BY VAHE BOGHOSIAN
Armenia’s protest culture has shown seasonal patterns, with a protest movement emerging every summer. The protests from 2013 to 2016 have ranged from a variety of issues from transportation prices to pension reform and electricity prices. Many commentators have been quick to note that the protests of July 2016 were the first summer protest movement which explicitly demanded the resignation of Armenia’s president Serzh Sargsyan. The demand was made by the “Daredevils of Sasoon,” the group that stormed a police station in Yerevan on 17th July killing a policeman and taking hostages before demanding the release of their imprisoned leader Jirayr Sefilyan and the resignation of the president. Sefilyan is the leader of the Founding Parliament opposition group that has had a number of incidents and clashes with the government in the past due to their belief that the Armenian government has dealt poorly with the Azerbaijani threat – a notion accentuated by the results of the April Four Day War which saw Azerbaijan occupy a small amount of NKR territory. This summer’s protest, unlike previous protests, reveals a fundamental contradiction in Armenian society which has haunted the country since its independence. It is the background and core ideological beliefs of Sefilian and the Daredevils which allows the protests to represent this contradiction in the Armenian psyche. On the one hand Armenians demand improvement to their lives and the end of the oligarchic governmental system, whilst on the other hand Armenians, equipped with a stronger nationalistic fervor due to constant border tensions, also demand a more stubborn response to Azerbaijan. These two aims are mutually exclusive if attempted at the same time because as long as the threat of war remains, the regime must exist in relative stability to be able to tackle threats to its security.
The first element of the contradiction is highlighted by Sefilyan and his group of supporters, who demand a stronger response to Azerbaijan. Ever since the fragile 1994 ceasefire between Armenia, NKR, and Azerbaijan, various clashes have taken place with the most recent resulting in the Armenian side losing territory, including heights near the village of Talish to Azerbaijan. It is this kind of land loss on a military or a potential diplomatic level that the Founding Parliament group along with others, such as the Heritage Party, firmly stand against. The Daredevils of Sasoon even went as far as to promise an ‘armed rebellion’ if territories were returned to Azerbaijan on a press conference on July 4th. These groups do not stand alone in their demands for a more stern response to Azerbaijan; a large number of the population who have lived in a country at war for 25 years have also naturally embraced a hardened mentality. Anything other than this they feel would be a betrayal to compatriots and friends and family who died fighting in Karabakh.
The frozen conflict has also given rise to the usage of violence as a solution within Armenia as demonstrated by the government crackdown on protesters. Violence allowed Armenia to guarantee the security of Karabakh and it continues to do so today through conscription. The backing shown for the Daredevils during the hostage incident reveals that many support their goals and extreme methods. Simultaneously the support for the Daredevils demonstrates a large amount of support for governmental change and social progress.
In addition to demanding the release of Sefilyan, the Daredevils demanded the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan. This demand appealed to a greater number of discontent among Armenians who see Sargsyan and his government as the cause of all their woes, including poor living standards and job opportunities that have resulted in an estimated 28.2% of the population emigrating out of Armenia since independence. This aspect of the protest is continuous with previous exhibitions of civic activism, including peaceful protests and sit-ins in response to proposed pension changes or proposed constitutional changes. The anti-government aspects of the protests were accentuated by the police repression of protesters and journalists which served to only further alienate peaceful demonstrators. It is this kind of an anti-governmental sentiment which was deprioritized during the Four Day War as the country was caught up in belligerent fervor. Thus this summer’s hostage incident is representative of two contradicting drivers of Armenian society; Sefilyan and the Daredevils represent segment of the Armenian society demanding an uncompromising attitude on Nagorno-Karabakh, while the protesters who turned out to support the Daredevils and demand change in the Armenian government represent segment of the Armenian society demanding a better life in Armenia.
These two aims, however, are contradictory. The aim of an uncompromising stance against Azerbaijan appeals to the nationalism within the Armenians. The aim of a better, more democratic Armenia appeals to the reality of Armenian life. In order to appease the Armenians who demand a stern stance on Karabakh’s borders, a stable regime is necessary, one which can continuously oppose Azerbaijan and make any breakout of hostilities costly for Azerbaijan so as to discourage conflict and protect the status quo. Furthermore in order to appease these calls, Sargsyan cannot use liberated territories as bargaining chips to come to a compromise with Azerbaijan which suggests that the frozen conflict may still go on for some time being beneficial to the maintenance of regimes on both sides of the border. The demands of governmental change and the consequential improvement in living standards become less feasible when one envisions a continuation of the war with Azerbaijan.
It seems that the ‘frozen’ description can be utilized to describe the conflict and the continuation of the regimes on either side of the border. The fundamental contradiction is that the Armenian people demand both governmental change and progress while also demanding a firm security policy in defense of the people of Karabakh, which gives the impression of a prolonged conflict. As long as Armenia is at war, violent regime change would be seen as breeding instability and insecurity which would be capitalized by Armenia’s adversaries. Furthermore, drastic regime change within Russia’s sphere of influence has proven to be a dangerous as demonstrated by the difficulties encountered by westward looking governments in Ukraine and Georgia. In Georgia’s case, regime change in 2004 was followed by further distancing of its two separatist regions and a brief war with Russia. Similarly if regime change were to happen in Armenia, it may have anti-Russian undertones as has lately been seen by Armenian activism toward the 2015 murder of an Armenian family in Gyumri by a Russian soldier, the “Electric Yerevan” protests, and the protests which emerged after the Four Day War calling for the end of Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan. Thus the regime change called for in Armenia would also likely strain relations with Russia which has significant interests and market control in Armenia.
This reality solidifies Sargsyan’s position and contributes to the arrogance of his government, which preoccupied with the issue of national security grows increasingly out of touch with the general population. If the call for governmental change ever grows too large, Sargsyan can ease the calls by reminding the people of the threat to their lives that exists due to a continued state of conflict; national unity in times of crisis overrules demands of social advancement. This tactic was used more successfully by the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev who managed to quell riots and protests in Azerbaijan by focusing the attention of the population on the conflict with Armenia and NKR.
The calls for governmental change are made more dangerous within the context of the contradiction due to the lack of a significant opposition party and/or a party which truly represents the people. This would condemn Armenia to a perilous power transition unlike the transition that followed Levon Ter-Petrosyan in 1998, who resigned after advocating a compromise settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh (considered to be dangerous to Armenia’s security). He acts as a reminder to Armenian politicians of the response the Armenian people can have towards someone who advocates for a compromise on NKR’s territory. Ter-Petrosyan was forced to resign by one aspect of the contradiction, since then regime change has been the denominator for civil movements in Armenia. However, this summer’s protests remind us that Nagorno-Karabakh will always remain a powerful shaping factor in Armenian politics. Until a state of peace exists on Armenia and NKR’s borders, the rapid change that Armenian people demand will be very dangerous and unlikely. Until that time a slow pace of change which protects stability will continue to reign.
The contradiction is further complicated by Nagorno-Karabakh’s status as a de facto republic. The internal dimensions of Armenian politics are overshadowed by the right of self-determination exercised by the citizens of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). Even if a compromise was agreed to by Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh could reject such an agreement. Nagorno-Karabakh’s autonomy may not currently be a particularly difficult hurdle for the Armenian authorities, but it can be a complicating technicality in the future.
This contradiction also reveals to us the danger of rose-tinting political developments in Armenia with a narrative that overwhelmingly emphasizes the civil society of Armenia. Armenian civil society has gained strength in recent years becoming more politically conscious and turning into a key player in inciting societal change. This narrative which focuses on civil society as the key driver of change in Armenia was emphasized strongly on social media due to news censorship in the earlier days of the incident. Nonetheless it is unfortunately still a weak phenomenon in the grand scheme of Armenian power politics. Furthermore the civil society-centered narrative can assume the aim of Armenians to be a liberal democratic state, when in reality each individual has their own reason for protesting, usually one which is an issue that directly affects their lives and living standards. Through overemphasizing the civil society narrative, it is easy to misinterpret all political developments in Armenia as a unified movement towards a liberal democratic ideology. The nationalistic sentiment of protests this summer and during the Four Day War reminds us that to many Armenians the aim of a representative liberal democracy is secondary to a victorious and secure Armenia. This realization is necessary in order to analyze the core contradictions that exist in Armenian society between a nationalistic/assertive Armenia versus a representative Armenia that effectively upholds civil rights.
Armenia’s contradiction has been in existence since the ceasefire of 1994. This summer’s protest movement reminds us of it as it shows a convergence of both the Karabakh aspect of civil discontent as represented by the Daredevils and the anti-governmental aspect of civil discontent represented by the protesters demanding the ousting of Sargsyan. The relationship between these two societal drivers shapes Armenian politics, while also acting as a dual aim of Armenia. To comprehend the contradiction a lens is necessary which goes beyond overemphasizing the civil society narrative that portrays an image of Armenians unified in their demand for a representative liberal democracy. Instead the image of practical Armenians seeking to improve their lives while wishing the best for their nation must be also taken into account. The contradiction as a basic model of perceiving Armenian politics reminds us how relevant the internal aspects of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are, with the war having a significant function in internal politics on both sides of the border, which is an unfortunate result of the continuation of the frozen war since 1994. This internalized aspect is especially important to consider in the context of rapid diplomatic movements such as the recent Russo-Turkish rapprochement, which shifts the focus of Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh politics to an international level from a local one.
Prolonged war hardens attitudes and ultimately the absence of security condemns Armenia to a costly, slower evolutionary progress towards a developed society. The new constitution voted in by referendum in 2015 is an example of this slower evolutionary progress. However it remains to be seen whether in Armenia a slow evolution in governance will create helpful and stable change or be hijacked by autocratic circles that see slow progress as an opportunity to perpetuate their reign. In both scenarios, Armenia – as a country in transition – will almost certainly be able to progress at a much faster pace and filter out the autocratic and oligarchic influences in the country with greater success in a state of peace than in a state of volatility and uncertainty for its future.
Image source: Wikimedia.org
About the Author
Vahe Boghosian is currently studying History at the University College London. Mr. Boghosian’s research interests focus on trans-border nationalism as well as East Asian security policies.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.