The July crisis
17th July armed group took the police building in Yerevan, demanding the release of dissident Zirayr Selfiyan, as well as resignation of the government. During the assault on the building a policeman was killed and the attackers took several hostages, including Deputy Chief of Police of Armenia. The attackers called residents of Yerevan to go out to the streets. As a result of that in front of the occupied building began to gather demonstrators who wanted to pass a food to attackers. On the night from 20th to 21th of July, when the police did not agree to that, demonstrators clashed with police officers. Many people has been arrested in order to prevent an escalation of protests.
Parallel to the occupation of the building social moods deteriorated. There were more demonstrations, arrests and clashes between the protesters and police. The culmination of the events took place on 30th July, when in the result of the shot from a sniper rifle from the occupied police station, another policeman has been killed. After that taking the building by force by police became more probable, after two weeks of negotiations. However, on 31th July attackers surrendered. The international community, including the European Union, the United States and Russia have condemned the use of violence to induce political changes in Armenia. Similar appeals have issued other political parties in Armenia and the Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II.
Direct motives of attackers
The attackers are veterans of fights in Nagorno-Karabakh, which increased sympathy of Yerevan`s residents for them, as people generally respected. Some of them are related to the so-called group “Daredevil of Sassun”, regarded as part of the armed wing of radical opposition (Sassun is a legendary medieval warrior for the freedom of Armenians).
The attackers demanded the release of Zirayr Selfiyana, a radical opponent of the current president. Selfiyan was born in Lebanon, where he participated in the civil war. Later he deserved as a veteran of the war in Nagorno Karabakh and based his political career on that fact. He criticized the government for insufficient support of Armenian separatists of Nagorno-Karabakh. After the aggravation of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh in the spring of this year, he began to publicly criticize the President for being too submissive in relation to Moscow.
In recent years, he was repeatedly arrested on charges of anti-governmental conspiracy. He was arrested again in June this year on charges of illegal possession of weapon. His imprisonment was part of neutralization radical circles in Armenia as a result of Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations with participation of Russia. His antagonistic attitude in relation to Moscow and demands to exclude Moscow from the format of the negotiations Yerevan-Baku was important excuse to do that.
Selfiyan and his supporters are gathered around political party “The Founding Parliament”, which had been seen as a marginal political force with a radical demands. However, the situation in the country favours radical moods, critical towards authorities. Althouth demonstrations have not of mass or nationwide character, they highlighted the resources of social discontent.
Several thousand of protesters, who came on the streets, partly expressed support for the demands of strikers, but in a much greater extent demonstrated their disapproval for the current ruling elites. Among the demonstrators appeared many veterans of War in Karabakh, what only strengthened their social acceptance. As a result of that the government hesitated about the use and scale of the use of coercive measures against the crowd for fear of escalating protests.
The three most important factors that motivated indirectly both attackers attacking a police station and people manifesting support for attackers are: dissatisfaction with the government’s policy according to Nagorno-Karabakh, enhancing wave of antipathy towards Russia and the poor economic situation in the country.
Selfiyan`s demands about Nagorno-Karabakh, previously considered radical, hit the fertile ground of society. This happened as a result of the harshest years of Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh in the spring of this year. The crisis has proven that government policy does not improve the security of Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh itself. Also brought unfavorable from the perspective of Yerevan concept of the peace process, proposed by Russia. Moscow, during the peace negotiations in the framework of so-called “Minsk Group” of the OSCE since 2014 has been presenting the idea of ending the conflict as a result of the transfer part of Azerbaijan lands occupied by Armenian troops in 1994.
This idea is not acceptable for the Armenians, for whom the issue of Karabakh is the core of state policy. It opposed by both the Armenian society raised on unconditional respect for the veterans of Karabakh, as well as the political elite, centered around the so-called “Karabakh Clan”. However, the president did not express unequivocally negative attitude to this concept. It was conditioned by political dependence on Moscow and therefore attempt a diplomatic silence on this proposal was a reasonable tactic. However, it caused a commotion in the social fear of the adoption of this proposal, which also coincided with a growing aversion towards Russia.
The Russian factor
Russia is the main guarantor of Armenia`s security since obtaining its independence in 1991. This is confirmed by running 102. Russian Military Base in Gyumri and the Russian Air Base “Erebuni” in Yerevan, and also a common air defense system, longstanding arms contracts and the membership of Armenia in Eurasian Economic Union (set up in 2015) and the Organisation of the Collective Security Treaty. However, the Armenian-Russian alliance for the Armenians is increasingly unpleasant necessity in the context of the international situation of the country – the war with Azerbaijan and the lack of relations with Turkey.
The decline of trust towards Russia is conditioned by its attitude towards the crisis of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Russia is trying to play the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict to their particular interests and presents a solution unfavorable for the Armenians. Negatively is also seen increasing trade in weapons of Russia with Azerbaijan, which is interpreted by Armenians as “fraternizing with the enemy” and “playing on two fronts” by their ally, namely Russia.
To these factors come experiences at the social level, such as the matter of a Russian soldier from a base in Gyumri, which in January 2015 murdered 7-seater Armenian family. They are becoming increasingly important also economic considerations – it is estimated that small entrepreneurs from Armenia lost financially on its accession to EEU, because they have been imposed unfavorable customs restrictions on the import of goods from abroad. For many Armenians engaged in retail trade, it was a cut off the main source of income in the face of consistently poor economic situation.
The new prime minister
13th September as a result of the resignation Howik Abraham, which was a consequence of the July events, President Serz Sargsyan appointed to this position of Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan, his long-time collaborator in the Republican Party of Armenia and member of the “Karabakh Clan”, to which the President also belongs. His appointment to the office of the Prime Minister is trying to be approximation of the ruling elites with environments criticizing it for ineffective policy towards the Nagorno-Karabakh (mostly veterans of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh), because Karapetyan was born in Stapankert and could be seen as a person who understands the importance of this issue to the public. However Karapetyan is known from his previous engagement in the energy sector, where he was a longtime collaborator of companies controlled by the Russian Gazprom, such as ArmRosGazprom, Gazprombank and Gazprom Miezregiongaz.
He also held in the past functions in government and was the Mayor of Yerevan in 2010-2011. He is widely perceived as a politician subordinated to Sargsyan and pro-Russian. It is not highly valued by the Armenian public opinion mainly through its close contacts with Russia and unpopular decisions from the days when he ruled Yerevan (including ban of street trading or organizing courses of Russian for city administration, in cooperation with the Russian embassy). These facts do not allow to formulate the positive forecasts for the stability and reformist potential of his rule, as well as to calmness of the public mood.
The internal situation in Armenia will not improve as a result of the limited trade with neighbors (Turkey and Azerbaijan do not have it at all), not having significant mineral deposits and long-term war with prosperous Azerbaijan. But these are not the sole reasons for the low standard of living in the country, because the influence on it have also oligarchization of the state, which leads to growing social stratification, and pervasive corruption. This crisis is a natural cause of dissatisfaction with the policies of the current government, especially in the context of last year’s mass strikes and demonstrations in response to the increase in energy prices.
The July events in Yerevan were the result of radicalization of public sentiment caused by the escalation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Russia again tried to play their goals in Armenian-Azeri conflict. Demonstrations in defense of the attackers who attacked the police station, met with greater social response than it was expected as a result of general social discontent.
This year’s unrest in Armenia should be seen as part of the ongoing process, which is based both on economic and political factors. Experience of previous years manifestations such as, “Apricot Revolution” in 2013 or last years riots do not allow to create a positive outlook for the stability in Armenia as long as it does not improve the living conditions of its citizens.
The unstable situation puts into question the peaceful parliamentary elections which are to take place in the spring of 2017 in Armenia. In recent years, the opposition protested against election law violations, and therefore institutions such as the OSCE, the EU and CoE should look carefully at democratic standards in this country. There are concerns in the context of the constitutional reform from December 2015, that the ruling Republican Party of Armenia will want to consolidate their power in the country once again, even using undemocratic methods.
However, even in conditions of full democracy opposition is too broken and deprived of constructive program. Worrying is the radicalization of extreme environments of the opposition, who are ready to use a violence to achieve political goals, as was in July. Operational tactic like this is closer to the methodology of terrorist groups activities.
Poland, which has historical ties with Armenia and the environment of “Polish Armenians” in the country should use soft measures of pressure, both on the authorities in Yerevan and on the opposition, in order to respect democratic standards in that country. Valuable may be the Polish experience of political transformation.