Armenia’s daredevils and demonstrators: What lies ahead?

Armenia’s daredevils and demonstrators: What lies ahead?

Since an armed group took over a police station on July 17th – taking the officers inside hostage – there has been substantial political unrest in Armenia. The hostage taking has spurred protests across the country; however the direction that this frustration is taking is more than unclear.

The stimulus for the recent protests – the “Daredevils of Sassoun”

The armed group that took over the police station on July 17th are called the ‘Daredevils of Sassoun:’ the eponymous name of an epic Armenian poem recounting the battle for Armenian independence in the Middle Ages. The professed aim of this group reflects this story; they are seeking independence from foreign forces and corruption.

They have presented themselves as sacrifices for their nation and wished to provide the stimulus for the masses to come out to the streets and push for regime change. The primary demand of this armed group was the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan. Initially, the situation remained tense and the population was not entirely informed of events, since state media outlets were ignoring the event.

Nevertheless, a few days later, people began to be drawn to the rallying call provided by the daredevils, with protests, erupting throughout the country especially in the capital city, Yerevan: clashes between citizens and the police continued for a number of days thereafter.

A debate within both social and official media outlets has been raging throughout the country about whether the Daredevils are terrorists, rebels or heroes. The state, although inordinately quiet, has labelled the group as terrorists attempting to bring about change through violence; an effort that has been in vain. A vast proportion of the population, in contrast, has voiced their support for the group, both on the streets and on social media. Others are seeking to remain as neutral as possible for fear of the repercussions that may arise from voicing one’s opinion too strongly.

The roots of Armenia’s political unrest

The short-term causes of the unrest are largely linked to the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave contested by Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the location of a war from 1988-1994. Moreover, despite the cessation of formal hostilities the region has seen intermittent clashes ever since. The enclave is now fully controlled by Armenia; however, it is de jure still part of Azerbaijan. In April, what was deemed to be a “four-day war” was fought, resulting in Azerbaijani forces taking eight kilometres of land out of Armenian control. In June, a meeting was organised by Vladimir Putin with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev, in order to discuss the situation.

Russia has long played an important role in the unfolding Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Consequently, it is important to note that the Daredevils are made up of veterans from the Nagorno-Karabakh war, and are led by Pavlik Manukyan, noted for his key role during the conflict. Furthermore, one of the group’s demands is the release of a political prisoner, Jirair Sefilian, another notable veteran,and leader of opposition group, Founding Parliament. The recent loss of territory and the fear of territorial concessions after the presidential meeting in Russia provided an impetus for the group to take drastic action.

On the other hand the long-term causes are connected to the extreme dissatisfaction with the current political regime, which the Daredevils and the general population of Armenia see as oligarchic and corrupt. There is a perception among Armenians that a mafia-like clan has been ruling the country for around two decades, during the terms of the last two Presidents, Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan; who, incidentally, both hail from Nagorno-Karabakh. The prevalence of poverty, calculated at around 30%, monopolistic political elites preventing ordinary people from penetrating local and global markets, and the illegitimacy of the government after fraudulent elections, have created an undercurrent of frustration which exploded into protests in 2008, 2013, 2015.

What’s next?

On July 31st, the Daredevils of Sassoun surrendered to the authorities. The mood in Armenia has since calmed down; however, as the status quo remains, so do the same frustrations. The Daredevils’ actions and their call to the people allowed the population to vocalize their frustrations, providing a temporary catharsis of sorts. Nevertheless, the lack of organisation and leadership did not provide protesters with any means for implementing genuine institutional changes in the country. The call for Sargsyan to resign and to free political prisoners has been pushed under the rug.

The Armenian Diaspora, (approximately thrice the population of Armenia) has provided financial, moral, and political support in various forms to the Republic over the years, yet has largely remained silent concerning the Daredevils. At most the Diaspora has voiced condemnation of the current government. Inactivity from the Armenian Diaspora, a lack of organised political leadership among the opposition, and the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are all causing instability in Armenia.

What has brought people together is the shared opinion that the current government does not serve or represent the interests of the populace. What makes the task of overhauling the current system so difficult is the divergent positions from which people are coming together – a jumble of nationalists, liberals, Russophiles, and Europhiles, among others. For successful institutional change to take place there must be a leader that is able to both appease certain demands of these camps, and simultaneously deal diplomatically with Armenia’s foreign partners. Now that is a truly daring endeavour.

About Author

Leon Aslanov

Leon Aslanov holds an MSc in International Public Policy from University College London. He is a researcher and political analyst with an in-depth knowledge on the languages, societies and politics of the South Caucasus, Turkey, Iran and the surrounding region. His specific research interests lie in conflict resolution, divided societies and history of the aforementioned regions.