Unknown number of hostages taken inside police station as local media report group wants release of opposition figure.
Early in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning, a small group of well-armed gunmen stormed a local police station in Yerevan, forcibly taking several police officers hostage.
After an initial assault on the first day by police seeking to retake the police station and rescue the hostages failed, the crisis quickly turned into a standoff.
The crisis also rapidly escalated as a senior police officer was killed and several wounded, including at least three critically, in the failed assault.
The gunmen, comprising members and supporters of a small, fringe, yet radical, political opposition organisation known for its hard-line policies over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, demanded the immediate release of their jailed leader and called for the resignation of incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian.
In addition to demanding the release of their leader, Jirair Sefilian, who remains in custody following his arrest on weapons charges in June, the gunmen also defended their act as a preliminary move to a nationwide “rebellion”, although with no sign of popular support or political standing.
A hostage standoff
More than a dozen people seized the police station, taking hostage several police officers, including the deputy head of the national police, Vartan Yeghiazarian, and Yerevan’s deputy police chief, Valeri Osipian.
The two senior police officials were reportedly taken hostage, willingly or involuntarily, after coming to the scene to negotiate with the group. One police hostage was subsequently released, reportedly for health reasons.
Although the gunmen may have genuinely expected some sort of popular support, they were quickly disappointed. Moreover, the incident and the lack of any popular reaction only confirmed the marginal standing of this radical fringe group within Armenian society.
Yet, this hostage standoff was serious, for two reasons. First, this particular police station was targeted for a reason – as one of the largest depositories of police weapons in the capital, with an onsite arsenal that was seized by the attackers.
This absence of any military role in Armenian politics also greatly diminishes any risk of a coordinated coup d'etat.
Second, the gunmen were veterans of the Karabakh war, with little to lose and with extensive experience in handling the weapons at their disposal.
And after an initial police assault to retake the police station on the first day failed, the gunmen were better prepared, and strengthened their positions, using the hostages as human shields, making any rescue operation especially difficult.
And with police snipers and special police paramilitary units deployed to surround the building, the risk of further deaths in any renewed assault was seen, at least in the first 24 hours, as an unacceptable risk.
The deeper implications
Aside from the radical, yet amateur, nature of this crisis, there are several deeper, more significant implications, however.
First, 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 overreaction by the 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 Armenian government’s position, helping to bolster and even justify its crackdown on this fringe group.
But the deeply rooted political issues of entrenched corruption, a record of falsified elections and a general perception of an “arrogance of power”, defined by a political elite committed to ruling but not governing the country, are also symptomatic of the more significant political backdrop to this crisis.
No military threat
A second deeper implication stems from what did not occur. More specifically, unlike its neighbours, Armenia enjoys a fairly impressive degree of stable civil-military relations, with no record of any involvement in politics by the army.
Although in the country’s violent post-election crisis of March 2008, in which unarmed demonstrators were killed in clashes with the police, former President Robert Kocharian deployed special military units from Nagorno-Karabakh, with no significant involvement of the Armenian armed forces in that tragic episode.
This absence of any military role in Armenian politics also greatly diminishes any risk of a coordinated coup d’etat.
Even the forced resignation of the country’s first President, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, was a constitutional crisis which the country successfully overcame, rather than a trigger for outright civil war or domestic discord.
A third factor revealing the broader implications from this crisis is the political context. Notably, the silence and passivity of the country’s traditional opposition parties only magnifies their place as largely discredited and popularly dismissed forces on the Armenian political landscape.
Rather, the emergence of new opposition forces was only confirmed in the move by opposition parliamentarian Nikol Pashinyan – one of the leaders of the “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.
Thus, as the course of this crisis demonstrates, the violent act of hostage-taking is not only a manifestation of significant discontent within Armenia, but also confirms the reality that the risk of a coup d’etat in Armenia is only more remote and unlikely.
Richard Giragosian is the founding director of the Regional Studies Center, an independent think-tank in Yerevan, Armenia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.