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Yerevan Standoff: Is Khorenatsi Street a Dead End?

By Markar Melkonian

According to the July 23 press reports, the hostage takers who call themselves Sasna Dzrer have released the last of the police officers held in Yerevan’s Erebouni district police station.

This sets the stage, we hope, for a resolution of the standoff without further bloodshed.  If this is right, then we may heave a sigh of relief.  But not a big one. 

Police Colonel Artur Vanoyan lost his life during the ordeal.  Let us honor his memory.

Among other demands, the hostage takers call for the release of Jirayr Sefilian and several other “political prisoners.”  However, it is not at all clear that Sefilian, a distinguished patriot who has been in police custody throughout these events, should be held responsible for the ill-considered actions of those who seized the police station on July 17.

It might be said that the seizure of the police station was poorly timed, in view of the failed coup attempt in Turkey two days earlier and President Erdogan’s subsequent power play.  But to say this is to miss the point.  

The hostage taking should never have taken place.  It is one thing to occupy a city square to protest questionable election results, or to occupy a factory for non-payment of wages, or to close Baghramyan Street to demand an end to extortionate electricity rate hikes.  It is quite another thing to level guns at the police or to hurl metal rods at them on Khorenatsi Street.

As so often has happened, police reaction against protesters has been indiscriminate and too violent.  We are lucky--at least so far--to have averted the all-too-predictable cycle of protest, police repression, larger and angrier protest, more severe repression, and so on.

In addition to the release of leaders in police custody, the hostage-takers have demanded the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan.  But “throw the bums out” is not a political program.  Twenty-five years ago, a group of people took one step after another to destroy the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, but had nothing better to replace it with--or rather, nothing better for the majority population.  The moral of this terrible lesson bears repeating:  do not call for resignations or the destruction of institutions unless you are ready to put a better alternative into place.

Nowhere have we heard the Sasna Dzrer oppose capitalist rule or the long-established economic orientation that has impoverished and diminished the country.  It is not at all clear why the 90% at the bottom should support a group that offers no alternative to the same old neoliberalism that has caused so much misery in Armenia for a quarter of a century. 

In any case, we might need to remind ourselves that the poverty, the inequality, the corruption and official impunity that prevail in the country today did not begin in 2008, with the formation of the Serzh Sargsyan administration.  Grievances have mounted from one administration to the next, but the stage was set for the worst of these developments more than twenty-five years ago, when a small group of aspiring capitalists, represented at first by the Armenian National Movement, hijacked what might otherwise have been salutary and peaceful exercise of Soviet patriotism.  As soon as Armenia’s aspiring capitalist rulers took power they fell into squabbling among themselves for the spoils, and ushered in a period of steep national decline. 

The subsequent Kocharyan and Sargsyan administrations have just picked up the broken pieces where the ANM leaders had scattered them.  Each of the post-Soviet administrations represents a different (but overlapping) clique within the same comprador ruling class that came together in the 90’s.

The Sargsyan administration, then, should not be singled out as the one single source of the country’s woes.  When it comes to political repression, for example, we should recall that both former Presidents Levon Ter-Petrosyan and Robert Kocharyan ordered violent crackdowns, in September 1996 and March 1 to 2, 2008 respectively, against opposition supporters protesting what they believed were falsified presidential election results.

Upheaval in Yerevan can have consequences that are far-removed from the intentions of the radicals.  The most formidable enemies of the Sargsyan administration—and here we are not referring to Sasna Dzrer or their supporters on Khorenatsi Street - represent a real danger to Armenia’s welfare and security.  The fact is that some of Sargsyan’s opponents, foreign and domestic, have been waiting for a chance to replace him with a leadership that will abrogate trade and military arrangements with Moscow, at a time when this could be particularly dangerous for Armenia. 

Armenia is not just a poor country; it is an impoverished country:  it is a country that had been prosperous twenty-five years ago, but is now wracked with unemployment, massive emigration, corruption, and a level of official impunity that exceeds anything that had existed during the last decades of the Soviet period.  This accounts for some of the anger on the streets.

At the same time, thanks to the very same processes that set the process of impoverishment in motion, a generation of young people has been robbed of a conceptual vocabulary that could help them make sense of the country’s predicament.  There is no class analysis in Armenia, no clear understanding of state power or imperialism.  Those who struggle to understand the challenges can see only two alternatives, neither of which comes close to being satisfactory:  on the one hand, there is the vocabulary of neoliberalism, free market capitalism, and all of the assumptions that come with it; on the other hand, there are increasingly strident versions of nationalism.  

Outside of the big NGO’s and an insulated circle of narrow academics and indoctrinated technocrats, the neoliberal doctrine is by now widely discredited in Armenia:  after three decades, it has failed to deliver on any of its promises.  That leaves the frustrated, shrill nationalism of the injured, the dispossessed, those left out, those who are tired of waiting for some promised neoliberal solution that appears to be more distant today than it was twenty years ago.

The problem is that nationalist rhetoric is not an alternative to neoliberalism; more often it is mere camouflage behind which the neoliberals continue to pursue their agendas.  Meanwhile, the landscape outside of ideology has been changing, and the foreseeable consequence is more upheaval. 

The bottom ninety percent in Armenia does not need any more ill-conceived radicalism.  The best way to avert the sort of armed violence and bloodshed that we have seen this past week is to start building organizations that hold out a realistic program for change.  The stronger these working class organizations are, and the larger their basis of support, the less likely it will be that disaffected young men will take to the public squares to support the desperate acts of desperate men.

Markar Melkonian is a teacher and an author. His books include Richard Rorty’s Politics:  Liberalism at the End of the American Century (1999), Marxism: A Post-Cold War Primer (Westview Press, 1996), and My Brother’s Road (2005). 


Comments (8)

This article needs to be shared with every Armenian. Let everyone read this and understand . I label Sasnan Dzrer criminals. They are sick in the head. I don't care about Serzh. But he is doing a better job than most of these idiots who want the seat.
Sorry, but this is nonsense. You seriously think that Armenia was a prosperous country 25 years ago?!! 25 years ago, Armenia just got its independence. Soon, they realized that almost nothing was functional in the country. Northern parts of the country were almost entirely destroyed as a result of the earthquake, the Russians left it devastated and if it wasn't for foreign and diaspora aid many more would have died. What made things worse was the war with Azerbaijan and the blockade. The blockade highlighted how superficial the Soviet economic system was. Armenia was completely dependent on import of raw material for manufacturing of low quality Soviet goods that there was no demand for them anymore. So lets be honest and stop painting rosy pictures of the Soviet times. Call it neoliberalism or economic liberalism or whatever you want, the truth is that at the present time it is the only functioning economic system in the world which is based on fair competition and free trade. So why is it that it is not working in Armenia and many other former Soviet republics? The answer is simple, there is neither free trade nor fair competition in Armenia. The country is landlocked and almost 80% of the borders closed, a handful of oligarchs own almost every thing in the country and 60% of those who call themselves parliamentarians are illiterates who are afraid of even getting close to the podium of the parliament. So what is the way out of this? It is simple. Stop fighting for seats, instead fight for real change. It is not going to be easy but eventually it will work. try to use your power(peoples power) to broker deals with the ruling elite that ultimately will bring about change. It is not important who is the president, what really matters is to have a balance of power in the country which will curtail the power of the elite and will create strong democratic institutions. What they usually call a system of check and balances. So instead of demanding president's resignation which ultimately will change nothing, ask for the creation of a strong independent body that can run independent investigation on cases of high ranking officials corruption and hold them accountable. Or another institution which will guarantee the impartiality of the government funded media. It will take time but it will eventually work. In the end of the day, you are not going to have an ideal democracy, even the direct democracy system in Switzerland is not ideal. But you will manage to get out of this miserable situation and see some change.
With all due respect Mr. Melkonian, I would expect that you would have a better understanding of the dire situation and circumstances leading to the takeover of the police headquarters in Armenia. Maybe you have not been to Armenia lately and have not walked its streets. But I could assure you that the corruption is not going to stop and the country is not going to evolve with the current leadership, neither could you see the light at the end of the tunnel. All political and social attempts to put an end to these oligarchs have failed. Since the current president has taken over, 1 million Armenians have emigrated. This is called White Genocide and is worse than any war that Armenia has experienced in its past. I believe that American Armenians need to visit Armenia to understand the current affairs without coming up with utopian ideologies. Jirayr Sefilyan along with the rest of the Sasnan Crer members are the only ones that have what it takes to bring change to the country, unlike the ARF which is hiding behind Sargsyan's shadows.
Rome was not built in a single day, nor were Western nations. Armenia is a work in progress. In fact, despite its many geopolitical obstacles, Armenia is doing better than most developing nations on earth today. What Armenia needs is sociopolitical evolution and not a Western instigated revolution. The best path forward for sociopolitical evolution is peaceful demonstrations by non-Western affiliated grassroots activists in the country. When you have Western-funded NGOs and individuals involved in the political process, the process immediately loses legitimacy and runs the risk of turning violent. Armenia is too small and too vulnerable and the south Caucasus is too violent for Armenians to repeat the grave mistakes made by Ukrainians, Libyans and Syrians. Regarding Founding Parliament: The entire political premise of the armed hostage takers is based on lies. There are no “political prisoners” in Armenia. There are individuals in prison who have been caught planning violence or apprehended in the act of carrying out violence. Moreover, most of these people are foreign funded activists. Also, official Yerevan is NOT planning on returning the “five regions” in Artsakh. These are lies put our by the CIA and their numerous branches inside Armenian society. The armed men who attacked the police facility are foreign funded extremists and because they killed an innocent police officer, they are now also murderers and criminals. Whether they realize it or not these people are serving Western interests in the south Caucasus. This attack on the Armenian government is purely geopolitical in nature. Just like how Russia put to an abrupt end to the US sponsored peace negotiations in 1999, the US today is trying to do the same with the Russian sponsored negotiations during taking place. The armed group of extremists released the remaining hostages a day after President Sargsyan went on television to address the matter. There is talk that Armenia’s NSS had also gotten more directly involved during the last two days. Everyone directly associated with the group was arrested. Their much anticipated popular uprising never materialized. Moreover, the group keeps claiming that Russia’s Alpha Group has been on sight in Yerevan waiting orders to assault the occupied police facility. Whatever the case may be, the extremists are now all of a sudden seeking a way out of the terrible mess they created. They are now saying they will abandon their political demands and lay down their arms only if their wonderful leader Jirair Sefilian commands them to. It seems like this armed rebellion by a small group of foreign funded Russophobic extremists is going to fizzle out soon, unless their foreign handlers have something else in mind. Their lofty rhetoric and stated goals is merely a smokescreen. Founding Parliament’s main task from day one has been to foment a Ukraine-style uprising in Armenia and in doing so drive a wedge between Yerevan and Moscow.
This year, the armenian people celebrate 25 years of independence. It's a great festive occasion in which the president of the country could grant individual (Jirayr Sefilian) or collective (all political prisoners) pardon by presidential decree. It will be a real democratic celebration. The historical evolution demonstrates that on special occasions (national day, main religious feasts , king day) the legislative authority granted amnesty or individual/collective pardon.
Why is it that the most insightful commentary I've read, in English or Armenian, on the Yerevan standoff comes from outside the country? Melkonian's article is just one example. From my vantage point in Armenia, I'd say that President Sargsyan isn't the country's number one problem. It's the apathy of the vast majority of its citizens. They actually don;t see themselves as citizens but merely residents/inhabitants. Citizens have rights and responsibilities. Most in Armenia have forgotten the latter.
Bravo Mr. Melconian. You always impress with your wisdom and knowledge.

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