What is going on in Artsakh? From Stepanakert

On the first day of the protests in Stepanakert, CivilNet’s Tatul Hakobyan spoke with a politial scientist and a journalist who had witnessed the day’s events. They provide an exhaustive, detailed picture of what transpired on the first day of unprecedented mass protests in Karabakh, calling for the resignation of several key government officials.

Reporter Tatul Hakobyan: What happened tonight in Stepanakert? How did this all start? Why did people come out onto the streets?

Tigran Grigoryan, Political Scientist: Basically last night, as far as I know around 7 or 8pm, there was a dispute of a personal nature between two guys whose names I honestly don’t recall and another guy who happened to be a member of the Karabakh special forces; and that dispute escalated to a rather serious situation when the Natl Security officer in the altercation called his colleagues and they, a big group of around 15-16 people, came and severely beat up the civilians. That event occurred over a long time and reached the point where the police arrived and were unable to stop the beating. The special forces guys even commanded the police to leave the area. The residents of the nearby building unsuccessfully tried to intervene and stop the violence, and everything finished with the police not being able to stop the special forces guys, were forced to arrest the civilians who were being beaten. This morning they announced that they did so to save them; however in any case, it seems silly that instead of arresting the attackers, they arrested the victims.

Journalist Vahram Poghosyan, ArtsakhPress: Everything began with the events that took place on June 1, as far as we know, which involved members of the special forces.. On that basis, based on what I know took place, on the evening of June 1, that evening the arrests began. There was a group of young people, friends of the victims, who came outside and closed the street and the protests continued on June 2. At first, it was interesting if those protests were civic protests or political actions because there was talk that former Parliament Member Vahram Baghdasaryan was trying to start a movement, because they circulated a statement to that effect; however, when I went, in the morning, to where the youth had closed off the street, I became convinced then that the organizers were friends of the victims, and the initial leaders were twin brothers, who had taken that protest upon themselves, specifically Davit Simonyan. They were local guys, and it was their demand that the guilty be punished. Since we were not there when the beating took place, I unfortunately cannot say how many people were involved but today we found out from the young protesters that there were more attackers and two people, who were beaten, were transported to the hospital with severe injuries.

Reporter Tatul Hakobyan: So can we say that 15 members of the Special Forces beat up 2 people?

Journalist Vahram Poghosyan, ArtsakhPress: From what we know, the issue is not so clear. A group of Special Forces members initially involved in the altercation invited their friends, also from the Special Forces. Although we refer to them as the Special Forces, but it was not an order by someone. This was personal; friends called friends, and they showed up, in uniform, and took part in the skirmish. This is what we know.

Reporter Tatul Hakobyan: Where did the attack take place approximately?

Tigran Grigoryan, Political Scientist: It took place on Baghramyan street, right near the area of the Marshall Baghramyan statue and later people were transported to the hospital. I am not aware how the attack originated and who was originally at fault but of course such behavior by security forces has caused a great deal of anger. First off for their friends and family. Then, at night around 10 or 11 pm, those people had closed off the area in front of the parking lot on Azatamartik Street, and that location was not randomly chosen; the National Security Service base is there and those special forces were shut in and did not come out. We, with other members of our organization arrived there around 11pm and we saw that the street was closed off by cars and people had gathered. A bit later, Deputy Defense Minister of NKR General Samvel Karapetyan arrived on the scene of what was essentially a spontaneous protest, and State Minister Arayik Harutyunyan arrived shortly after, and they tried to convince the protesters to open the street and promised that all those Special Forces members who took part in the attack would be arrested and punished but people did not believe them.

Journalist Vahram Poghosyan, ArtsakhPress: To be honest, I have heard similar claims but I don’t think they arrested the perpetrators because from what we understood, the victims were in severe condition and they prioritized transporting them to the hospital. Specifically about the Special Forces members who perpetrated the attacks, they told us in the morning from the prosecutor’s office and from the police department that they had all been arrested. Now, just like the young people who organized the demonstration, we too, as citizens of Artsakh first of all, expect that everyone, independent of title, rank, position must be equal before the law and answer for their actions. Because this is really shameful — that in the middle of the city such an attack can take place, and especially in uniform. First and foremost, this tramples upon the honor of the uniform and those who wear it.

Reporter Tatul Hakobyan: Basically, the State Minister and other authorities accepted that a beating did in fact take place?

Tigran Grigoryan, Political Scientist: Yes, Arayik Harutyunyan even passed on Bako Sahakyan’s (President of NKR) message noting that he’d spoken with Sahakyan and that all guilty parties will be punished and around 1 o’clock an agreement was made that the street would be reopened but if by 11 am in the morning, if those people were not arrested than the street would be closed once again. And today, around 11 am or possible a bit earlier, the area of the Marshall Baghramyan statue on Azatamartik Street was closed again and during the day, the prosecutor’s office and other authorities announced that 15 or 16 people from the Special Forces who participated in the attack were arrested. However, during the day, the people’s demands changed. If last night, they were demanding that the attackers be punished, today, there are more serious demands.

Journalist Vahram Poghosyan, ArtsakhPress: In the morning I myself was a witness that they were there — and on Facebook I learned that even at night during the street closures the previous Prime Minister had been present — and this morning, I myself saw that the State Minister and the Deputy Chief of the Defense Forces and the Secretary of the Security Council were present and tried to negotiate with the youth. Also opposition member of Parliament, Hayk Khanumyan was there, as was Armenian Revolutionary Federation member Lernik Hovhanisyan, and those representing the authorities tried to convince the youth that the demands that they had made — maximum punishment under the law — would definitely be met, and that the situation can be settled through negotiation. Specifically, when Hayk Khanumyan tried to negotiate, the protesters responded saying that “At this time, you are just a messenger, to transfer our demands to the authorities, for further negotiations.” By the end of the day, it seems that they came to some sort of an agreement because the President of the Republic accepted the protesters’ delegation and when they returned announced that “the president had agreed to meeting our demands” and the result of the negotiations was an agreement that “we are now opening the road”, because they had closed even the through-traffic part of the street, but that “we are going to wait to see what steps the government takes and we are ready to reassemble in the morning” since, if I am not mistaken, in the morning the government has to make an official statement.

Reporter Tatul Hakobyan: Can you say what kind of calls were being heard? Did it resemble the recent events in Yerevan?

Tigran Grigoryan, Political Scientist: The demand today, that was formed this morning and stayed that way until night, was that all the heads of all the power agencies, with the exception of the Defense Army, would resign or be removed from their positions. The other demand, which was less specific was doing away with the 16:00 bestbelyedi environment which has ruled Artsakh for years. It must be understood that this situation was just the opportunity for all of this to explode because people had been suffering for years under this regime, especially due to the extralegal activities of the Special Forces who, in fact, were attacking many people, terrorizing, and the protesters who were gathered today were sharing their own individual stories about clashes with the Special Forces units. For example, one of the protest leaders was saying that years ago, 300 of them came to “solve their issues” with him and his brother, bringing guns, dogs, etc. Today, basically, that general anger among the public exploded. The Yerevan effect can be felt. In the symbols and the chants. Today, at one point they were chanting “Nikol”, “Dukhov”, and they played “The Citizen’s Song” during the protest.

Reporter Tatul Hakobyan: Tigran, who are the main participants in the protest?

Tigran Grigoryan, Political Scientist: The participants of the protests are different people… for the main part they are men, there were very few women today. I can say that a large portion were governmental workers, which was yet another unprecedented occurrence, when government workers come and participate in a protest. They are people who had been victims in similar situations in the past, there were people who thought that if they don’t come out today, they might find themselves in a similar situation in the future and more; different types of people made up the crowd.

Journalist Vahram Poghosyan, ArtsakhPress: This was not the first time that people tried to air their grievances. I remember instances when people from the villages or from other regions came in large groups had specific issues having to do with daily life, and they came and protested in front of the president’s offices, in front of the Government Building, and they were accepted and the authorities tried to offer solutions but this was possibly, you know what? With time technology is also improving, reporting is more comprehensive, but you are probably right, free expression, this kind of political expression does point to the Yerevan effect.

Reporter Tatul Hakobyan: Because, from what I was told, during the protesters chanted “Nikol”, “Dukhov” and similar chants.

Journalist Vahram Poghosyan, ArtsakhPress: You are right but that was not specifically from the protest organizers but rather from people who came to simply show their support and having seen the format, with memories of the Yerevan events, they tried to chant similar statements. But again, specifically, the organizers were saying that the protests were not government-related or related to the current situation of Armenia. And I think we all saw that these people came out just to defend their friends and protect their rights and their honor.