Special for the Armenian Weekly
On May 20, Jirair Sefilian—a veteran of the Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh) liberation movement and a vocal opponent of Armenian President Serge Sarkisian’s administration—was arrested and accused of planning an armed rebellion against the Armenian government. Sefilian and his supporters denied the accusations, maintaining that they were targeted for political reasons.
Despite his claims of innocence, the following month, Sefilian announced plans to set up a new group that would struggle to overthrow the ruling regime “with the help of the people and the army.”
The July 17 armed siege of the Erebuni police station and subsequent four-day standoff by Sefilian’s affiliates only confirms the government’s accusations. The group is calling for Sefilian’s release and is appealing to the army and population to “join the rebellion.”
Following the seizure of the station, police began illegally rounding up and beating suspected opposition activists. In the last four days, the situation escalated with large-scale street protests and clashes between citizens and law enforcement in Yerevan.
Such episodes of political violence in Armenia are nothing new. Indeed, they have been the default course of action pursued by most opposition elements since independence. We saw tanks rolled out against protesters who stormed the parliament in the wake of the 1996 presidential elections; the killing of the prime minister, speaker of parliament, and members of parliament in 1998; the tragic March 1 events of 2008; regular street clashes with police; and various unsolved murders of prominent regional and national political figures. Two decades of such violent actions have scored virtually no political gains or improvements in the country. On the contrary, these violent acts were used to fortify the power of the authorities and further justify draconian methods of suppressing activism, while also leaving the masses hopeless and alienated.
Indeed, if there is one language the administration understands, it is violence and coercion. And they have it in abundant supply with their control of the state, army, police, and so on.
In contrast, since at least 2012, young people have shown a clear path for securing actual political change in Armenia. From Mashtots Park, to 150 Dram, to DemEm, to Electric Yerevan, and many other civic initiatives, the government has been forced to reverse its policies and succumb to popular pressure on a host of issues. These social movements have shown that non-violent, grassroots social activism can actually score victories—something street clashes, foreign-funded non-governmental organizations, and electoral politics largely failed to do. Indeed, if there is one lesson of the past 25 years, it is that such non-violent, popular activism is one of the only strategies that leads to tangible results.
These same civic activists can be seen on the front-lines today, voicing their grievances against the autocracy and inequality within the country. Many of them poured onto the streets in response to the illegal arrests and abuses of the police. They can also be seen calling for calm when disgruntled protesters (some would say saboteurs) engage in rock throwing and violent hooliganism. They are aware of the root disillusionment that leads to such volatile actions but firmly caution against the use of violence and bloodshed.
If there is anything positive that can come out of this latest turmoil in Armenia, it is the hopeful realization that force and reckless calls for armed rebellion will lead to nothing but further deterioration within the country. Viable alternatives are needed to build a future based on responsibility and civic agency. The clear path forward is the strengthening of the non-violent, youth-led, grassroots social movements. This is a matter of more than principle; it is a matter of pursuing a course that actually works versus radical posturing and adventurism.
For those both within Armenia and the diaspora, it is incumbent upon us to reject violence and support those healthy elements of dissent within the country striving for social justice and democracy. Failure to do so will lead to even more chaotic displays of disillusionment than what we are seeing today.