A Street Perspective of Putin’s Armenia Visit

Activists protested against Putin, and the regime’s decision to join the Custom’s Union. (Photo by Samson Martirosyan)

From The Armenian Weekly

YEREVAN—On Dec. 2, 1920, Armenian Foreign Minister Alexandre Khatisian signed the Alexandropol Treaty between the First Republic of Armenia and Turkey. Pro-Soviet forces took control of Armenia’s government, and the country was declared a Soviet state. Exactly 93 years later, on Dec. 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Armenia to welcome President Serge Sarkisian’s decision to join the Russian-led Custom’s Union, which many argue is an incarnation of the Russian imperialistic appetite and an attempt to create a Soviet Union 2.0.

Despite all odds stacked against Armenian civil society and strong pro-Russian and anti-European Union (EU) propaganda, a very diverse group of more than 1,000 citizens took to the streets of Yerevan to protest Putin’s visit, and the regime’s decision to join the Custom’s Union, and its failure to sign the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) and Association Agreement with the EU.

Early in the morning, prior to Putin’s arrival, large banners reading, “No to Customs Union Colonization” (Ո՛Չ ՄԱՔՍԱՅԻՆ ԳԱՂՈՒԹԱՑՄԱՆԸ), “Sovereign Republic of Armenia” (ԻՆՔՆԻՇԽԱՆ ՀՀ), and “Let’s get rid of the Sergiks” (ԱԶԱՏՎԵ՛ՆՔ ՍԵՐԺԻԿՆԵՐԻՑ) hung above the main streets of Yerevan. Police removed them almost immediately, and detained around six activists, who were released by noon.

While the activists were hanging banners, many others—suspected to be administrative staff of governmental institutions and Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) members—were shipped in on buses and handed Russian flags,  in order to greet Putin and participate in the opening ceremony of a monument that symbolizes Armenian-Russian friendship.

The main protest activity started at 1 p.m. at Freedom Square. I went to the venue earlier than planned as rumors had spread that the authorities were planning to close off a bigger part of Baghramyan Avenue near the Presidential Palace. Police numbers were overwhelming and the ratio of activists to policemen was approximately one to five. Policemen seemed more hostile than usual, more alert and determined.

Early on, a police car intervened, warning that the protest was not authorized by municipal authorities, and was thus illegal and had to be dispersed. Initially, it was planned that the protest would move from Freedom Square to the Presidential Palace via Northern Avenue and Amiryan Street. Protesters quickly began marching while chanting, “Putin, go home,” “We are the owners of our country,” and “Sergik, go away.”  Police blocked the march halfway through. The protesters reversed direction, but were again blocked off. The then protesters became trapped on Northern Avenue, with no way out. Eventually, after negotiating with the police, they were allowed to move once again. The protesters—numbering around 1,000—moved towards the government building, only to be blocked again.

Young men and women, mostly students, carried a large banner that read, “To the barricades.” Dozens of others held anti-Putin posters. Someone waived a huge anarchist flag. Others carried the Ukrainian and Armenian national flags tied together as a sign of solidarity with the recent Euromaidan events in Kiev. And finally, for the first time, there was the rainbow flag. All of these elements made this protest unique: Diverse backgrounds and sets of values (a bit unusual in Armenia) were represented here, united despite the absence of an organizing body.

The protesters took to Amiryan Street, and were again blocked by police, who started a crackdown. They detained every activist they managed to catch, and confiscated cameras. Simultaneously, a small skirmish took place between an ultra-nationalist group and those carrying the rainbow flag, although it didn’t result in major injuries and both sides avoided each other from then on. Later, after the protest ended, they too were detained.

In the meantime, those activists who separated from the main group to protest near the Presidential Palace on Baghramyan Avenue, where Putin was supposed to arrive, were arrested by the police.

The main protest activity started at 1 p.m. at Freedom Square. I went to the venue earlier than planned as rumors had spread that the authorities were planning to close a bigger part of Baghramyan Avenue near the Presidential Palace. (Photo by Samson Martirosyan)

Back downtown, as police began acting violently, protesters ran to another street to avoid being detained. Police announced that people had been warned that the march was unauthorized, and that they were now taking steps to detain them. Activists responded by chanting, “We are not slaves.”

Meanwhile in Gyumri—Armenia’s second largest city, where authorities had frantically prepared for Putin’s arrival—Putin announced during a joint Armenian-Russian forum that “As for the South Caucasus, Russia has no plans of ever leaving it.”  The decision to join the Custom’s Union “was a sovereign decision,” said Putin in the presence of his Armenian counterpart and the Armenian political leadership. After the forum, both presidents went to the Russian military base in Gyumri, then headed to Yerevan.

A few hours later, protesters—whose numbers had drastically decreased due to the numerous detentions—were finally allowed to leave the street. Several of them attempted to cross over to Baghramyan Avenue, but were unsuccessful. I, too, tried to make my way to Baghramyan via the metro, but it turned out that “due to technical reasons” the metro did not stop at Baghramyan Avenue. By 6 p.m., the area near the Presidential Palace was closed. Almost all police departments available were dispatched there. Even parents were not allowed to pick up their kids from the school in that vicinity. It appeared as though there was a state of emergency rather than a visit by the president of a foreign country.

The outcome of the visit was an agreement that would sell the last 20 percent of shares belonging to the Armenian ArmRosGazprom Company to the Russian Gazprom Company, thus making Armenia even more dependent on Russia. Putin left later that night. His visit resulted in a record number of arrests: 110 in total.

There are several conclusions to be made after the events that happened in Armenia on Dec. 2.

Time is ticking. During his two terms as president, Serge Sarkisian’s legitimacy has been questioned by many in Armenia. The more time goes by, the stronger the dissent and anger of the Armenian population. This was not solely an anti-Putin protest, but also an anti-regime protest, which was led mostly by young people: the “independence generation.” The majority of those who took to the streets consider it their duty to stay and fight against impunity, injustice, and hypocrisy. They hope to eventually build and live in their desired country—an economically and politically independent state. They do not wish to flee the country, but boost a change instead. If things go on this way with Sarkisian pushing deeper “cooperation” with Putin, while at the same time ignoring the urgent problems of unemployment, emigration, poverty, and human rights, the situation might easily get out of hand. Putin’s Russia, which appears to be chipping away at Armenia’s sovereignty and independence, can be a solid reason to unite groups that would normally find very little in common.

The regime is afraid. The very fact that protests, civil disobedience, and other events aimed at expressing dissent are met with heavy and overwhelming police response is more proof that the language of brutal force, threats, and provocation is seen as the only effective way of silencing citizens. The police have lost credibility in the eyes of many. They are no longer perceived as guarantors of the security of citizens, but as a brute force employed by the regime. This was clear in the number of detentions.

Protesters are no longer alone. The protest attracted the attention of major news media, including EuroNews, Human Rights House, Global Post, BBC, and Reuters. The protests attracted more attention than Putin’s visit, an encouraging feat. Of course, such media coverage is connected to recent developments surrounding the Custom’s Union, especially the events in Ukraine. Still, it is the activists who benefited most from this. Now that Sarkisian has turned his back to the EU and the West in general while considering Russia as a main and high-priority partner and ally, it will be more difficult to safeguard his legitimacy in the international arena. The EU hopefully learned its lessons, namely, that trusting rulers with questionable legitimacy is not useful in the long term. It is possible that, moving forward, human rights violations and other pressing issues will get more attention from the EU. Civil society institutions will hopefully come to replace Sarkisian’s administration as a main partner of the EU.

The protesters—numbering around 1,000—moved towards the government building. (Photo by Samson Martirosyan)

The situation in Armenia can often be depressing, and while I am writing this report, there is another protest at Baghramyan 26, near the Presidential Palace. This one is against the new pension law, and again the police are there to face the protesters. But there is hope as long as there is a group of young, energetic citizens who, instead of taking the emigration route, choose to stay on our land and strive for a future we want and deserve. On Dec. 2, I saw hundreds of such people, hundreds who are not ready to sell their future, hundreds who are ready to struggle for this worthy cause.

Samson Martirosyan is The Armenian Weekly’s correspondent in Gyumri. He received his B.A. in international affairs from the Russian-Armenian (Slavonic) University in Yerevan. A resident of Gyumri, Martirosyan has interned at the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan and has volunteered his time with various organizations. He is currently a Board member of the European Youth Parliament of Armenia.


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  1. Aram said:

    Union with Russia is the only way to go. All others support turkey and Azerbaijan and want Armenia wiped out from the map ,including EU.

  2. Avetis said:

    Several hundred psychologically challenged individuals led by a bunch of Western funded NGO employees and Western operatives like Zaruhi Bostanjian and Paruyr Hayrikian does not constituent a major protest. The sad part is that if weren’t for Putin’s Russia all these “patriots” would be running for their lives once Turks come knocking on the door. The day Russia pulls its hands off of Armenia, the very next day the Turkish and Azeri army will be parading in Yerevan on the very same street these “patriots” are protesting Russia.

    PS: For a people that obsesses over the genocide recognition thing, where is your coverage of the tribune paid to the memory of Armenian genocide victims by the most powerful man in the world? Can you image the intensity of the orgasm you all would be collectively having if Obama did the same?

    PS: Had it not been for the date of December 2, 1920, Samson Martirosyan today would be called Samson Mustafaoglu and he would be making a living in eastern Turkey by herding goats.

  3. mgl said:

    1000 against Russia and the rest of Armenians pro-Russian. Where is your article about that?

  4. Ara said:

    Sadly, Armenia is not at present a sovereign state. This is a fact. The presence of Russian troops is the only thing that guarantees that Karabakh remains free and that Turkey does not encroach on the Armenian border. But, unfortunately, Armenia has no other options. The EU (and the US) are far more interested in Turkish and Azeri oil than they are in protecting resource-poor Armenia.

    This situation will continue until the relative value of Armenia increases compared to its Turkic neighbors. That means either the West will stop relying on oil or Armenia will increase its own value. Armenia’s IT initiatives are one way of doing so. Building the infrastructure is another way.

    It is a very tough time for our country and it is going to be a long, humiliating road before we are truly free and sovereign. But, hey, at least we are not being massacred on a regular basis by the Turks. That’s progress, right?

    • GB said:

      Ara, I wonder 24 NATO military bases led by US forces in Turkey makes Turkey sovereign state!!

  5. Armanen said:

    Why doesn’t Asbarez provide more balanced reporting of this event and Armeno-Russo ties in general? This is the latest in the string of one sided op-eds and articles published by Asbarez, Am I missing something here?

  6. George said:

    It should be called an idiots perspective you ungratefully people.
    you exist as a country today because of Russia you don’t like the custom union then leave but having Armenians talk trash about Russia only things it shows to me is you are not people that should be trusted.

  7. GeorgeMardig said:

    Armenians should open their eyes, had not been for Russia, the US and the West would have donated today’s Armenia to Turkey as a RAMADAN GIFT. Over 20 years the West and the US could not make Turkey lift the blockade against all Int’l laws. Who the hell is going to protect today’s Armenia from Turkey and onther enemies, Who, the US?, the EU?, Who?, People should open their eyes and stop this craze

  8. nick said:

    I love the camera angles used in these pictures. You hardly see anyone. I am now convinced Assbarez is being paid by western NGOs to create propaganda. Do you really want Armenia yo suffer the same faith Georgia suffered? And I slightly disagree with others here. Russia needs Armenia just as badly as Armenia needs Russia. A pan turko alliance and being cutoff from route and influence to the south will be a second Euro with NATO alliance. If Russians are ever stupid enough, which I doubt, yo believe that turkey or azerbejian will be allies with them, they lost not only Ossetia, but all of southern Russia in 50 years time. If Armenia plays its cards right and a few western sponsored morons don’t promote an Arab style violence in Armenia, we will be fine. With that said, showing a little disagreement with a important Allie who’s pimping our leader, not a bad idea. As long as they show and know what to complain about, like gas hikes and poverty rates, how are citizens are being treated in Russia and concerns over Russia’s military sales to azeria, etc…. Being silent is actually worse, but telling Putin to go home when you’re not an established country, you end up like Georgia. Timing, my friends, timing. Russia is a good ally, but like any other relative, borrow money from them and they’re in your business.

  9. Alik said:

    Thank you very much for admitting that Armenia is unable to defend itself against Azerbaijan and/or Turkey without Russia. Yes, be afraid. Very afraid. You are right in sticking with Russia. Without them, you are and have been nothing. We will just wait them out. And you too.

  10. Julianne said:

    Well said. Thank you for this perspective. If I was there, I would stand with the protestors. It takes courage.

  11. Harutik said:

    Samson jan, I am still waiting for your article titled – “A Street Perspective of Ahmet’s Armenia Visit”