Madmen or Heroes? Making sense of the Erebuni Standoff

Madmen or Heroes? Making sense of the Erebuni Standoff

Two weeks that shook Armenia

It is hard to surprise Armenians with political protests. Street rallies, demonstrations, clashes between police and the protesters are almost as usual part of Yerevan life as overcrowded minibuses or open air cafes. But what happened this July was unprecedented for Armenia. a group of armed men, who declared an armed uprising, seized a police building, kept control of it for two weeks, while thousands of their supporters rallied outside. The July events represented probably the most serious internal political crisis in Armenia, since the post-election protests of 2008.

Text: Mikayel Zolyan / Photos: Pan Photo/ Hrant Khachatryan, Aram Kirakosyan, Vare Rafayelyan, Vahan Stepanyan, Karo Sahakyan

It all started on July 17, when a group of armed men, who called themselves “Sasna Tsrer” (“the daredevils of Sasoun”, after the Armenian epic), captured a building in Erebuni district of Yerevan, where the regiment of Patrol Guard Service of Armenian police is located. In the shootout with the police, several people on both sides were wounded and one high-ranking police officer, Artur Vanoyan, was killed. Through social networks the gunmen spread their appeal for people to come out into the streets in support of an “uprising”, demanding the resignation of the President Serzh Sargsyan and the release of those whom the group viewed as political prisoners. Several policemen, including the deputy head of the national police, and the deputy head of Yerevan police were held hostage.

In the course of following days negotiations started and the hostages were released, in exchange for an opportunity to communicate with the media. However, soon negotiations disintegrated, and the police refused to allow for food to be transported to the gunmen. After several gunmen were wounded by police snipers, and some of them refused to be taken to hospital. For some time several ambulance doctors were held by the armed group: the authorities called them hostages, while the group claimed that the doctors were there to help the wounded. During the siege a citizen, who claimed he previously had no links to Sasna Tsrer, broke the police barriers on his car and brought them food. However, ultimately the police siege proved effective and the gunmen surrendered on July 31. Unfortunately, there was one more casualty among the police on the day before. The police blamed the gunmen for the death of policeman Yuri Tepanosyan, while the gunmen claimed that he was shot by the police either deliberately or due to friendly fire.
Meanwhile there was also a “second front” as unarmed protesters held rallies in Erebuni district and sometimes also in central Yerevan. On the first day of the siege there were no protest actions, however, the police detained dozens of opposition activists. Some were detained because of suspected links with the gunmen, others were detained because they were suspected of preparing a rally, particularly in the vicinity of the Freedom Square in central Yerevan. The widespread detentions backfired and already on July 18 there was a rally on Freedom Square, and the participants went to Khorenatsi street in Erebuni to express their support for the gunmen. The rallies were getting bigger, and by the last days of the siege there were thousands of protesters. Clashes with the police also took place in Sari Tagh district, which neighbors Erebuni, where the local population was unnerved with the continued police presence, and the fact that gas and electricity had been shut off (officially “for security reasons”). The protests were getting larger, which led to a police crackdown on July 29, when dozens of activists, as well as inhabitants of Sari Tagh, were injured. There were widespread reports throughout the siege, but the clashes of July 29 were the most violent: not just participants of the protests, but also women, children and elderly inhabitants of Sari Tagh were beaten up, as well as several journalists. In spite of arrests and beatings, next day a large protest took place in the center of Yerevan. One protester, Kajik Grigoryan even tried to set himself on fire: he died of the burns sustained two days later. After the gunmen surrendered, however, the numbers of the protesters started diminishing, and after several days they died out.

Who are “Sasna Tsrer” and what do they want?

“Sasna Tsrer” (“Sasna Dzrer” in Western Armenian pronunciation) is the title of Armenian epic, which tells the story of heroes from the region of Sasoun, who confronted much stronger enemies and won. The epic is taught in schools, and a statue of the most popular hero of the epic, Davit of Sasoun is one of the most well-known landmarks of Yerevan. The title of the epic is usually translated into English as “daredevils of Sasoun”, but as it is often the case, some important nuances are lost in translation. Tsur (plural “tsrer”) literally means “crooked” or “astray” in Armenian, and in the context of the epic it combines two meanings: of “brave men” or “daredevils” and of “mad men”. In other words, the heroes of the epic “Sasna Tsrer” are not regular people, they have gone astray from the regular ways, since they are ready to stand up and fight in a situation when everybody else would either retreat or submit to the stronger enemy. This symbolism conveyed by the name “Sasna Tsrer” is quite clear to anyone well acquainted to Armenian culture.
Before the July events the majority of the Erebuni gunmen were part of a movement called “Founding Parliament”, a somewhat marginal force in Armenian political landscape. It is hard to assess the level of their public support, since FP rejected participation in elections on the ground that elections in Armenia are routinely falsified, and participation would only lend legitimacy to the regime. Instead, they advocated civil disobedience, though until recently they talked about a peaceful uprising. It is hard to talk about specific ideology of FP: their rhetoric mixed nationalist language with calls for democracy and criticism of social injustice. However, in this sense they are no different from the majority of other Armenian parties. They are often called “nationalist”, especially in the international media, however, this does not help to distinguish them from the parties of the government coalition, Republican Party and Dashnaktsutyun which, at least formally, are adherents of conservative-nationalist ideology. However, what did distinguish FP, apart from their radical opposition to the government and rejection of elections, was their outright rejection of concessions in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Thus, in June 2016, in the run-up to a meeting of the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia in St. Petersburg, the leader of PF, Zhirayr Sefilyan claimed that Serzh Sargsyan was planning to make “one-sided concessions” to Azerbaijan. Immediately after that Sefilyan was arrested and accused of plotting mass disturbances and possession of weapons. Release of Sefilyan was among the demands of the Sasna Tsrer aired on July 17.

Sefilyan, as well as several members of the Sasna Tsrer, is a veteran of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Born and raised in Lebanon, he was among the diaspora Armenians who joined the war and became one of the most successful commanders. Other well-known war veterans among the group included Pavel (Pavlik) Manukyan, Arayik Khandoyan also known by his nom de guerre “Lone Wolf”, Martiros Hakobyan, known as “Ded” or “Grandfather” and others. The photo images of a young Khandoyan, who resembled Che Guevara’s famous pictures, Manukyan, dressed as a 19th century Armenian freedom fighter, Hakobyan with his thick beard and a bandana decorated with a cross, are among the most recognizable media images of the Armenian fighters of the war. a film presenting Arayik Khandoyan as a war hero had been shot and shown by the Armenian state television several years earlier. Obviously, the fact that many of the gunmen are revered as war heroes, made things more difficult for the government, and increased sympathy for them. What was probably the most unnerving for the government that these people were highly respected among Karabakh war veterans and in the military. Of course, it is difficult to assess to what extent the perception that the government is preparing “one-sided concessions” in shared among the military, but in any case this is a possibility that the government cannot afford to ignore.

For or Against: Reactions of the Public and the Political Forces
What was probably the most worrying sign from the point of view of the government, was the public reaction. Episodes involving armed radicals confronting the government are possible in any country, under any regime. However, what signifies a serious problem in the Armenian society is the fact that the actions of the Sasna Tsrer, did not encounter lead to a clear condemnation by the majority of the Armenian society, even though they clearly violated the law and led to several deaths,. There have been no opinion polls on this issue, and, even if there are any, it would be hard to get a reliable picture of what the public really thinks, given the possible repercussions for openly supporting the actions of the radicals. However, the reactions of politicians, various public figures, as well as the social network users, suggest that the public opinion in Armenia is divided, to say the least. Moreover, many of those who did not approve the violent methods employed by the Sasna Tsrer, still share their view that the country is in deep crisis and the government is to blame for that.
The first days of the crisis were met with almost complete silence from the government politicians, with the exception of several statements by the National Security Service and the police. Government figures and ruling party members mostly refrained from public statements until July 21, when the president issued a short statement, saying that attempts to bring about political change through violence were unacceptable. Unexpected support for the government position came from one of the most influential opposition leaders, Armenia’s first president Levon Ter-Petrosyan. In his statement Ter-Petrosyan appealed to Sefilyan and his supporters with plea to reflect on the question whether their actions harmed the Armenian state. a similar view was expressed by another veteran politician, former head of the National Security, Davit Shahnazaryan, who condemned the actions of the gunmen as early as on the first day of the standoff. Besides, a letter signed by several well-known figures of the arts and culture sphere, including renowned composer Tigran Mansuryan, was signed, which contained an appeal to Sefilyan and his supporters to lay down arms. However, some controversy was generated with regard to the letter, as it turned out that the version signed by the artists did not coincide with the version published in the media.
At the same time, there was no lack of voices expressing support for the gunmen. One of the most unequivocal endorsements was voiced by former minister of foreign affairs and the leading opposition candidate in the 2013 election, Raffi Hovannisian: he called the gunmen “counter-terrorists” battling “the real terrorists”, i.e. the government. One of the most popular Armenian artists, singer-songwriter Ruben Hakhverdyan was equally blunt: speaking at a rally in Erebuni he called on the police “to stop protecting the enemy”, i.e. the government, and called the actions of the gunmen “self-sacrifice”. Even more common were statements that refrained from openly supporting the gunmen, but put the blame for the situation to the government’s mismanagement of the country’s affairs.
Some of these voices represented Armenian Diaspora. Thus, the leader of the US band System of a Down, Serj Tankian expressed such a view in his Facebook status. Another famous Diaspora Armenian, Canadian actress Arsinee Khanjian, who also happens to be the wife of director Atom Egoyan, who was in Yerevan at the moment, actually came to the rally and had a speech in front of the Sasna Tsrer supporters. Soon enough she was detained by the police. The police realized that Khanjian’s detention was a recipe for a PR disaster, so she was soon released and the police even issued apologies, making her the only protesters during the crisis, who had been released and received an apology for detention.

However, this wide support, which Sasna Tsrer received among part of the society, did not translate into an efficient political movement. The rallies in Khorenatsi street were getting bigger day by day, but even at their height the participation was, according to various estimates, between five and ten thousand people, which is quite low by Armenian standards. The protests also lacked a coordinated leadership and a clear vision of their goals or program. During the first days of the crisis, an opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan was active and obviously showed leadership ambitions. He acted as a mediator, and using his status as an MP was able to enter the territory of the Erebuni police regiment, where he talked to the gunmen and their hostages. He also filmed them. Arguably, Pashinyan’s video, which was widely shared on social networks, was among the factors that contributed to sympathy for the gunmen. It showed charismatic speeches by Pavlik Manukyan as well as by another leader of the group, former ministry of defense official Varuzhan Avetisyan. It also showed that the hostages were treated well and were able to walk around freely: the situation was so calm that civilians, form neighboring houses were not afraid to remain in the streets, including children.
However, the gunmen and Pashinyan had serious differences. On July 21 Pashinyan attempted to take upon himself and his party “Civil Contract” the leadership of the protests. He also called on the protest movement to remain strictly within limits of non-violence and refrain from any clashes with the police, focusing on the demand of Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation. However, in their communication with the media, the Erebuni gunmen made it clear that they viewed Pashinyan’s actions as an attempt to hijack the movement, and Pashinyan announced that he was leaving the stage. After that, there was no clear leadership of the protests: an attempt to create a coordinating body was not very successful, as many of its members were soon arrested. Besides, there was no clear mechanism of decision-making in the coordination body, and the actions of the protesters were often chaotic and lacked a strategy.

Will the lessons be learned?
Ultimately, as the gunmen surrendered, the crisis was resolved. However, its impact on the political situation in Armenia will be enormous. There are lessons to be learned, and they need to be learned fast. The very fact that about thirty gunmen were able to capture and hold a major police installment for three weeks is a major cause for worry. It shows that, in spite of the huge sums of money spent on national security and the police, these institutions remain inefficient and have difficulty dealing with genuinely dangerous situations.
However, what should probably worry the government even more is the unexpectedly high level of public support for the government actions. Now, as the gunmen have been arrested and will be going through a trial, this support is likely to increase further. The level of mistrust to government institutions is so high, that the gunmen will be perceived by many as victims of unfair system. Another potential danger lies in the fact that the Sasna Tsrer had crossed a line that Armenian opposition had not crossed so far: though protests and clashes with the police are common, armed rebellion has never been on the table for the Armenian opposition. The Erebuni events may become a precedent for other radicals.
Further radicalization of anti-government sentiment may lead to even more radical actions and further endanger the internal stability of the country. This is especially likely given Armenia’s complicated external situation, especially related to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. In the coming months, Yerevan will be facing increasing pressure to agree to certain concessions in the context of a compromise solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Compromise and concessions are always painful, and for any government it is difficult “to sell” compromise to their own society. However, given the level of mistrust and alienation that Armenian government is facing within own society, it is highly unlikely that it will be able to convince its society to accept a compromise in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. However, if such a compromise is not reached, repetition of the April events could become highly probable, and against that background the internal instability could have disastrous consequences for Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh’s security.

In order to deal with this dangerous situation the government needs to work on removing the causes for the discontent of the public. These include socio-economic conditions, which had been steadily deteriorating for years, but are not limited to those. The economic troubles are worsened by the issue of corruption. Armenia has a relatively free media, which means that the facts of widespread corruption are well-known in the society, however, cases when high level officials are punished for corrupt activities are extremely rare. The four day war revealed that even the armed forces and security sector are not free from corruption, leading to further resentment among the population. Things are made worse by the common perception that no change can be achieved through elections or other channels of legal political struggle, which leads to radicalization of protest. Unless all these issues are dealt with, the emergence of a new group like Sasna Tsrer is simply a matter of time.