The Armenian Violence Question
A Conversation on Means and Social Change
On July 17, 2016 a group of armed men stormed into a police station in Erebuni, one of the neighborhoods of Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan. The group called themselves Sasna Tsrer, “The Daredevils of Sassoun,” citing the title of one of Armenia’s most important epic poems. Over the following days a tense crisis unfolded, as the support for the Tsrer developed into massive rallies and brutal confrontations with the police took place. The Tsrer held on to hostages and the police station until July 31, when they surrendered their weapons. 20 gunmen were arrested and one police officer was killed.
How do we make sense of a general population’s acceptance of militarization? We see the following conversation as an attempt to entangle and disentangle some of the complexities of this particular historical juncture in post-Soviet Armenia. In reflecting on the Armenian experience and on the larger process of postsocialism and neoliberalization, this conversation also aims to pose this question of violence to a global context.
Since the mid-1990s, Armenia has experienced massive privatization, followed by liquidation of once-common industry. As a result of this eventual deindustrialization of the national economy an oligarchic class, as well as high rates of unemployment and economic and social precarity, emerged. Since 1996, every five years has brought forth post-Presidential election protests and more frequent post-Parliamentary election protests contesting fraud. In 2008, the regime declared a state of emergency during these protests, calling on the military who killed 10 people in the streets with AK-47s, the same guns that Sasna Tsrer employed to take the police station hostage in 2016. The last few summers have seen different kinds of social movements emerge as well — not directed against elections, but against the oligarchy, its relations to those who occupy high seats of government (and especially the ruling Republican Party), and economic exploitation. From the increasing costs of public transportation and electricity to the decreasing-in-value costs of pensions, Armenians have been countering political-economic processes that are often described as producing undignified lives for quite some time. Civicly minded as these protests have been, the state has approached them with physical force and violence. By what kind of standards do we measure social change and its effectiveness and how does violence emerge as a form of necessity for the Tsrer as well as the thousands of Armenian citizens who — to some extent — came out in solidarity?
Researchers, such as Armine Ishkanian and Mikayel Zolyan have adequately contextualized this event. Among other things, Ishkanian points out the Sasna Tsrer claim that peaceful protests have been ineffective in post-Soviet Armenia to overcome rampant corruption and the only way to effect change was through armed revolt, while Zolyan notes that the Tsrer combined issues of social justice, nationalism, and decolonization (from Russia) in their rhetoric. Both authors indicate how the people rallying during the days of the police takeover consisted of people with different motivations: those who were in favor of the Tsrers’ methods of armed takeover, as well as those who joined the rallies in response to the police brutality that erupted in the days following the hostage situation.
Our conversation that unfolded in early August seems to pick up where Ishkanian’s article on Sasna Tsrer leaves off: on the question of violence and social change. “The question that remains,” suggests Ishkanian, “ is why this group of men chose to use violence at this particular time and more importantly, what will be the consequences of this violent action for those who are struggling to create a more democratic, peaceful and just Armenia”(2016: para 26).
Nelli Sargsyan (NS): I keep thinking about the public support that the armed men who occupied the police station received from the general public through rallies, through an official statement by artists and intellectuals, and through people professing them as their heroes on social media. I am interested in the acceptance of violence in a variety of forms: the expectation by now of its structural and physical manifestations by the government but also the general public’s perception of an armed attempt as the only resort to getting rid of a corrupt government that has otherwise monopolized all branches of control.
Tamar Shirinian (TS): During the first couple of days, as I followed the events from my Durham, NC home on Facebook, Twitter, and civilnet.am, some of my Yerevan friends who considered themselves pacifists and in fact have been working for years toward peace-building projects with Azeris and Turks, seemed not to be able to align themselves completely with those who had chosen to take up arms. By the third and fourth day, however, the rhetoric of “anti-violence” seemed to have disappeared altogether.
A general sentiment regarding “violence” as crime got turned on its head through grassroots political rhetoric. The statement signed by writers, journalists, and academics, to which you refer, includes a comment that directly speaks to this question of violence and crime: “If there was a crime, then we should look for those responsible in the political system – among the ruling and the so-called opposition parties, as well as the organizations and individuals with public influence.” That is, if there was a crime, pointing to the very denial of a crime having taken place. The criminals, those responsible for crime and violence, are in the government. In other words, the violence is not committed by the rebels, but rather by those who have been violently and systematically holding the Armenian people hostage over the last 25 years of post-Soviet oligarchy, authoritarian regime, and the disintegration of Armenia’s political economy.
NS: An activist friend in Yerevan recently suggested in conversation that if one is engaging in an aggressive act (that would otherwise be considered violence) in self-defense, it is no longer violence. I find myself conflicted. As an Armenian-identifying woman, I grew up and lived in Armenia for over thirty years with different experiences of privilege, as well as physical and structural instances of violence. As another friend of mine put it once, there is this impunity with which violence (whether physical or structural) is being inflicted in Armenia. There is also my rage because of this impunity. And this confluence has created a sense of anticipated violence that seems lingering and exhausting. I have this rage for the systemic violence that the Armenian government has been inflicting upon the people with impunity for over two decades. And there is space between my rage and their impunity. Could it be that the Sasna Tsrer are filling precisely this space? I am not comfortable with these thoughts and feelings. I feel frustrated that while there were so many people on the public podiums at the rallies, intelligent women were squeezed out of the masculinist discourse of heroism. I feel like this is not where I want to be. I am still struggling with these redefinitions of violence.
TS: I think that thinking about violence in this way in the postsocialist and post-Soviet context is quite helpful in understanding the new meanings of freedom, liberty, and decolonization that have become important questions in Armenia’s current historical juncture. I appreciate your friend’s comments on self-defense not being violence. This is the kind of violence that (post)colonial writer Frantz Fanon writes about with fervor. The colonized become violent, not because they are violent in and of themselves, but because violence is the cycle in which they have become embedded. As he puts it, “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder. But it cannot be accomplished by the wave of a magical wand, a natural cataclysm, or a gentleman’s agreement” (Wretched of the Earth, 2004, 2). As such, the Armenian citizen-subject, colonized by her own government as well as others like the “overlord” Putin, has been produced over the last 25 years through violent forms of oppression. In one vein of thought, it is through violence that this subjectivity needs to be re-produced: remade in terms that are less violent for her.
As such, I completely sympathize with your questioning of the strange desire for violence as it conflicts with the desire for non-violent action. I am left with the old Leninist question: What is to be done? How is Armenia going to be changed? I come back to wondering this in many of today’s global social movements. How is change to be made non-violently? Pleading, showing evidence of wrong-doing, petition-signing, blocking highways, stopping access to production, to distribution, to roads and services will never be enough. The state always has a military that will do the dirty job of enforcing the return to the status quo. Sometimes, those at the top listen and halt their actions, but this in itself I think can be understood as a strategy of governance. In 2014, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban cancelled a proposed internet tax after mass protests. “We are not Communists. We don’t go against the will of the people,” he has been quoted as saying. In many ways, I think, this is what happened in Yerevan in the summer of 2013 during the “We are paying 100 dram” movement, when the price for transportation went from 100 dram to 150 and massive unrest in the city’s bus stops and the refusal to pay 150 brought the price back down. It was a peaceful movement working through campaigning at bus stops and civil disobedience that eventually led to success. However, one (or me) is always left wondering what the ultimate intention of the government’s concession was. Was it an understanding of dissatisfaction with the new price? Was it fear of more social unrest? Or, was it a kind of move that worked to create a false sense of security — a false victory — so that those protesting could be thankful for the gift they have received and thus fall back into orderliness?
NS: I do very often feel discouraged (depressed? helpless?) about global social movements. Another example of this false sense of security came in June 2015 after the #ElectricYerevan movement against the electricity price hike. The prime minister announced after the protests that the price would remain the same and the government would take the burden of repaying the price difference.
International (read Western) organizations have long been serving Western, neo-imperialist, capitalist interests, often legitimizing corrupt governments. Take for example the 2013 endorsement of the presidential elections in Armenia as free of major violations by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and the European Parliament (EP) at a press conference, disrupted by local Armenian activists.
TS: In other words, appealing to international human rights organizations and to countries that “value” human rights doesn’t seem to be working. As we’re both aware, the police in Armenia that use excessive force have themselves been trained by the governments of these human rights-valuing countries — like the U.S.
In Armenia I always think about how the police, even while very poorly compensated for the “work” that they do, are some of the few with jobs. Resigning from their position in governance, laying down arms, and joining the revolution means risking everything they do have. It means joining a movement that promises nothing concrete (yet). It means the possibility of becoming one amongst the impoverished masses, because the revolutionary imperative is to create disorder from the oppressive systems of order. While for many Armenians, this order has given nothing or very little, for the police officers enforcing the regime’s order, it is providing employment and income.
NS: As I spoke to different activists during the crisis in Yerevan, the question regarding police became more intricate. The picture that has started to emerge after my conversations and preliminary interviews seems to suggest that it is in the best interest of those in power (behind the violence exerted upon Armenian citizens) for regular Armenian citizens and activists alike to treat the police with whom they clash in the streets with hostility. This is the case because the police officers on the streets are the most vulnerable and expendable in the system and in fact not the most violent. Those most violent are the special police force (the red berets) and those in plain clothes who serve as bodyguards of high-ranking police officials. In other words, oftentimes the focus of critique is misplaced, hence they can make their cosmetic changes of removing and demoting expandable officers, but the system stays intact (and so does their power).
TS: There are, of course, various forms (and scales) of violence at play in Armenia and I really appreciate your situating state violence and the militant hostage scenario with other, quotidian, forms like the feeling a woman has just being in the streets of Yerevan. “Anticipated violence” is right! As a patriarchal culture, society and domain, violence against women in many forms is rampant in Armenia as it is in much of the world.
Sasna Tsrer, a militant group, does not seem to swerve from many of the patriarchal forms that penetrate quotidian Armenian life. To borrow from Armine Ishkanian, by drawing on the liberatory tale of the original Daredevils of Sassoun, this group manages to position themselves as making Armenia a properly operating patriarchal society again: insisting on strong men at the seat of authority who can lead by force as well as proper values rather than the impropriety or what many during my research in Yerevan in 2013 referred to as the aylandakutyun (moral perversion) of those in power. But many of Armenia’s other groups, like LGBT and feminist activists, have been working toward something altogether different. Not a society that values a strong man at the head of the nation-family, but rather a society that loses and works to lose its patriarchal values. Many of these very activists have come out in support of Sasna Tsrer as a means to ousting the current regime — or toward the hopes of this. Ambivalence seems to be the structure of political feelings in this moment. I keep coming back to the sense of ambivalence that you provided: “I am not comfortable with these thoughts and feelings.”
NS: I am reminded of an interview with Lousine Kharatyan in which she suggests that the Tsrer took the role of Little Mher, one of the main characters of the epic poem who closes himself off in a cave to come out only when things in the world have shifted. In other words, this is a passive position: closing oneself off, not doing anything. Kharatyan is suggesting is suggesting that this event can become an opportunity to “wake up from the mytho-poetic slumber” and become a citizen. She is suggesting that this event can mark a revolution in thinking, even if people do not follow through with all the demands of the “Sasna Tsrer” they can make a change; they can open the door. And once you open the door, it does not have to take you to a dark cave, rather it can take you to a spacious and liberating place.
TS: This is very interesting. I suppose the question is what kind of shift were they interested in and what kinds of hopes for shift did they provide for those who came out in solidarity? What kind of revolution, what kind of new thinking? Is the problem merely one of waking up from slumber? Or, waking up to something? This is the anxious bundle of questioning that movement often comes up against; the set of debates with the propensity to shatter, fissure, or dissolve solidarity and collective action. If all want to move, in other words, the direction of the movement should matter. Or, maybe this is the “total disorder” that Fanon writes about — movement in all directions. How to move (in all directions) without violence? How to create solidarity in the face of disagreements about what will come after the slumber?
NS: It was powerful to see thousands of people demanding the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan (the incumbent president) in the streets between July 17 and 29 in the face of ruthless police brutality. The people seemed justly to fill the space between impunity and their rage against the various injustices committed by the State. At the same time they were expressing their support for the armed group who sparked their coming out to the streets to express their discontent with the ruling elite in the first place. Armenian sociologist Zhanna Andreasyan, in an interview, claims non-violent civic engagement is a more productive avenue than violence; that perhaps it is through unexpected tactics that it becomes possible to confuse those who are used to using violence. This issue has come up in my conversations with activists in Yerevan as well.
Tsrer initially had two demands: setting free of their leader and the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan. Later they started talking about not returning the regions around Nagorno Karabakh to Azerbaijan as many speculate Serzh Sargsyan is willing to do under the pressure from Putin. And most recently Tsrer and the larger organization of which many of them are part have been more forthrightly discussing the importance of Armenia’s decolonization from Russia and their own actions as decolonizing. They see the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan and the ruling elite as the first step to this decolonization. It looks like (at least from where I sit) for Tsrer the problem is one of waking up to decolonized consciousness. What is to be done? is still a question for me. But I am wondering if there should be other questions as well, and other actions. I am reminded of Gohar Khachatryan speaking with a red beret special force officer during the July protests. I think what Gohar was trying to do was to engage a fellow citizen, holding them accountable for their action rather than view them as a faceless servant of a brutal institution. Could it be that zooming in allows for deconstruction of larger systems? Could it be that alternative, non-violent strategies, or even tactics in the face of power imbalance, have the potential to bring down a violent system, as de Certeau suggests (1984) in his The Practice of Everyday Life?
TS: I am still wondering, however, how it is exactly that civil disobedience is supposed to bring out the massive changes needed. In Armenia, the kinds of overhaul in the social, political and economic system that are necessary will not be solved by any kind of reform. It is the entire system and the ways in which everything is occurring that needs to be totally transformed. For example, the resignation of Serjik (Sargsyan), which of course would be great to some capacity, in itself would not be enough as there are various other oligarchs and those who have been domineering Armenia’s political economy for years that would be able to take over in a heartbeat. And of course there is still the machinery of the Republican Party, not to mention the international forces and alliances that keep these characters in these positions (Putin, EEU, international oligarchs interested in the natural resources Armenia is trading for dirt cheap, etc.). In all of this mess, how does non-violent action bring about change? These protests occur, thousands come out in protest, they demand the resignation of those in power, then the police intervene, some people are injured, others killed and then there are periods of public quiet. Over and over again.
NS: As I think through power and violence I find Arendt’s (1969) treatment and careful distinction between power and violence in her article Reflections on Violence particularly insightful and useful in that she acknowledges the power asymmetry between the State and its citizens, as well as the asymmetry in the capacity to inflict violence. To me she indicates that given these asymmetries, what can be productive is targeting the power (the system) behind the violence rather than the violence (the implements of the power) itself. And to me she more successfully tackles non-violent action than Fanon, when she states that “the distinction between violent and non-violent action is that the former is exclusively bent upon the destruction of the old and the latter chiefly concerned with the establishment of something new” (11). I think non-violent action has the potential of practicing and imagining alternative realities that using violence does not. I concur with Arendt (1969) that violence as action effects change and produces a violent world. This is why I keep looking for alternatives in non-violent action.
When you ask “If not through violence, then how?” I want to cite all these wonderful civic activists and civicly-minded Armenian citizens who have been tirelessly working at changing discourses of hopelessness, on raising consciousness about creating alternative systems of education, of engagement. Arendt (1969) allows us to understand the temptation to go with violence given its swiftness and immediacy at the same time that she reminds us about the violent world it can produce if the change hoped for does not swiftly occur, when the “means overwhelm the end,” and violence enters the body politic as a regular practice. Implemental, instrumental, and structural violence has bled into all cells and layers of social life in Armenia, the larger region, and the world in general. We should be sick of this.
And I am totally with you on the need for the systemic transformation in Armenia rather than changing faces in government. And I do not see violence serving this purpose of transformation, at least not the kind of transformation I am hoping for in Armenia. The Sasna Tsrer’s claims to decolonization seemed to be crumbling as they were not proposing to change the system, rather suggesting that they will be better rulers, with a just and firm patriarchal hand. Many of the activists with whom I spoke on the ground discussed the lack of room for critique of the armed group’s methods.
It does seem that the protests and rallies for Sasna Tsrer revealed and distilled alliances of many individuals and groups. And certain activist groups have been discussing new tactics and strategies of political struggle that could potentially confuse the regime, many focusing on producing a range of knowledges and working through networks and not necessarily on the streets.
TS: It seems, then, that while the Tsrer lay down their arms, what emerged as a result of their action will not end so swiftly.