By Anna Ohanyan
Violence as a tool is a failure of imagination. This week saw such a failure in a suburb of the Armenian capital of Yerevan, where a small group opposed to the government faced off against security forces in a dramatic set of hostage crises. Both the government and the oppositionists have failed in imagining a non-violent approach to addressing what at their roots are very real social, political, and economic grievances. The recourse to violence by both the government and the oppositionists is emblematic of a broader failure by the West to engender liberal change in the post-Soviet space.
The fringe opposition group, Sasna Tsrer, occupied a police station in a deadly shootout on July 17, briefly taking several policemen hostage and demanding the resignation of the president and the government at large. Unanticipated by either the larger public or the government, the days since have seen growing crowds of ordinary Armenians, swelling to the thousands, take to the streets in support of the spirit, if not the violent tactics, of the Sasna Tsrer movement. Indeed, this was the intended and publicly stated goal of the group. The government, while initially showing restraint, has resorted to increasingly violent measures of repression as public sympathy with the opposition group’s objectives has increased. The brutal clashes between the police and protesters on July 29, along with the excessive force unleashed by the security services on civilians and journalists alike, have been particularly polarizing and violent. The following day, the standoff ended after the opposition gunmen surrendered in an effort to prevent further violence in the country.
True, the sources of discontent and frustration are largely domestic. However, police brutality against protesters, and specifically against journalists, has been politically enabled by broader, region-wide democratic declines. Indeed, this crisis in a small Yerevan suburb was a global frontline in the battle of human rights versus geopolitics. In this case, at least, human rights are geopolitics. Partly in response to an assertive Russian foreign policy in post-Soviet states, the West has been selective in its support for human rights in this region. Whether turning a blind eye to repressive Turkish policies toward its Kurdish population or crackdowns on civil society in Central Asia, Azerbaijan, and now Armenia, the West has cited geopolitical concerns over the sovereignty of increasingly authoritarian states to justify its position. The steady decline of democracy in Turkey, pre- and post-coup, along with the rise of Russia and its export of authoritarian values and institutions, have strengthened the hands of governments here who resort to violence to crush public dissent.
A rise in illiberalism in the South Caucasus region in particular bodes ill for the peace process in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Public anger at the government in Armenia, as channeled by Sasna Tsrer, is stoked in part by rumors of a peace arrangement involving territorial concessions imposed on the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. A government in Yerevan that does not enjoy even rudimentary public legitimacy has been unable to engage the public in either Armenia or in Nagorno-Karabakh in meaningful discussion about compromise for its relations with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory. State-centered diplomacy is also a dead-end, as it has failed to invest adequately in confidence-building measures around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict over the years. State brutality against the public furthers neither the government’s survival nor the fragile peace process surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The standoff in a Yerevan neighborhood was also a frontline of the clash between repressive powers of the state and the peaceful protests and public activism that have developed in Armenia and elsewhere over the past few years. The Color Revolutions that swept Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan did not materialize in Armenia. Instead, smaller-scale but sustained actions focused on specific issues have been the defining features of Armenia’s recent political culture. Whether protesting against neoliberal pension reforms or projected hikes in transportation and electricity tariffs, public activism has indeed registered solid successes. But in the midst of the current crisis, this budding culture of peaceful protest and political activism has been severely tested.
In Armenia, as elsewhere in the post-Soviet space, shallow markets without votes and voices have enriched narrow political elites linked to the government. This has created a public backlash against market economics and a cynicism toward democratic institutions. High levels of unemployment, corruption, emigration, and an arbitrary application of the rule of law are only some of the factors that have fueled public protests here over the past few years. The current protests, largely directed against the government and its policies, reveal that attempts at rebuilding a Soviet-styled state are impossible in a country that has learned to challenge and confront the government.
At their most fundamental level, crises such as the one that unfolded in Armenia are a reflection of public frustration at post-Soviet failures of economics and governance. As the unpopular Armenian government has come to realize—and as its supporters in the West will undoubtedly realize as well—the concept of “a little bit of democracy” is not sustainable. In Armenia, where public activism has registered certain successes and where the press is encumbered but persistent, disdain for a government that crudely falsifies elections and perpetuates an oligarchic socioeconomic order will ultimately boil over. The question is whether that eruption results in violence, as it has in recent days, or is harnessed more imaginatively toward true democratic change. The West has a clear role in applying whatever leverage it may have to ensure the latter.
Dr. Anna Ohanyan is the author of Networked Regionalism as Conflict Management, published by Stanford University Press (2015). She is a Fulbright Scholar (2012-2013) and the Richard B. Finnegan Distinguished Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Stonehill College.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]