Armenia: A Year On, Police Station Attack Still Divides Society
Armenians marked the one-year anniversary of an armed takeover of a Yerevan police station with commemorations both for the police officers who died in the attack, and for the attackers themselves. The dual events underscore that the country is still wrestling with the incident’s legacy.
On July 17, 2016, armed gunmen from the group Sasna Tsrer (the name referring to a medieval Armenian epic) stormed a police station, took several hostages, and demanded the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan. The attackers quickly became folk heroes in the eyes of many Armenians, whose frustration with the government prompted them to accept the use of violent methods in opposition to the leadership. The attackers held the police station for two weeks, during which time three police officers were killed and more than 100 demonstrators – who flocked to the station to support the attackers – were injured in clashes with police.
A year later, officers unveiled a memorial at the police station, in the Yerevan suburb of Erebuni, to their colleagues who were killed. Later in the evening, about 150 Sasna Tsrer supporters marched in Yerevan’s central Freedom Square.
Among the marchers was Zaruhi Postanjian, leader of the opposition Yerkir Tsirani party, who told EurasiaNet.org that the attackers were “heroes” who took the first step towards the creation of a “free and independent Armenia.” Another supporter, who declined to give her name, explained: “Maybe this was not the most correct method, but they [the attackers] were driven by despair and that was their last hope to change the situation.”
An opposition news website ran a poll asking whether the attack was a “rebellion” or “terrorism,” and by the end of the day, a slender majority had opted for “rebellion,” prompting police spokesman Narek Malyan to weigh in and claim that the poll was rigged.
Most Armenians do sympathize with the hostage takers, said Boris Navasardyan, chairman of the Yerevan Press Club. “A large part of the population is dissatisfied with the current socio-political situation, and to a significant degree that dissatisfaction is expressed in the position that any methods against the authorities are acceptable, since the authorities themselves use so many unacceptable measures against their own population,” Navasardyan told the Armenian service of RFE/RL.
“I would say that sympathizers of Sasna Tsrer, or at least those who don’t see what happened last July negatively, outnumber those who see it only in the context of unacceptable, violent terrorism,” Navasardyan added.
Even a few of Armenia’s leading human rights activists have defended Sasna Tsrer’s actions, dismaying some of the international organizations that support them. Veteran activist Avetik Ishkhanian described the hostage takers as “political prisoners,” while another, Artur Sakunts, called the attack “a revolt against the illegal regime.”
A year later, the attack has had a wide-ranging impact on Armenia. For one, it exposed a willingness among many Armenians to accept radical measures to oppose the government, said Styopa Safaryan, an opposition politician and analyst in Yerevan. “Why did society support them? At least they took some action,” Safaryan said. “People take you seriously when you have a success.... They took one of the ‘castles’ of the authorities.”
But when the takeover ended in failure, it only added to the despair that many Armenians feel about their country’s prospects. “On the one side, society doesn’t believe in changes through elections. On the other hand, society doesn’t believe in changing power through force. Those two options are effectively discredited,” Safaryan said. That loss of faith in any sort of change was one of the reasons that parliamentary elections earlier this year saw “unprecedented” levels of vote-buying, Safaryan added.
The episode also highlighted a hardline public attitude on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, the de jure part of Azerbaijan that is now controlled by an Armenian de facto government. The Armenian government, under a years-long international mediation process, has agreed in principle to several concessions, including the return to Azerbaijan of seven territories surrounding Karabakh that Armenia occupies for security reasons. But one of Sasna Tsrer’s main grievances against the government was its willingness to compromise on Karabakh, and that complaint resonated widely.
“What hardcore positions society takes when it comes to Nagorno-Karabakh, including the return of the seven surrounding territories, that was really shocking,” one Western diplomat in Yerevan told EurasiaNet.org, speaking on condition of anonymity. That is going to make it all the more difficult for the Armenian government to sell the public on an eventual peace deal, the diplomat added.
The government has made some domestic concessions as a result of last year’s attack, bringing in a new group of relatively young officials led by Prime Minister Karen Karpetian. “There are more and more technocrats and fewer oligarchs, or at least they’re trying to show that,” said Alexander Iskandaryan, a Yerevan-based analyst. “For the first time in 15 years, I see some hope, now they’re trying to do something. We’ll see how it will go, but this is a result of the July  events.”
Meanwhile, the one-year anniversary occurred as the trial of several of the attackers is taking place.
The trial, which began June 8, is echoing many of the patterns of last year’s drama: the defendants have repeatedly interrupted the proceedings, have refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court, and have demanded the violent overthrow of the government. The police, meanwhile, are accused of heavily beating the suspects in the courtroom basement between sessions. The proceedings are “a circus,” another Western diplomat said, on condition of anonymity.
The 14 defendants currently on trial (out of 32 total suspects) have not moderated their positions from last summer. On June 21, one defendant called on those in the courtroom to revolt: “I’m calling for an armed uprising,” said Varuzhan Avetisian.
Another session a week later lasted only a few minutes because of scuffles between the defendants, their lawyers, and police. After that hearing, four of the defendants were badly beaten by police in the basement of the courtroom, their lawyers assert.