BY PATRICK AZADIAN
History will judge the significance of the armed takeover of the police station in the Erebuni district of Yerevan in Armenia (July 17, 2016) that resulted in the death of two Armenian police officers and lead to the unlawful and violent treatment of demonstrators by the Armenian police force. The armed group calling itself ‘Sasna Tzrer’ (‘Daredevils of Sassoun’) demanded the resignation of the Armenian president as well as the release of what they identified as political prisoners. After a two-week standoff and the release of all hostages, the armed operation came to an end as the group surrendered to the authorities on July 31, 2016.
For some, inside but especially outside Armenia, the level of support expressed for the ‘Daredevils’ by the local population was inexplicable. And for many in the Armenian Diaspora who were born in the Middle East and have witnessed the devastation caused by armed resistance, violent revolutions and foreign interventions, the prospect of Armenia plunging into civil war was horrifying. Mass protests in Armenia against government corruption, unfair price hikes, undemocratic elections as well as business monopolies are not new, but never before had the protesters shown such a defiance in the face of a government crackdown and never before they’d had an opportunity to express the extent of their discontent against government injustices through embracing the demands of an armed group. Some protesters went even as far as asking the armed group to take them in as hostages.
While some have labeled the act carried out by the ‘Daredevils’ in a negative light, others have been quick to jump on the bandwagon of popular support on social media and elsewhere. In the coming months, Armenian intellectuals, politicians and journalists will continue to discuss the ramifications of this act of dissent. What will not change, however, is the fact that the act happened, and the support on the streets of Yerevan flowed generously despite the clear and present physical dangers. Beyond complicated conspiracy theories that some have indulged in, the stated motivations behind the takeover of the police station were clear. What’s more important and critical for the Armenian people at this point is understanding the reasons behind the unexpected mass support generated for this act by significant layers of Armenia’s citizens. Why now and why would an otherwise patient populace wait for such a radical act to take on the streets and confront the system?
The illegitimacy of successive Armenian governments has been a constant theme since independence. One of the most direct indications of the illegitimacy of the government has been the process of vote rigging and the staging of unfair elections from day one. But even if all elections were conducted in the most fair and democratic manner, other phenomena were still contributing factors to the illegitimacy of the Armenian government. Fair elections on their own do not always guarantee a just society and equality of opportunity. In the case of Armenia, monopolizing the means of production and big business, controlling the judiciary by direct and indirect means, the absence of a support system for an independent media and human rights organizations, lack of transparency and accountability as well as an unfair and illegal taxation system were factors that have greatly contributed to the illegitimacy of the current government.
In addition to the reality that the government has been the culprit for a vast gap in standards of living and extreme poverty, such a structure has also created an atmosphere of mistrust and cynicism in the population. Since independence, Armenia has been a society where superficial freedoms have been tolerated, society is relatively free of petty crime compared to any world standards, some small businesses have flourished and well-intentioned philanthropists have had the opportunity to do a lot of good. But those with the means and the connections have also been unchecked to benefit greatly and prosper beyond the imagination of the average citizen. The common man has found himself defenseless, hopeless and disposable in this new order. For sure, today’s Armenia is not the old East Germany or today’s North Korea where every individual is suspected of being either a direct government agent or an ‘enemy of the state,’ the prisons are not full of tortured dissidents, yet, the resultant atmosphere has been somewhat the same. Armenia’s current power system has produced a populace that is, justifiably, suspicious of everything and anything, where constructive and substantive dialogue on what is good or bad either does not happen or is seen through a tainted lens. This negative perception has not only affected the dialogue of larger societal issues of inequality but has also manifested itself in everyday societal situations and conversations. Armenia is a society where cynicism has taken deep root, and despair has taken the place of conventional statewide oppression.
Let’s start with the ‘small’ stuff.
In the past decade, drivers in the capital have become more ‘polite’ in following traffic regulations. In a well-balanced society this would be a seen as a good thing. But talk to a taxi driver who barely makes a living and he’ll tell you about the traffic cameras installed at every street corner to ‘tax’ the little he earns. Through the lens of the taxi driver this is just another well-greased process at the disposal of the government for a ‘lawful’ shake down.
A teacher approaching parents to discuss the ‘limitations’ of their child in the classroom can be seen as an unscrupulous (and underpaid) government employee who intends to blackmail the family for additional income through extra tutoring hours. In a more just society, the teacher’s approach may be welcome. But through the lens of some parents without important connections, the message would be different: either pay up or your child will not pass; cooperate and your child will become a genius overnight and graduate with honors. Perhaps the child did need extra help; but no one will ever know for certain. Talk to another taxi driver whose young son has just graduated from college and he will tell you about his grave doubts about successful job placement and absence of a merit-based hiring system.
Express your concern to a journalist about the skirmishes and sniper killings on the border and she may marry her opinion to a heavy dose of cynicism about the true nature of events. She may imply that every time there is internal discontent, the volume of bad news from the point of contact multiplies. Expressing such opinions can be squashed by labeling the journalist as ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘untrustworthy.’ In the process, caution, passivity and silence have become the norm and the institutions of free media and human rights have suffered. Whether there was validity in the journalist’s implications is somewhat irrelevant; some of her opinions may have been a guess after all. But if she doesn’t trust the leadership in charge, any conspiracy theory becomes plausible. In Armenia, the atmosphere of suspicion is clear and present, a phenomenon that can endanger statehood and negatively influences the mobilization of the populace against external and internal threats.
Speak to a young waiter working a twelve hour shift who will be reporting to duty at the front in the coming months, and he will tell you about his lack of confidence on where he will be stationed because of his family’s meager means. With a wry smile, he will imply that if he had better means he would’ve been sent to a less dangerous military station. He may actually end up at a more peaceful border outpost, but regardless, the lack of confidence in the government has already poisoned his mind and broken his trust.
Armenia’s most recent constitutional referendum leading to the passage of the parliamentary system was a good example of an atmosphere of suspicion created by an illegitimate government that negatively influenced a healthy dialogue. From the onset, intellectuals, politicians and journalists argued against the merits of the proposed system based on the fact that it was an initiative by prominent ruling party members. While many agreed that the new constitution would resemble some of the existing systems in Western Europe and be a first in the post-Soviet realm, nevertheless, they stubbornly argued that it was an attempt by the ruling class to consolidate power in the coming years. The discussion surrounding the new constitution revolved around who was behind the initiative, as opposed to whether it was a step in the right direction. Irregularities in the voting process also contributed to further doubts about the true intentions of the measure. At the end, the passage of the referendum was another blow to the legitimacy of the government as well as referendum supporters, as opposed to an opportunity for confidence building and nurturing a democracy.
Since independence, the people of Armenia have either tolerated unfair elections, business monopolies, human right violations, undemocratic processes and the disregard for the rule of law, or have chosen to leave for a search of a better life and opportunity elsewhere. For those who have chosen to stay (the term ‘chosen’ is significant here, because despite the cynical claims by some in the Armenian Diaspora that all those who have stayed are there because of lack of choice, most people in Armenia do have a choice and many with limited resources can and do leave if they choose), the tipping point in the level of defiance against the ruling class may have come during the April Four-Day War with Azerbaijan. The mistrust of the government did not hinder the will of the people to support the defense of the homeland but once the dust was settled and the fallen soldiers were counted, it didn’t take long before questions and suspicions surfaced. The most basic question revolved around the readiness of the military and the scale of casualties. In an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust, it is reasonable to wonder whether the number of casualties and the loss of territory were inevitable. Inequality and lack of opportunity may be tolerable but loss of precious young life due to the leadership’s incompetence was seen as unforgivable. It’s one thing losing a son in defense of the homeland, it’s another wondering if it was absolutely necessary. Despite the Armenian President’s imprudent claims on the insignificance of the territories lost, the once-defeated Azeri army could now claim, at least to its people, that it had finally won something. In the minds of the citizens, the responsibility of this setback was clearly on the shoulders of the ruling elite. Moreover, once the ‘Daredevils,’ veterans of the Karabakh War, had taken over the police compound, the people were faced with a choice: trust those who have run the country to the ground by their endless greed, or those who were ready to sacrifice their lives for a cause. It’s not difficult to fathom the strength of this reality in the minds of the population considering the circumstances.
During the twenty-five years of independence, Armenia’s successive leaderships have succeeded in abusing the trust of the people but have also pained themselves into a dark corner. This is a place where both action and inaction can be seen as equally unscrupulous, where illegitimacy of the ruling class has resulted in a government susceptible to radical opposition. By their own actions, the leadership has forfeited legitimacy for power and wealth but has also become a liability for this small, land-locked nation. The ruling class has had a fun ride at the expense of the people and the country’s natural resources, but chickens have finally come home to roost in an unpredictable and dangerous manner. The support for the ‘Daredevils’ has been a clear indication of the level of the illegitimacy of the Armenian government.
Now that the ‘Daredevils’ have surrendered, the Armenian ruling class has some difficult choices to make: Sit tight and hope for the best and possibly see the country degenerate into further chaos; clamp down on discontent, waive the flag of false nationalism, and transform itself into an Pinochet style junta while risking the further radicalization of the populace or; find a way out of this impasse by relinquishing power and privilege. It also has the choice of embracing change by initiating drastic reforms. As for the people of Armenia, this is an opportunity to press ahead with their just claims and begin a process for building a homeland where citizens can recover their dignity and pride. For sure, this will neither be an easy road nor will there be any magical shortcuts. And for those in the Armenian Diaspora who care about the survival of the Armenian nation, this can serve as an alarm bell to realign priorities, harness its great global potential and find avenues to support reforms.