As if a contagious virus has spread across international boundaries, just two days after Turkey’s failed coup attempt, an armed group of gunmen gained control of Armenia’s police headquarters and took the chief of police hostage in what was described as an attempted coup.
The group, which dubbed itself the “Daredevils of Sassoun,” demanded the Serzh Sargsyan government step down and release “political prisoners,” including Zhirayr Sefilian, an activist and veteran military commander who is considered as a hero of the Nagorno-Karabakh War among Armenians.
Sefilian was arrested in June amid allegations of a plot to seize buildings and communications facilities. He has been particularly critical in the government’s handling of the long-running Karabakh conflict.
The two-week standoff ended when the gunmen surrendered on June 31, following a heavy government crackdown on protestors with tear gas, stun grenades and smoke bombs to disperse crowds, which killed two police officers and wounded several people on both sides.
Interestingly, just two days before the crisis, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was in Baku. During a joint press conference with his Azeri counterpart, Çavuşoğlu stated that Turkey could normalize relations with Armenia under conditions accepted by Baku and that the thaw between Ankara and Moscow could have a positive impact on resolving the Karabakh conflict.
Against this backdrop, the timing of the coup attempt in Armenia inevitably leads one to question the possible foreign links behind the crisis.
“The crisis began as a criminal act by a small, radical and fringe opposition group with little support,” says Richard Giragosian, director of Yerevan’s Regional studies Center (RSC). “However, it sparked a deeper and more divisive confrontation driven by a combination of serious discontent within the country and a sense of accumulated frustration with an unpopular government.”
According to Giragosian, there are three underlying factors behind the coup attempt. One is the growing discontent within Armenian society at widespread political corruption. Armenians have grown weary of rigged elections and the widening disparities in wealth and power that have come to divide the country.
“The crisis in this sense was not surprising and can be seen as inevitable, given the backdrop of a demonstrably deep division and pronounced polarization of Armenian politics,” argues Giragosian.
But he also suggests that the overreaction of the police that responded to the crisis with a sweeping crackdown, including reckless assaults targeting journalists and the arbitrary mass arrests of civic activists with little to no ties to the hostage takers, fueled the tension further, generating public solidarity with the gunmen.
But there is also a foreign policy dimension which, according to Giragosian, reflects itself in the new sense of insecurity and pronounced fear at concessions by Yerevan in the Karabakh conflict.
Although the hostage standoff has ended, the crisis is likely to have serious repercussions for both domestic politics and the foreign policy of the Sargsyan government.
In this context, the youth appear as an agent for change, but Giragosian advises us to closely follow the emerging new political opposition around parliamentarian Nikol Pashinyan, one of the leaders of the opposition “Civil Contract” political party, who was the only person accepted by all sides as an interlocutor during this crisis.
Pashinyan is known to be one of the most outspoken critics of the Armenian-Russian air defense system deal, which Armenia’s parliament approved on June 3. Opponents of the deal claim that transferring control over the country’s air defense system to Russia will turn Armenia into Moscow’s satellite. The four-day war around Karabakh in April this year resulted in heavy casualties on the Armenian side, and many came to criticize Moscow’s double dealing in selling arms to Azerbaijan.
In light of these developments, political change might be under way in the neighborhood, which also indicates that the resolution of the Karabakh quagmire requires a popular consensus aside from the mere reconciliation between political elites.
However, from a broader perspective, Armenia’s experience also harbors a potential lesson for Turkey at a time when it is seeking closer ties with Russia: namely, that the loss of sovereignty might be the cost of flying too close to Moscow.