The Challenge of Sassoun: From Erebuni to Yerevan 

4By Edgar Martirosyan

Last Sunday a group of armed men stormed a police station in the Erebuni District of Yerevan, Armenia, in the process killing one officer, wounding six others, and taking eight hostages. Since then three hostages have been released. The men identified themselves as the Daredevils of Sassoun, immediately demanded the release of Zhirayr Sefilyan (an opposition leader who was recently arrested on weapons charges and is in police custody) and the resignation of President Serge Sargsyan.

The Daredevils of Sassoun are comprised of men who are either members of or closely associated with Sefilyan’s Founding Parliament (previously known as “Pre-Parliament”), an organization that identifies itself as a parallel legislative body to Armenia’s National Assembly, obviously acting outside of state jurisdiction, and has continuously called for the resignation of Sargsyan and his HHK-led administration. Sefilyan and several members of the Founding Parliament are celebrated military men from the 1991-1994 Karabakh War and intellectuals who have for several years taken a more radical stance against the current administration (which they have identified as a continuation of the first and second administrations) by calling for the preparation and implementation of an overthrow of the current “illegal” government. According to Sefilyan and the Founding Parliament, Sargsyan and the HHK have effectively hijacked the government, are implementing control without a mandate, and have no intention of leaving of their own accord unless they are forcefully shown the door. Almost immediately social media erupted, and largely into two broad camps. One refused to label the actions of the Daredevils of Sassoun as terrorism, taking a hard stance against those who dared do so, while the other did just that. While the former camp is almost entirely comprised of sympathizers of Founding Parliament and oppositionists in general, the latter runs the gamut from opposition supporters to those who back the current government and are instead critical of opposition circles, accusing them of not having a popular mandate and disrupting the effective administration of a legal government. Yerevan, too, erupted, and the government once again resorted to brute force, though yet shy of lethal, to quell any potential for major unrest. Within hours hundreds of activists and protesters who took to the streets demanding the government ensure resolution of the crisis without further bloodshed were bullied, beaten, rounded up, and taken into custody, only to be later released. Whatever the impetus for this strategy, it quickly backfired, with more people taking to the streets in protest, presenting demands ranging from an assurance that the crisis will be resolved peacefully to the resignation of the president. The government, five days into the crisis, remained silent, with no statements of any kind being made by a single high-level government official whatsoever, while riot police and thousands of protesters littered the streets of the capital.

Terrorism or rebellion?

Two major issues have now presented themselves. The first is is whether the storming of the police station qualifies or should be labeled as an act of terrorism or rebellion (or heroism, as some continue to insist). The second – and not so novel – issue is whether the current administration should at last recognize the crisis of confidence it has faced since assuming the helm of government in 2008 (indeed, it came to power through bloodshed), acknowledge the peoples’ continuing grievances, and either step down or implement sweeping reforms addressing those grievances. Terrorism is loosely defined as the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. True, so is rebellion; with the added feature that rebellions tend to be against those in power, whereas terrorism tends to be less discriminatory in its application. The difference between the two is one of mostly degree and circumstance. Here, the Daredevils of Sassoun stormed a police station, took hostages, and presented as one of their demands the release of Sefilyan. In this spirit, they have indeed engaged in a terroristic act. Perhaps history will account for the mitigating factors and adjudge them otherwise, but to claim different now is to compromise the spirit of the Opposition movement itself taking shape over the last decade, which, though ill organized and without a clear ideological base or mandate thus far, has been advocating for reforms, free and fair elections, and a general restoration of the rule of law in what can be described as a kleptocratic state where the few rule with impunity over the many. That the Daredevils of Sassoun have resorted to such conduct as a last resort and arising from a feeling of desperation and hopelessness is self-evident. That such an act should be called by its true name – terrorism – is a commitment to a value, however inconvenient, for opposition leaders and sympathizers who envision an Armenia where the rule of law reigns supreme.

Sargsyan either needs to resign or implement sweeping reforms and dismantle the chokehold on the State exercised by his HHK

Sefilyan’s Founding Parliament never really succeeded in garnering a popular mandate. It has remained marginalized throughout the last few years, even within the broader opposition coalition, and was unable to provide any comprehensive agenda or mechanism for assuming power other than leaving the option of an armed uprising open as a means of last resort. Thus, the current crisis created by the Daredevils of Sassoun must be seen within the broader context of the “sick and tired” state of affairs created by Sargsyan’s government. Those who have taken to streets in the last few days haven’t done so because they necessarily support the actions of the Daredevils of Sassoun, but because they understand the desperation felt that compelled these men to do so. Those who condemn the actions of these men should similarly keep in mind the manner in which this particular President came to power, and the manner in which his kleptocracy has maintained it throughout the last eight years. State-sponsored terrorism is no less appalling, and should be condemned with just as much zeal, if not more, than an equally abrasive and offensive force used against it. Simply put, the vote of no confidence has been self-evident for years now. The writing is on the wall, and the Daredevils of Sassoun have only acted on it in desperation and as a means of last resort. The attack on the police station should be condemned; the hostages should be released; and the Daredevils of Sassoun should surrender and be subject to punishment as prescribed by the spirit of the law. But more importantly, Sargsyan either needs to resign or implement sweeping reforms and dismantle the chokehold on the State exercised by his HHK. For unless the kleptocracy he oversees is dismantled, the Daredevils of Sassoun may just be the beginning of darker days to come.

Edgar Martirosyan is a practicing attorney in Los Angeles, CA