Yerevan hostage crisis – indicative of volatility, intransigence and desperation in Armenian society

Press Release: After an armed siege at the police headquarters in Erebuni, Yerevan, that lasted two weeks and cost the lives of two police officers, more than 30 gunmen – members of the Daredevils of Sassoun group – have surrendered. This crisis has rocked the Armenian ruling elite, as it has been a tangible demonstration of discontent amongst Armenian society, an impoverished population who feel disenfranchised and forgotten amidst the ruins of a failed state.

According to Levon Barseghian, writing in the Huffington Post, the crisis began in protest at the jailing in June of Jirair Selfilian, leader of the oppositional Founding Parliament Party, for allegedly plotting a coup. A former military leader during the Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, he had been vociferously critical of current Armenian President Serzh Sargysan – himself a military leader during the conflict – for his apparent willingness to enter into negotiations with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to resolve the conflict, and has repeatedly called for Sargsyan’s resignation.

Originally, the armed men took nine people hostage, but released them during the first week. They then took four doctors hostage, but they were also released.

The second killing, on 30 July, was accurate and deliberate. Eyewitness Ashot Aharonyan, writing on Facebook, commented: “A sniper opened fire from inside the police station and killed a police officer who was sitting in a car parked 350–400m away.” The first killing occurred during the storming of the police station. OSCE condemned this loss of life, stating: “We are following developments with growing concern.”

On 29 July, an ultimatum was issued to the group, following violent clashes that saw the use of truncheons and stun grenades by the police. A 5000-strong rally in support of the gunmen turned nasty, resulting in at least 60 injuries and more than 160 arrests, according to the BBC. The same day, three gunmen were wounded, having been shot in the legs by Armenian police snipers.

This is the fourth successive summer that has seen protests against the Sargsyan regime. According to Barseghian, this is just the tip of the iceberg: “Many Armenians would like to get rid of Sargsyan. The resentment they feel about the regime’s corruption and its perceived indifference to the country’s widespread poverty has been building for years. It was heightened when Sargsyan pushed through a new constitution in December 2015 that allows him to govern for many more years.”

US policy analysts Stratfor treated the standoff as an indication of mass discontent: “Sargsyan is stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, Russia and the West are pushing Yerevan to make progress on finding a political solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. But on the other hand, Sargsyan is aware that any major concessions could threaten his position in office, and potentially even topple the government.

“Though the hostage crisis is not driven solely by concerns over Nagorno-Karabakh, it is strongly influenced by them and is proof of the instability that a diplomatic deal on the region could produce. Combined with the population’s rising discontent with security crackdowns, and the centralisation of power and corruption that is associated with Sargsyan’s rule, the standoff with the Founding Parliament has further weakened the government’s grip.”

The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) treats this violence as indicative of the increasing desperation of the Armenian population. Turkey and Azerbaijan closed their borders with Armenia in 1993 due to the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding regions. With no natural resources, exclusion from regional energy and trade projects, and a declining, ageing and deskilled population, Armenia remains resolutely the ‘poor man’ of the South Caucasus, being solely economically reliant on Vladimir Putin’s Russia to remain afloat.