. The opposition called the arrest politically motivated, linking it to Sefilian’s press conference where he announced that the Armenian-backed forces in Nagorno-Karabakh had lost around 800 hectares of land during the intense clashes with the Azerbaijani Army in early April, something that was later announced by President Sargsyan. It’s worth adding that Sefilian and his group have been against any territorial concessions when it comes to the settlement of the Karabakh conflict. Something which President Sargsyan has been rumored to be negotiating on lately during his trilateral meetings with Presidents Putin and Aliyev of Russia and Azerbaijan respectively.

Looking into the composition of the gunmen, there are well-known figures from the first Karabakh War who are iconic to Armenians all around the world. Pavel Manoukyan, the leader of the group, was a charismatic freedom fighter. His son Aram, had served in the special forces of the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army lately. There are other prominent figures from the first Karabakh War, such as Arayik Khandoyan. The legacy of the men involved in the operation is probably what has kept the Armenian police forces from an all-out storm on the occupied police base in fear of public outrage. Manoukyan and his son have been shot lately in their leg and transported to hospital where they have been taken into custody. While Khandoyan has been treated for similar injuries inside the occupied base.

The Armenian public and diaspora were left with mixed feelings about the violent methods adopted by the gunmen. People defined the group by a wide range of terms, calling them anything from ultranationalists to “Armenia’s last hope”. But what’s interesting is that most of those who did not condone the methods, did agree with the gunmen’s demands. The popularity of President Sargsyan has been hanging by a thread for years now. The lack of popularity stems mostly from uneasy economic situation in Armenia. Many Armenians feel that the government has not done enough to promote economic growth, fight corruption and take on oligarchic monopolies, many of whom are members of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia itself.

Previously, Armenians have been somewhat reluctant in taking part in protests which would spark public unrest, as most believed that efforts should be directed towards fighting Azerbaijan. The 4-Day War in April and the rumors of ceding land though have acted as catalyst for what is going on right now. There are protests every night, and the number of protesters has been gradually increasing. There have been riots and arrests. Tear gas and sound grenades have been used by the police, but protest participation and demands have not backed down.

What’s happening in Armenia is not another Ukrainian Euromaidan as some pundits would like to call it. The protesters have not come out with any chants against any country, and the issue is far from being related to Armenia’s deep ties with Russia, which has been getting deeper every year. Some Armenians do feel uneasy with the large amounts of modern offensive weaponry that Russia recently sold to Azerbaijan, especially after some of those heavy weapons were deployed and used during the 4-Day War in April.

On the eve of July 31, things took a different turn when one of the gunmen, Varoujan Avetisyan, who was a previous lawyer at the Armenian Ministry of Defense, announced that the gunmen would surrender to the authorities. Avetisyan added that they had the choice to fight against the police, but they decided not to do so, because their ‘struggle’ was not aimed at them. He referred to himself and to his colleagues as ‘prisoners of war’.

It is unclear what will solve the motives behind current status quo in Armenia, and most importantly in the favor of which party. The gunmen have surrendered ending the direct standoff, but not the indirect one. President Sargsyan has surprisingly remained silent on the matter, other than one short public appearance. Some signal that unrest might continue up to the trilateral meeting on Karabakh in August. For the moment though, none of the sides seem to be the clear cut winners.


Police officer shot dead in lengthy Armenia stand-off

By Mariam Harutyunyan, AFP, July 30, 2016

A group of hostage-takers locked in a protracted siege with police in Armenia shot dead an officer Saturday, as thousands of protesters took to the streets to call on President Serzh Sarkisian to step down. “A sniper opened fire from inside the police station and killed a police officer… who was sitting in a car parked 350-400 metres (yards) away,” police spokesman Ashot Aharonyan wrote on Facebook.

Armenia has been in turmoil since a group of anti-government gunmen stormed a police station in the capital Yerevan on July 17, demanding the release of opposition leader Zhirair Sefilyan and taking several hostages. They are currently still holding two medics.

Tensions spiked again on Saturday after security services gave the group a 5:00 pm (1300 GMT) deadline to surrender following overnight clashes with scores of supporters in the city, resulting in dozens of injuries and arrests.

Hours after the deadline passed, some 5,000 people turned out in central Yerevan in support of the pro-opposition gunmen, according to an AFP estimate. “Bring your relatives and your neighbours onto the streets!” cried protester Albert Bagdassian.

“Our goal is to support the group against which the security services have decided to launch an assault, to march on the street, to paralyse traffic and to show that we are not afraid.”

The latest protest came after the authorities used stun grenades, truncheons and smoke bombs to break up a rally late Friday near the police station where the gunmen are holed up. More than 70 people had to be taken to various hospitals to be treated for injuries including burns and broken limbs. Journalists were among those hurt.

“Out of 73 injured people, 26 are still in hospital, including six policemen,” health ministry pokeswoman Anahit Haytayan wrote on Facebook.

 

Earlier Friday, police had exchanged fire with the gunmen, wounding two, who were taken to hospital under armed guard.

Protesters detained

Armenian police told AFP that 165 people were detained in total during the overnight unrest, most of whom were later released.

Authorities said they had launched a criminal probe into 23 of the protesters, including a member of the pro-Western Heritage party Armen Martirosyan.

The gunmen — supporters of fringe jailed opposition leader Jirayr Sefilyan — took the police building nearly two weeks ago, killing one officer, taking several more hostage and seizing a store of weapons.

They have since freed all the policemen but on Wednesday seized four medical staff who had entered the compound to treat some of their wounds, two of whom were later released.

The group has demanded the resignation of Sarkisian as well as Sefilyan’s release. Protesters have regularly gathered since, voicing similar calls.

Sefilyan and six of his supporters were arrested in June, accused of preparing to seize government buildings and telecoms facilities.

The hostage crisis and violence has shaken the small landlocked ex-Soviet nation, just months after a surge in conflict with Azerbaijan over separatist ethnic-Armenian region of Nagorny-Karabakh left 110 people dead in April.

‘Very worrying’

The U.S. embassy in Yerevan said in a statement it was “deeply concerned by the shocking images and credible reports of violence and excessive use of force by the police to disperse protesters”.

“We urge the Armenian government to take immediate steps to prevent a repeat of last night’s actions,” the embassy added.

The European Union called the latest developments in the crisis “very worrying”.

“Use of force and violence to achieve political change are not acceptable,” an EU spokeswoman said in a statement.

Related reading:
Armenia shows more sympathy for gunmen than for their hostages, by Marianna Grigoryan, Eurasia.net, July 25, 2016

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