Friday, 29 July 2016

Armenian News... A Topalian...Hostage crisis in fifth day
Rioting in Armenian capital as hostage crisis enters fifth day
Roland Oliphant, Moscow
21 JULY 2016 

Rioting erupted in the Armenian capital of Yerevan on Wednesday 

night as protesters clashed with police over the government’s handling 
of a four-day hostage crisis.

At least 51 people were injured, 28 of them police, after stone-throwing 
protesters clashed with officers and erected barricades near a besieged 
police station. About 30 people were detained, the Armenian interior 
ministry said.

Yerevan’s central police station has been the scene of a hostage crisis 
since Sunday morning, when a group of gunmen seized the building 
and took several policemen prisoner. One officer was killed during  the 

Although two hostages have been released, the gunmen still hold 
four people including General Major Vardan Egiazaryan, the deputy 
head of the Armenian police force, and Colonel Valeri Osipyan, the 
deputy chief of Yerevan’s municipal police force.

More than 1,500 anti-government protesters rallied in the capital on 
Monday to call for a bloodless resolution to the crisis.

The gunmen have demanded the resignation of Serzh Sarkisian, 
president of Armenia, and the release of an opposition figure who 
was arrested in June for illegal weapons possession.

Zhirair Sefilyan, the leader of a small opposition group called the 
New Armenia Public Salvation Front, was arrested with six of his 
supporters in June after they are accused of plotting to seize 
government buildings in Yerevan.

An ethnic Armenian from Lebanon, Mr Sefilyan fought in that 
country’s civil war in the 1980s. In the 1990s he moved to Armenia
to fight in the war with neighbouring Azerbaijan for control of
Nagorno Karabakh, an Armenia-populated break-away region.

He is a bitter critic of the government of Mr Sarkisian, the Armenian 
president since 2008, and has frequently been accused of plotting 
armed coups.

He was jailed for 18 months in 2006 after calling for the “violent 
overthrow” of the Armenian government. He was briefly detained 
on similar charges last year.
From civil disobedience to armed violence: 
political developments in Armenia
19 July 2016 
On Sunday, an armed group seized a Yerevan police station. 
Their claims have chimed with recent civic initiatives, and 
reveal how the marginalisation of activism can help fuel the 
search for more extreme methods. 
On Sunday 17 July, a group of armed men, calling themselves the Sasna Dzrer (Daredevils of Sassoon) seized the Erebuni police station in Yerevan and took several policemen hostage. As of today, 19 July, the siege continues , but there has been little proper analysis of why this event occurred.

According to the statement released by Sasna Dzrer on Sunday, their “primary demand” is the resignation of Armenia’s president Serzh Sargsyan and the establishment of a new government. Additional demands include the release of their friend and comrade in arms Jirair Sefilyan, along with other political prisoners.

The current siege of Erebuni police station is connected to the recent four day war in Karabakh — the group accuses the current authorities of “endangering the security” of the country. They claim that peaceful means of protest and mobilisation have failed and for that reason, they have come to the conclusion that the “Only way to save the future of the [Armenian] nation and the homeland is through popular revolt and an armed rebellion”.

Unsurprisingly, the Armenian government, pro-government politicians and some political commentators have strongly condemned the actions, with some labelling it a terrorist plot and the organisers, terrorists.

To be very clear, I am in no way condoning the use of violence. However, as a scholar of civil society and social movements, who has studied civil society movements and organisations in Armenia for many years, my aim in this article is to provide a broader context and analysis of the unfolding events and causal factors.

In other words, I ask: why is this happening now and how is it related to past political developments and civil/political mobilisations in Armenia? Who are the Sasna Dzrer?

Most of the men of Sasna Dzrer group involved in the siege are members, sympathizers or have ties to the Founding Parliament group . Founding Parliament , which was previously known as the Pre-Parliament movement, emerged from the Sardarapat movement in 2012. Since then, it has been calling for regime change and the resignation of Serzh Sargysan.

While the Founding Parliament includes people from different walks of life and diverse professional backgrounds, many of the Sasna Dzrer are former soldiers, or as they are locally known, “freedom fighters” (azadamardikner) who fought in the first Karabakh war in the 1990s. Jirair Sefilyan, who was one of the originators of the Founding Parliament, was imprisoned by the authorities on 23 June 2016, on charges of illegal procurement, transportation and storing of weapons . Sefilyan is a Lebanese-born Armenian who moved to Armenia over 20 years ago and was a military commander in the Karabakh War. Whilst living in Armenia for over two decades, his application for Armenian citizenship has been consistently rejected.

Along with over 90 other civil society and political activists, my research team and I interviewed Jirair Sefilyan as part of the research on civil society and social movements in Armenia (2011 – 2015). I thus have first-hand knowledge of his views on the political situation in Armenia and the role of political and civic activism. However, since all our interviews were conducted in accordance with LSE’s ethical standards of ensuring anonymity of respondents, it is not possible for me to quote him here.

That said, I can identify some of those same ideas reflected in his public speeches. Sefilyan has always been upfront with his criticism of the authorities and has often called for regime change. Together with his team at the Founding Parliament he has organised rallies and protests to that effect. It was after one such a rally held on 4 May 2015 when Sefilyan, together with other Founding Parliament members, Garegin Chukaszyan, Varuzhan Avetisyan, Pavel Manukyan, and Gevorg Safaryan, were arrested.

In response to these arrests, on 6 May 2015, Human Rights Watch issued a statement in which it “expressed concern that the Founding Parliament members were being targeted for their peaceful political beliefs and affiliation and that the charges were intended to interfere with their right to freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, as protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Armenia is a party.”

The statement goes on to say that the Founding Parliament’s booklet and advertisement for the rally called for “civil disobedience and peaceful political change”. Of the five, two of the men, Sefilyan and Safaryan, are currently incarcerated, Chukaszyan’s whereabouts are unknown, and Avetisyan and Manukyan are involved in the Sasna Dzrer’s siege at the Erebuni police station. It is worth noting that the most recent peaceful march organised for the release of Sefilyan and Safaryan took place in Yerevan on 7 July 2016 . Symbolism and signifiers

The name Sasna Dzerer comes from the Armenian epic tale The Daredevils of Sassoon , whose origins date back to the 8th-10th centuries.

The epic tells the story of how four generations of men from a legendary family, which included the brothers Sanasar and Balthazar, Great Mher, David of Sassoon and Little Mher, rose against despotic rules to liberate the Armenians. The tale is very popular in Armenian culture and the heroes in the epic tale are fearless warriors, who are also slightly mad or crazy ( dzour ), hence the name dzrer . In invoking this moniker, the group has chosen a name that is full of symbolism and pregnant with meaning. Proclaiming themselves latter-day Sasna Dzrer, they intend to draw links to Armenia’s past heritage of liberation struggles and to perhaps also legitimate their use of arms.

While Armenians have taken to Facebook to debate whether the Sasna Dzrer are heroes or terrorists, if we take a step back, can we not say that these men appear to personify the stereotype of the ideal or real man in Armenian society ?

According to the stereotype, a real Armenian man is the (hyper)-masculinized, heterosexual, fearless protector and defender of the weak (read, women, children and the elderly). Having long promoted this stereotype, it hasn’t been as easy for the authorities to discredit this group of men as they did when criticising human rights defenders or the LGBT and feminist.

While the former use the language of nationalism and national pride, the latter, who speak of human rights and democracy are often presented by the authorities and in the Armenian media as grant-eaters who promote western/foreign values and norms. Contextualising the siege

In the past six years, there have been a number of civic initiatives in Armenia which have demanded greater democracy and justice , challenged what they see as the reigning oligarchic regime, and criticised human rights abuses and rule of law. These protests and civic mobilizations of recent years have been over mining and environmental issues , the unlawful seizure of public spaces for private business, the hikes in electricity and transport fees, the privatisation of pensions, etc.

The civic initiatives have won symbolically significant but isolated victories. Moreover, due to some activists’ overtly anti-or apolitical stance , on the whole these movements have done little to alter the structural inequalities and patterns of governance in the country. Today 35% of Armenians live below the poverty line and there is wide income inequality, as the oligarchs continue to rule with impunity and violence.

Reading the group’s statement and watching the video interviews published by opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan , one hears some similar demands from the Sasna Dzrer as those previously raised by peaceful, democratic and rights activists.

For instance, the Sasna Dzrer statement ends with the following sentences: “The time has come for freedom, dignity, justice, and rights. We are the owners of our country”. The last phrase (“We are the owners of our country”) was coined and popularised by young civic activists . The latter spoke of democracy and human rights, but these discourses have been notably absent (at least in the published) speeches and interviews of the Sasna Dzrer members.

While firmly rejecting the use of violence and arms, judging from the discussions on Facebook, it appears that some pro-democracy and human rights activists argue that they can understand the frustration and anger driving the men. This is in part because they themselves have come up against the unresponsive and coercive authorities and officials. On 19 July, a group of human rights NGOs from Human Rights House Armenia published a statement condemning the use of force, arrest and detention of “peaceful citizens” who had gathered in the streets and squares of Yerevan. The urge for a peaceful political situation stating that use of force by any side “is unacceptable”.

When my research team and I analysed the protests that emerged in Armenia and globally since 2011, we analysed the demands, motivations and slogans of different movements . We found that dignity, social justice, and democracy were broadly shared aims in movements around the globe from Tahrir Square to Syntagma Square.

But we also discovered that the protests had largely failed to achieve their aims and were often met with unresponsive governments which at times responded with violence, coercion, the penalisation and criminalisation of protest, and the marginalisation of opposition demands.

Social scientists have long analysed social movements and mobilisations, both peaceful and violent, to understand why such events occur and how they develop over time. They have found that in past decades, as today, movements choose different tactics and strategies. Violence is but one of those.

The question that remains is why this group of men chose to use violence at this particular time and more importantly, what will be the consequences of this violent action for those who are struggling to create a more democratic, peaceful and just Armenia.

About the author 

Armine Ishkanian is Assistant Professor at the London School of Economics. She has expertise in civil society, democratisation, gender, and development in the post-socialist countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Huffington Post
July 21 2016
The Wider Threat That the Police-Station Stand-Off Poses to 
Armenia’s Regime
Armine Sahakyan Human rights activist based in Armenia, 
Columnist with
the Kyiv Post

YEREVAN, Armenia — Twenty armed men’s seizure of a police station in
Armenia’s capital of Yerevan has put President Serzh Sargsyan in a

On the one hand, he needs to resolve it as soon as possible to
demonstrate to the many Armenians who disagree with the takeover that
no one is above the law.

On the other hand, he needs to be careful not to be so heavy-handed in
his response that it fires up a public that already resents Armenia’s
deteriorating economic situation and gap between the small number of
rich and everyone else. That could spark a general uprising against
his government and a response from Russia, which always gets a nervous
tick when there’s turmoil in the neighbor it considers its most
obsequious servant.

The stand-off in Yerevan started Sunday, when a dozen followers of
fringe opposition leader Jirair Sefilian seized the police station to
demand his release on charges of plotting a coup.

The situation reminds me of what American law enforcement officers
faced when they surrounded the compound of the fanatic Branch Davidian
religious sect near Waco, Texas, in 1993.

The stage was set for the Waco stand-off when federal officers raided
the Davidians’ ranch to seize weapons the group had been stockpiling.
A gun battle broke out, killing six of the fanatics and four officers.

That led to a 51-day stand-off that law enforcement decided to end
with a tear-gas attack aimed at forcing the Davidians out of their
compound. Unfortunately, the compound caught fire, killing 76 men,
women and children.

Ever since, right-wing extremists have invoked the Waco dead to try to
win converts to their anti-government agenda.

The stand-off at the Yerevan police station has some of the elements
of the Waco situation.

The Davidians were fervent followers of a charismatic fanatic named
David Koresh.

Those who seized the Yerevan station are diehard followers of
Sefilian, who has called in the past for an overthrow of the Armenian
government. Police arrested the war hero in June on the coup-plot

Another similarity between the Waco situation and the one at the
Yerevan police station is that the initial clashes between the
loyalists and police spawned bloodshed.

In the case of Waco, 10 people died. Those holed up at the Yerevan
police station killed one of the officers there when seizing it —
Colonel Artur Vanoian — and wounded two others.

Although they have let the wounded and other hostages go, they still hold five.

Bloodshed makes the resolution of a dispute between anti-government
types and authorities much harder. Most of the public expects those
who commit bloodshed to be prosecuted, regardless of the political
inclinations that prompted the bloodshed.

If there had been no bloodshed, Armenian authorities would have had
room to compromise with the station occupiers. Now compromise is out
of the question.

On the other hand, the last thing Sargsyan needs is to turn the
occupiers into martyrs whom the broader political opposition could use
to try to ignite a general uprising against the government.

A lot of the Armenian public dislike his regime, starting with their
belief that he stole his second term as president in the election of
2012. He is also disliked for agreeing to let Armenia’s Russian-owned
electricity company increase rates by 17 percent, and for forcing
through a new constitution in December of last year that extended his
rule for many years.

The simmering anger against the government means police must refrain
from storming the Yerevan police station. That would not only lead to
the martyring of the occupiers but the deaths of some of the hostages.

Sefilian, who served 18 months in prison on a weapons charge in 2007
and 2008, has called openly for a government overthrow.

He has been unhappy of late with Sargsyan’s policy on the
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. His specific
beef is that Sargsyan refuses to commit to retaking small slices of
territory that Azerbaijan reclaimed in a flare-up of the fighting in
April of this year.

Sargsyan has been going along with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s
effort to broker a Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal. Sefilian, who fought
in the Nagorno-Karabakh War from 1990 to 1994, opposes a deal.

The Nagorno-Kazabakh War started when the mostly ethnic Armenians in
the territory declared their independence and neighboring Azerbaijan
objected because it considers the enclave its territory. Armenia has
always supported the separatists.

Since the takeover of the police station, Sefilian supporters have
taken to the streets of Yerevan to demand that he and the station
occupiers be released.

Most of the demonstrations have been small — fewer than 200 people —
because most Armenians consider Sefilian’s Founding Parliament Party a
fringe group.

Police have used force on the protesters, however — and that has
angered some of the public and members of opposition groups that enjoy
broader support.

Those groups’ strategists are undoubtedly trying to figure out ways to
fan the flames of the “Free Sefilian” protests into a broader
conflagration against the government.

It’s just as likely that Sargsyan’s loyalists are staying up at night
trying to figure out ways to keep that from happening.

Armine Sahakyan is a human rights activist based in Armenia. A
columnist with the Kyiv Post and a blogger with The Huffington Post,
she writes on human rights and democracy in Russia and the former
Soviet Union.
The Clear Path Forward: Striving for Social Justice and 
Democracy in Armenia
Serouj Abrahamian
July 20, 2016
On May 20, Jirair Sefilian—a veteran of the Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh) liberation movement and a vocal opponent of Armenian President Serge Sarkisian’s administration—was arrested and accused of planning an armed rebellion against the Armenian government. Sefilian and his supporters denied the accusations, maintaining that they were targeted for political reasons. 

Despite his claims of innocence, the following month, Sefilian announced plans to set up a new group that would struggle to overthrow the ruling regime “with the help of the people and the army.” 

The July 17 armed siege of the Erebuni police station and subsequent four-day standoff by Sefilian’s affiliates, only confirms the government’s accusations. The group is calling for Sefilian’s release and appealing to the army and population to “join the rebellion.” 

Following the seizure of the station, police began illegally rounding up and beating suspected opposition activists. In the last four days, the situation escalated with large-scale street protests and clashes between citizens and law enforcement in Yerevan. 

Such episodes of political violence in Armenia are nothing new. Indeed, they have been the default course of action pursued by most opposition elements since independence. We saw tanks rolled out against protesters who stormed the parliament in the wake of the 1996 presidential elections; the killing of the Prime Minister, Speaker of Parliament, and Members of Parliament in 1998; the tragic March 1 events of 2008; regular street clashes with police; and various unsolved murders of prominent regional and national political figures. Two decades of such violent actions have scored virtually no political gains or improvements in the country. On the contrary, these violent acts were used to fortify the power of the authorities and further justify draconian methods of suppressing activism, while also leaving the masses hopeless and alienated. 

Indeed, if there is one language the administration understands, it is violence and coercion. And they have it in abundant supply with their control of the state, army, police, and so on. 

In contrast, since at least 2012, young people have shown a clear path for securing actual political change in Armenia. From Mashtots Park , to 150 Dram , to DemEm, to Electric Yerevan , and many other civic initiatives, the government has been forced to reverse its policies and succumb to popular pressure on a host of issues. These social movements have shown that non-violent, grassroots social activism can actually score victories—something street clashes, foreign-funded non-governmental organizations, and electoral politics largely failed to do. Indeed, if there is one lesson of the past twenty-five years, it is that such non-violent, popular activism is one of the only strategies that leads to tangible results. 

These same civic activists can be seen on the front-lines today, voicing their grievances against the autocracy and inequality within the country. Many of them poured onto the streets in response to the illegal arrests and abuses of the police. They can also be seen calling for calm when disgruntled protesters (some would say saboteurs) engage in rock throwing and violent hooliganism. They are aware of the root disillusionment that leads to such volatile actions but firmly caution against the use of violence and bloodshed. 

If there is anything positive that can come out of this latest turmoil in Armenia, it is the hopeful realization that force and reckless calls for armed rebellion will lead to nothing but further deterioration within the country. Viable alternatives are needed to build a future based on responsibility and civic agency. The clear path forward is the strengthening of the non-violent, youth-led, grassroots social movements. This is a matter of more than principle. It is a matter of pursuing a course that actually works versus radical posturing and adventurism. 

For those both within Armenia and the diaspora, it is incumbent upon us to reject violence and support those healthy elements of dissent within the country striving for social justice and democracy. Failure to do so, will lead to even more chaotic displays of disillusionment than what we are seeing today.

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