Police in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, have clashed with protestors, leaving dozens injured and over 100 detained. On July 17 an opposition group, reported in CivilNet Newspaper to be the Daredevils of Sassoun, named after an Armenian epic poem where the Armenians heroically drove Arab invaders from their lands. The group took over a police HQ in the Erebuni district of Yerevan, holding dozens hostage. Some hostages have since been released and gunmen from group have been shot amid the crisis standoff between the police and the armed men. The wounded men have since received treatment for nonlethal gunshots, undergoing surgery at the Erebuni Medical Centre.
They are calling for the release of political prisoners, including Jirair Sefilian, a political activist and military commander that served in the Armenian military and gained prominence during the 1988-94 Nagorno-Karabach conflict. The Sassouns are mostly supporters of Sefilan and his political organization. The commander is the leader of Armenia’s “Founding Parliament” movement, which is in opposition to the current government. Tensions erupted after he was accused of planning a coup to overtake telecommunications and government buildings in Yerevan by force. In a video they demanded his release among others. Large groups of protestors have come out daily to support them. How the hostage crisis is resolved may determine whether the group remains a marginal political player or becomes a rally point for larger public dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Summer protests in Armenia are not new, but this summer thousands have taken to the streets in support of regime change, showing up to the hostage standoff in support of the armed group. There is a belief in the country that the current president, Serzh Sargsyan, came to power by suppressing protestors, and uses the government as a corrupt tool for the personal enrichment of himself and allies. Though the Armenian public is widely opposed to civil violence, this appears to be an act of desperation by the movement, which has been jailed and silenced when using every peaceful means available to push political change. Though many mainstream opposition groups oppose the radical means of the Founding Parliament Movement, they sympathize with the goals and platform. Sefilian is opposed to any territorial capitulations to Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. It has been reported that the Russian government has been pressuring the Armenian government to trade land for peace in a new peace initiative with Azerbaijan. This is widely opposed not only in Yerevan but Nagorno-Karabakh, where the overwhelming majority of inhabitants are Armenian and prefer either autonomy or union with Armenia.
Armenia will hold elections next year, moving the country from a presidential system to a parliamentary form of government. Surrending to Azeri territorial ambitions or bloodily halting the hostage crisis could both spell trouble ahead for the ruling party and it’s longevity under a parliamentary system.