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Analysis | Ten years after a deadly crackdown in Armenia, will history repeat itself?

23 April 2018
France Square, 18 April (Mari Nikuradze/ OC Media)
Peter Liakhov is a freelance journalist and filmmaker based in Yerevan.

In a meeting with opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan on Sunday, embattled Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan raised the spectre of 1 March 2008 — when police violently broke up protests leading to the deaths of 10 people. Ten years have passed since then, and the Armenia Sargsyan now stands before, the protests he now faces, are something entirely different.

A brief and bizarre spectacle unfolded Sunday morning at the Marriott Hotel in Yerevan’s Republic Square. Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan had arrived to meet opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan for negotiations following a week of increasingly massive protests against Sargsyan’s successful bid to become Prime Minister after ten years of rule. In front of more than a dozen reporters, the new Prime Minister sat opposite his rival and engaged in ‘negotiations’ for less than five minutes. At first, he expressed dismay that the negotiations would be happening in front of the press, and after several fruitless exchanges, a clearly agitated Sargsyan threatened, ‘haven’t you learned the lessons of March first?’ before getting up and walking out.

This was a very serious threat. The bloody events of 1 March 2008, almost universally seen as the worst possible outcome of any unrest, have long haunted all major Armenian protest movements. But 2018 is not 2008, and the type of violent crackdown that inaugurated Serzh Sargsyan’s tenure as president and left 10 people dead, may no longer be successful, or even possible.

[Read on OC Media: Protest leaders arrested in Armenia as PM walks out of talks]

The first of March

Levon Ter-Petrosyan (MediaMax.am)

The protest which culminated in the massacre of 1 March started off fairly typically — at least insofar as the history of the region was concerned. Serzh Sargsyan, the ruling Republican Party’s chosen successor to incumbent Robert Kocharyan, was running for president. His opponent was Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the first president of the country following the collapse of the Soviet Union. After an election day marred by irregularities, Sargsyan was declared the winner in the first round, with 52.8% of the vote.

A movement contesting the election began almost immediately. It was led by the election’s ostensible loser, Ter-Petrosyan. These protests, centred around an occupation of Yerevan’s Freedom Square, continued unabated and with growing intensity until 1 March, when security forces moved in to clear the encampment of roughly 1,000 and arrested Levon Ter-Petrosyan and other opposition leaders. This arrest led to an explosion of protests and civil disobedience throughout Yerevan, which were in turn met by severe repression from both police and military forces. Protest actions lasted well into the night of 1 March, when they were met by an incredibly violent response.

It is still unclear exactly what happened, but by morning, eight protesters and two police officers were dead. The next day, an emergency situation was declared and the army secured the capital. Sargsyan has remained in power ever since.

Ten years on

1 March 2008, Yerevan

Like the post-election protests of 2008, the ‘Reject Serzh’ protests are focused on the figure of Serzh Sargsyan, and his removal from executive power in Armenia. But that’s where the major similarities end.

Unlike today’s Armenia, where Serzh is an almost universally maligned figure, in 2008 he enjoyed a not insignificant measure of real popularity, and his opponent, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, had nearly as many detractors as he had supporters. According to political analyst Mikael Zolyan, Armenian society was then roughly equally divided amongst opponents of Serzh Sargsyan and opponents of Levon Ter-Petrosyan. This to be sure was not due to any glowing qualities of Sargsyan, but rather, the political weaknesses of his opponent. Ter-Petrosyan, in his capacity as Armenia’s first post-communist president, was blamed by many for the abysmal conditions suffered by Armenians during the 1990s. Moreover, his support for furthering the peace process in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was seen by many to be anti-patriotic cowardice. As a result, Ter-Petrosyan could not so easily claim the undivided support of ‘the Armenian people’, and the government could more easily justify their repression of the opposition.

Nikol Pashinyan, the new leader of the protests, does not have such baggage. Unlike any previous major opposition figure, he has never been in the ruling apparatus and nor is he an oligarch. And, in his political career, he has not taken a particularly definitive stance on the Karabakh conflict (other than sticking to a vague and inoffensively ‘patriotic’ line). Moreover, Pashinyan, while the de-facto leader of the protests, is not immediately gunning for executive power. While in 2008, a defeat for Sargsyan meant the ascension of Ter-Petrosyan to power, in 2018, the protest movement does not explicitly claim that Pashinyan must become the next leader of Armenia (though it is a likely eventuality if Sargsyan steps down). This has meant that even those who have not been supporters of Pashinyan as a personality have felt less cognitive dissonance in supporting and joining the protest movement. Put simply, the result of these factors is that the protest movement of 2018 is of a much greater magnitude than that of 2008. The numbers witnessed throughout Yerevan this past week have dwarfed by roughly a factor of three those 10 years ago.

Nikol Pashinyan (Mari Nikuradze/ OC Media)

But it is not just sheer numbers which sets the two protests apart, the demographics of the participants have also greatly shifted. The protest of 2008 was, broadly speaking, skewed older and overwhelmingly male. The protests of 2018, by comparison, are led primarily by students and have a much greater gender balance. During the recurrent mini-crackdowns of the past week, it has been a common sight to see police officers forcefully detaining screaming high schoolers. Needless to say, this has not been met with public enthusiasm. While repression against middle-aged men, former conscripts, may with enough rhetoric be justified, the violent repression of schoolchildren simply defies any attempt at rationalisation.

But the greatest, and perhaps most salient difference that has emerged in the past decade is that the Armenian government has lost its control over the means of information dissemination. In 2008, most Armenians still received their news from television, and few had access to cameras. Today, most Armenians are present on social networks and most possess smartphones. No matter how the government attempts to spin the protests, the reality is that regular people will see what is happening on the ground from the innumerable videos, live-feeds, and photos which their friends and families are sharing from the protest. Any actions by agent provocateurs or instances of heavy-handed repression instantaneously spread through digital channels to the overwhelming majority of Armenia’s population.

[Read on OC Media: As thousands rally for a ‘Velvet Revolution’ — Serzh Sargsyan is not yet relinquishing his grasp on power]

Will history repeat itself?

Protest on 22 April 2018 (EVN Report)

Serzh Sargsyan’s mention of 1 March on Sunday morning was no idle threat. A scant two hours later, Pashinyan, two other opposition members of parliament, and dozens of protesters were arrested in a police crackdown throughout the city. And as in 2008, this has only resulted in an even greater popular upsurge.

Will the government ramp up its repression as it did ten years ago? Will it bring in the military? Will it give the order to fire? Perhaps. But with the immense popular support that the protest now has, and the nearly non-existent legitimacy of Serzh Sargsyan’s rule, all these options have become much riskier. Soldiers, already wary of Sargsyan after Armenia’s high rate of casualties during the 2016 clashes with Azerbaijan, may simply refuse to follow orders.

Even if Sargsyan stays on as Prime Minister, his would likely be a tainted leadership, existing only through coercion. Even if he refuses to leave, perhaps it will be in the interest of his compatriots in the ruling Republican Party to jettison him, if they are themselves to remain in power.

As of Sunday night, however, nothing has been decided. Almost all the leaders of the opposition are under arrest, tens of thousands of people fill the streets of Yerevan, and Serzh Sargsyan remains Prime Minister — for now.

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