An Uprising in Heroic Style: Summary of the Recent Conflict in Armenia

armenia1After taking over the police station in Yerevan, the armed activists of Sasna Tsrer seem to be old-fashioned heroes of the folk epic. However, their romantic nationalism impresses many. To better understand how the Daredevils of Sasun came into existence, we talked with Zara, an Armenian anarchist.

On July 17, in Yerevan, a group of people took over the headquarters of a patrol and inspections service’s regiment in administrative district Erebuni, which is known for its large supply of arms and military equipment. On the same day, the militia, which called itself the Sasna Tsrer group (from the Armenian medieval epic “Daredevils of Sasun”), published the text of a declaration, in which, among other things, they formulated their main demands: the liberation of Jirair Sefilian and of the remaining political prisoners, the resignation of Serj Sarkisyan and the formation of a (temporary) government of ‘national trust’, doing what it takes to protect the districts adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh.

On the day of capture, a police officer by the name of Artur Vanoyan died in the shootout; 3 police and 2 militiamen were injured. Four police officers were held hostage, later they were joined by the vice deputy chief of the police and the vice deputy chief of the police of Yerevan, who arrived on the regiment’s territory to conduct negotiations. They were not tortured, they were not starved, they were not abused (apart from their epaulets being torn off). After a few days, the militiamen released one of the hostages – his engagement was to take place soon; the others were released on June 23, 7 days later, in exchange for a possibility to conduct a press conference on territory of the captured police station.Armenia3

On July 24, information arrived that the militiamen were left without communication and electricity and that the food procurement ceased. An ambulance crew was withdrawn from the regiment’s territory. Family members of the participants in the uprising started being arrested. Families of many participants in the uprising were in a difficult financial situation, whereby some of them were deprived of pension and benefits. The militiamen, in protest to these measures, started setting fire to police cars.

An assault, however, never took place. It was obvious that the authorities decided to challenge the militia to starvation. Along with that, attacks on the territory of the regiment started multiplying. A gradual liquidation of the members of the armed group began; as they were injured by sniper fire one after the other.

On July 31, 15 days later, Varujan Avetisyan, a member of Sasna Tsrer, who seemingly was responsible for public relations, stated the group’s intention to surrender in a conversation with journalists. On the evening of the same day, the remaining 21 members of Sasna Tsrer along with Artur Sargsyan, who, on July 26, broke through the police cordon in his private vehicle loaded with food and was compelled to remain on the regiment’s base, entirely cordoned off by the police; surrendered to the authorities, explaining it by their reluctance to shed blood and that their ‘mission’ is now complete, since the rest must be done by the people. They, on the other hand, will continue their struggle as ‘war prisoners’ from the jail cell.Armenia4

Such a combination of armed mutiny and subsequent attempts to avoid death seemed strange; during this whole time they did not kill one person, apart from Artur Vanoyan, whose death can hardly be called intentional murder, they released the hostages, they did not forcefully keep doctors and behaved quite carefully, as they guarded against the attacks of the police and the secret services. However, on the day before their surrender, the police issued a statement about the murder of an ordinary policeman by a sniper from the captured regiment’s territory. As proof of it, they published several obviously trumped photos. Varujan Avetisyan gave an interview on that same day, in which he assured the public that their group is in no way associated with this incident.

As of July 18, mass demonstrations and marches in the centre of Yerevan and on Horenaci street, adjacent to the captured territory, started taking place occasionally. The ralliers demanded the resignation of the President, to do what it takes to protect the territorial integrity of Karabakh, they rallied to avoid bloodshed or to express solidarity with the insurgents.Armenia2

Violent clashes with the police occurred; gas and sound grenades were used. Hundreds of people were arrested, dozens were lying in the hospital (with fractures and burns), as of the first day, the police started arresting the members of the Constituent Parliament, against some of whom criminal cases were initiated. A man, who on July 30 attempted self-immolation, passed away in the hospital several days later. Politicians and activists that participated in the rallies were arrested; some of them have not been released so far. Meanwhile, cases at varying levels of severity are being brought to court.

The question, where Sasna Tsrer came from, is a trick question. Because there’s Sasna Tsrer as a concrete group, which captured the headquarters of a police regiment, and Sasna Tsrer as a proposition to a long-existing social demand.

If we are to talk about the latter, then it is appropriate to begin with the collapse of the USSR and the political crisis along with the impoverishment of the populace that followed. And with the Karabakh war, which was only aggravating an already difficult situation. It is worth remembering 1999 – the famous Armenian parliament shooting, and 2008, which continues to be the greatest disappointment to those, who believed in the possibility of peacefully changing an (illegitimate) government.Astakhov

Demonstrations with many thousands in attendance, overall, don’t yield any results. There is no opposition. Unemployment is growing. Half of the country lives on credit. Everyone is frightening one another (and themselves) with migration, and no one has any solution. There are many conditions in Armenia and enough developments, which made the idea ‘shoot the president’ one of the most popular political dreams.

The first attempt at the incarnation of the ‘dream’ looked ridiculous: in 2013, Shant Arutyunyan, the leader of the nationalist party Cegakron, announces that he is “starting a revolution” and storms the presidential palace along with comrades, armed with wooden sticks and homemade explosives out of manganese and bronze powder. Result: 12 political prisoners.

The second ‘armed’ insurrections instilled even less hope: Ayk Kyuregian, during Shant and Co.’s court hearing, climbs onto a car roof, opens fire with an air pistol in the police’s direction, then he takes out a grenade and threatens to detonate it if they will try to arrest him. Plus one political prisoner.

Sasna Tsrer seems to be very serious when compared within this sequence. The main reason, as it seems to me, is the political past of the group members on one hand, and the political situation, which developed after the April escalation in Karabakh, on the other.

The members of Sasna Tsrer are presented as “fighting comrades and allies in Jirair Sefilian’s political struggle”. Jirair Sefilian is the leader of the extra-parliamentary political alliance Constitutional Parliament (UP, earlier known as Pre-parliament, later shortly as New Armenia). They are anti-Russian nationalists, focused on the construction of a technocratic state and adhering to meritocratic ideas, who live a national-liberation struggle against the “external and internal enemy”.

They operate (operated) an extensive network of cells, remaining nevertheless quite small in numbers. They adhere to the principles of anti-parliamentary struggle. The leaders are mainly former militaries and political strategists. Sefilian was arrested in May of this year on an overtly fabricated case. Before then, members of UP had been repeatedly subjected to beatings, searches and detention.

Many participants of Sasna Tsrer have a quite complicated individual political past, which partially explains their action.

Pavlik Manukyan, for example, who became one of the symbols of the group, is a ‘hero of the Karabakh war”. In 2005, in Karabakh, which he ‘liberated’, he was brutally beaten in Seyran Oganyan’s office (current Minister of Defence) and was forced to drink saliva. Many times he was subjected to political persecution along with other members of UP. He went to capture the police station along with his son.

Araik Handonyan, is another symbol of the Karabakh war, father of five, who lived in a village and barely made ends meet. Member of UP, who was beaten along with other comrades from Sasna Tsrer during the auto-march in Berdzor.

Areg and Sergey Kyuregyan, the brothers of Aik Kyuregyan, who was sentenced to 9 years after the events described above. They were trying to seek justice in their brother’s case by all available means: from legal action to protest. After they surrendered, their father was arrested on suspicion of participating.

Vardan Geravetyan, who has been fighting the last years along with his neighbours against the demolition of the building in the centre of Yerevan, in which he lives. The authorities were evicting by force and continue evicting people, offering in return minuscule compensations.

In an interview with journalists, Geravetyan explained their action so, and, I think that it’s quite an honest description of the situation:

“They forced us to take this step. We have tried all civilized methods prescribed by law, but it’s pointless. If you can remember, they burnt our cars, beat Gevorg Safargyan, and staged a slaughter in Berdzor, which was completely ignored by Serj Sargsyan… When the authorities are not defending the rights of the people, the citizens have a right and must themselves defend their interests and dignity. You saw, how for many years, they are trying to take my apartment from me, they broke into my house, organized searches, and, as you already know, they didn’t find anything. We had nothing else left to do. We hope that something will change. We are ready to sacrifice our lives, and our biggest request is that the police officers do not sacrifice themselves. We are sacrificing ourselves for the sake of the future, for the sake of our motherland, for freedom, whereas they will sacrifice themselves for a jerk, for this Serjik and his clique, which steals and gets richer at our expense all these years.”

It goes without saying that these people are outspoken nationalists, misogynists (woman-haters) and statists just like the absolute majority of the Armenian society. Their struggle leaves absolutely no room for involvement. But there is an obvious class element in their action, even if displaced onto the sidelines. If they had even the slightest chance to build a ‘New Armenia’, which they dream about in a politically-principled fashion for the last several years, I would obviously be among their active political opponents.

But they did not have even the slightest hypothetical chances to accomplish this on July 17 nor do they today. This is clearly an action of self-sacrifice, the consequences of which we shall be compelled to dig up. But what seems evident is that they were really “forced to take this step”. And it is important to take note of that.

Zara (Armenia)

Translated from:

Originally published on 10.08.2016 on the libertarian communist platform, avtonom.

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