After a government crackdown on nationalist dissent and simmering tension with volatile neighbours, will recent changes to the constitution of Armenia enhance the future stability of this South Caucasus nation, or just help cement its president’s hold on power?
By Glenn Ellis and Katerina Barushka
In July 2016, Armenia experienced its biggest unrest for almost a decade when armed men seized the Erebuni police station in the capital, Yerevan, taking nine hostages, killing a policeman in the raid, and demanding the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan.
Thousands poured on to the streets to support the hostage-takers. But what was behind the raid? People & Power sent us to find out.
The first thing you notice when you arrive in Yerevan is Mount Ararat, towering above the tin roofs and skyscrapers to the west.
It’s a national symbol, yet it’s tantalisingly off-limits, being the other side of a closed border with Turkey, so that Armenians see it as a constant reminder of past glories and past atrocities – most especially the killing of around 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915/16.
Such emblems, memories and history matter here, because they speak to years of complex relations with the other states of the volatile South Caucuses.
The latest crisis to hit the country comes in the wake of last April’s four-day flare-up in a semi-frozen conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan about Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region claimed by both parties and the subject of a bitter six-year war between the two nations in the late 1980s and early 90s.
Having recently spent $5bn on state-of-the-art weapons, Azerbaijan made significant inroads and captured precious territory. To rub salt in the wound, the new arms that led to Azerbaijan’s success had actually been bought from Russia – Armenia’s long-standing regional ally.
Yerevan-based political scientist Irina Ghaplanyan explained the relationship to Russia: “From its inception the Armenian political arena was saturated with … a strong narrative that we need to survive at any expense, given the geopolitical situation, and talking about Russia as the only strategic partner to be trusted.”
But following the April flare-up, as this once “special” relationship suddenly seemed less reliable, many Armenians struggled to understand why President Serzh Sargsyan was still so determined to maintain close relations with a Kremlin that appeared to flirting with the idea of changing sides and supporting their old enemy.
This unhappiness had been compounded by growing discontent among the country’s army veterans. Armenia is intensely proud of its “victory” in the Nagorno-Karabakh war with the much larger Azerbaijan, and those who fought are generally venerated.
They certainly make up an influential cross-section of public opinion. But now, with many veterans living in penury, political and strategic decisions that seem to negate their contribution and importance to the state’s affairs, or indeed diminish the near-sacred significance of Nagorno-Karabakh, are taken badly amiss.
The country’s economy has been struggling for years and one third of Armenia’s population live below the breadline. Allied to concerns about the current administration’s apparent enthusiasm to cling on to power and the violent suppression of peaceful protests this summer, it’s perhaps not surprising that many feel that even more turbulent times lie ahead. And the president’s enemies are keen to capitalise on that sentiment.
Alec Yenikomshian is a member of the Founding Parliament Movement, an ultra-nationalist group that includes many war veterans.
“Since under this regime it is impossible to hold genuine elections, Founding Parliament considers that civic disobedience of the citizens of Armenia should topple the regime and establish a genuine democratic and sovereign country,” he says.
When this summer rumours spread that Moscow wanted Armenia to relinquish more lands around Nagorno-Karabakh and the president declared that the territories lost during the April war were of no tactical or strategic importance, it was too much for the charismatic leader of Founding Parliament, Jirair Sefilian.
According to Yenikomshian, Sefilian, a veteran of the six-year war, said publicly: “OK, it is your responsibility as president of Armenia to be the guarantor of Armenian land. You do not do it, so I myself am ready to do it.” And he reportedly called upon his ex-comrades in arms of the Karabakh war to retake those territories.
A month later Sefilian was jailed on charges of possessing weapons and organising mass disturbances – as a prelude, the government claimed, to an attempted coup.
Within weeks, the country was in the grips of the hostage crisis when armed men seeking Sefilian’s freedom seized the Erebuni police station, killing one person and taking nine hostages.
What surprised many was the outpouring of public support for the armed group’s demands, not just the release of Sefilian but also the resignation of the president. Peaceful protests grew until some 20,000 people were demonstrating in the capital.
State forces responded aggressively with stun grenades, indiscriminate beatings and mass detentions.
According to a plethora of NGOs, 100 people were hospitalised after the police used excessive force; 33 civilians received fractures; 47 had shrapnel wounds; seven civilians had burns; and a teenager lost his eye.
The siege ended after two weeks when the gunmen surrendered and the crowds dispersed. But the crisis is far from over and the wounds are taking a long while to heal.
When we were granted an interview with President Sargsyan to ask him about these issues, we found him in no mood to compromise to those he clearly saw as disruptive elements.
“Is there a country which does not have an aggressive minority?” he asked. “It’s obvious that there are discontented people in our country, and maybe the most discontented are the representatives of civil society, and they have given their assessment, which does not mean it’s objective.”
He was even more scathing about those behind Jirair Sefilian: “I need to tell you that their demand was not just about releasing the person you mentioned, but making him Armenia’s dictator.”
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for next May. Although Sargsyan’s final term as president will shortly end, a controversial new constitution changing Armenia from a presidential to a parliamentary democracy could in theory enable him to prolong his grip on the country by becoming its first prime minister.
When asked, he refused to confirm whether he intended to run for PM, saying: “You know, I find it too early for these conversations.”
Time, as they say, will tell.