Richard Giragosian

Instability and Uncertainity in Armenia

Marking exactly two weeks to the day of the start of a prolonged hostage situation in Armenia, the remaining gunmen finally surrendered on Sunday, 31 July. Although the hostage standoff escalated steadily over the course of the past two weeks, with clashes between police and civilians gathered in support of the gunmen who seized a police station, the surrender of the gunmen does not necessarily mean an end to the deep discontent and dissent that the incident triggered.  

While the crisis began as a criminal act by a small, radical and fringe opposition group with little popular support, the incident has sparked a deeper and more divisive confrontation driven by a combination of serious discontent within the country and a sense of accumulated frustration with an unpopular government.

In the broader context, the well-armed gunmen aligned with a radical opposition group were successful in serving as a catalyst for an outpouring of public protest and frustration, for several reasons.

First, for many ordinary citizens with little or no allegiance to the gunmen or their political group, this crisis represents an opportunity to stand against the “arrogance of power” and culture of impunity that has tainted the police and the government which is serves.  In this way, the real hostage crisis is more serious, and relates to the general feeling that the Armenian population is being held hostage to the corruption within the government and the record of falsified elections over the past several years.  And this is only exacerbated by a sense of outrage over widening disparities in wealth and power that has come to divide the country.

A second underlying driver for this dissent and discontent stems from the over-reaction of the police, which have responded to this crisis with a sweeping crackdown, including reckless assaults targeting journalists, and pattern of arbitrary mass arrests of civic activists with little to ties or connection to the gunmen or marginal political group responsible for this incident.  Thus, the real key to the security and stability of the country lies in the hands of the state itself, with a real risk of a paranoia and overly harsh response that will only deepen divisions and drive discontent in Armenia. 

But there is a third underlying factor that has exacerbated the situation.  More specifically, the new sense of insecurity and pronounced perception of fear over concessions by the Armenian government over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have heightened the intensity of the protests.  And in the wake of the serious Azerbaijani military offensive that succeed in retaking a small but significant amount of Armenian-held territory, this degree of fear, vulnerability and weakness represents a new phase in public opinion.  And this is only increased by the lack of information on the Karabakh peace process itself, thereby promoting a tendency for misinformation or even disinformation over the central yet sensitive issue.

Moreover, this was an act of outright desperation, but more importantly, reflected a serious error by the gunmen in expecting their seizure of a police station to become a trigger for a serious uprising or rebellion by the Armenian public at large.  The gunmen are comprised of members and supporters of a small, fringe, yet radical, political opposition organization known for its hard-line policies over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  Their demands are both unrealistic and unattainable, as they call for both the immediate release of all “political prisoners,” including their jailed leader, and the resignation of incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian. 

Yet this crisis was not that surprising, and can be seen as inevitable, given the backdrop of a demonstrably deep division and pronounced polarization of Armenian politics.  While this is no way justifies the criminal acts of the gunmen in the current crisis, this backdrop serves to magnify their desperation.  Moreover, although the takeover of the police station is in itself a criminal act of desperation, there are undeniable political overtones to the crisis.  The now commonly used and abused use of pre-trial detention and questionable moves by the Armenian authorities against the opposition group’s leader tended to undercut the standing of the government.  And a demonstrable “political paranoia” within the country’s ruling elite has only fostered an inherently dangerous record of over-reaction by police, with the targeting of far too many civic activists and political opponents well beyond any real threat.  

Yet the criminal actions by this group have only reinforced the weakness of the Armenian government.  And the public response is rooted less in any direct support or allegiance for the fringe group involved in the hostage standoff, but stems more from a general degree of outrage driven by a deepening sense of frustration over entrenched corruption, consistently flawed elections, and a plausible perception of the government’s “arrogance of power.”  Yet dangerously, neither the police nor the government understands the underlying context and is acting from a position of weakness, not strength, rooted in insecurity and a lack of confidence.

Regardless of the fact that the hostage standoff has now ended, the crisis will have serious repercussions for both domestic politics and the standing of the Armenian government.  Despite the obvious demise of apathy, the lack of popular support for the government and the economic and political drivers of discontent, the current situation in Armenia is not a “revolutionary moment.”  The marginal standing of the gunmen, and the fact that the country’s traditional opposition political parties remain largely discredited and equally unpopular, makes any risk of a sudden rebellion or national uprising unlikely.

Yet, the outlook for stability in the country largely depends on whether the Armenian government is able to heed the warning signs and embrace the necessity for real reform.  But with an obvious end to apathy, Armenian civic activists are no longer content with the egregious levels of corruption and authoritarian rule.  The key actor to watch, however, is not only the youth as an “agent for change,” but the emerging new political opposition, as evident in the mediating role of opposition parliamentarian Nikol Pashinyan, one of the leaders of the opposition “Civil Contract” political party, who was the only person accepted by all sides as an interlocutor during this crisis. Pashinyan was able to open personal negotiations with the hostage takers, seeking to persuade them of the futility of their actions and urging them to surrender.  This also magnifies the incompetence or incapacity of the government itself to adequately respond to this crisis.