March 05, 2008

Armenia's "Bloody Saturday"

(We reprint the following submission to us without comment)

36 years ago on January 30, 1972, British soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilian protestors in the city of Derry, Northern Ireland, who were demonstrating in defense of their civil and political rights. As a result, 26 people were killed. It took the British government decades to objectively review this tragic event and to take ultimate responsibility for what occurred. That day is remembered in contemporary Irish history as “Bloody Sunday”.

In Armenia, on March 1st and into the morning of Sunday, March 2nd, armed troops mercilessly beat and fired upon civilian protestors in the capital city of Yerevan, resulting in scores of injured and 8 civilian deaths. March 1st will be recorded in Armenian history books and in the collective memory of Armenians as “Bloody Saturday”.

On that fateful day in Derry the large Catholic minority were merely demanding equal rights and a stake in the government imposed by England. In Armenia however, the movement we have been witness to over the past two weeks was a much wider and deeper phenomenon. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, challenging the very legitimacy of the ruling regime. Triggered by another in a series of fraudulent and manipulated presidential elections, a large segment of the populace felt that they had no other recourse but to voice their protest at “politics as usual” through mass public demonstrations.

Sadly, in Armenia, elections are the only formal avenue by which citizens can voice their concerns and discontent. When this only form of expression is effectively stolen from them they are left with no real alternative. Staged elections come and go, the people return to their difficult daily lives, and the governance of the country remains in the hands of those who wield the levers of power. This state of affairs has resulted in a palpable apathy within the majority of the society – a division between the governed and those who govern in their name and supposedly with their best interests at heart. People are disenfranchised from the very state structures that nominally exist to represent them. This has resulted in a lack of confidence that a change of government will improve their lives in a tangible way. Thus many are content with the fact that they have electricity round the clock and that their pensions have risen by a few thousand drams. A mentality reigns that its better to receive such crumbs rather than seek to struggle for a new, truly representative government for such an aim is one based on lofty, invisible principles rather than concrete, visible results. This is the state of political discourse and civic participation in Armenia today. It is personality driven and not based on ideology or conviction.

Whether you like him or not, whether you view him as an ambition-driven cult leader or not, whether you fault him for his past political actions or not, Levon Ter-Petrosyan understood the pent up frustration of the people much better that the authorities and tapped into it. Despite the fact that I wasn’t totally pleased with everything that Levon Ter-Petrosyan and his inner circle did or said during the rallies at Freedom Square, in terms of raising the hopes of the crowds that gathered for ten straight days, he effectively served as the symbolic leader of the movement taking hold. Whatever the statements of the ruling regime to the contrary, those tens of thousands who came to the rallies were not mislead or manipulated in any way. Rest assured that they clearly understood what was at stake and why they had to participate in those public expressions of protest. The absurd statements of the regime’s representatives, in the persons of National Assembly President Tigran Torosyan or Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian, are laughable if they weren’t so tragic.

The government attempts to justify its brutality and repressive measures to squash all freedom of expression and assembly, as set forth by President Kocharyan’s declaration of a State of Emergency, by raising the specter that a coup d’etat was in the works. They attempt to prove this by a handful of guns and metal pipes that were conveniently found at Freedom Square after the army attacked the peaceful crowd gathered there early on the morning on Saturday, March 1st. These “revelations” are all the more puzzling since the Freedom Square rally organizers constantly called for the crowds to remain calm and to refrain from clashes with the police. For ten days straight tens of thousands of Armenians, men, women and children, both rallied and marched through the streets of Yerevan without incident. What then triggered the bloodletting that occurred on March 1st?

The ruling regime, naturally, seeks to portray the demonstrators as people who were mislead and manipulated by a few populist demagogues. It would be folly for them to actually accept the fact that in the country they have ridden roughshod over for the past ten years there exist deep social cleavages. Their attempts to discredit ordinary Armenian citizens for openly expressing their concerns border on the ridiculous and merely serve to expose the contempt in which they hold the average citizen of Armenia. Then there are the armchair political commentators and social psychologists who spew out the standard rhetoric of a “psychology of the masses”. Of course Levon Ter-Petrosyan is blamed for stirring up the most base and primitive emotions in the people which ultimately led to the carnage and destruction of March 1st. No where, at least that I have seen, do they speak of the mentality that drove the ruling regime to resort to the actions that it felt necessary to take in the end, the “psychology of the besieged”. Hold up in their well barricaded institutions of power, the authorities fully realized what was developing in the streets of Yerevan. Their authority to rule was actually being challenged and in the end this was unacceptable. It did not matter that the movement was peaceful and sought to merely have the rigged presidential election declared null and void. Such a movement, if allowed to grow and develop, questioned the regime’s legitimacy and threatened its continued hold over the country. The regime had everything to lose and used all the means at its disposal to crush the movement in its tracks. It lashed out with its full force and left the protestors with no alternative but to defend themselves. It remains to be seen what role the government actually played in instigating and organizing the looting of a few stores that occurred in the melee. Clearly, the facts of what actually took place and who were responsible cannot be exposed given the current news blackout imposed by the regime.

That this was a popular movement larger than the personality of Levon Ter-Petrosyan and encompassing more than simple frustration regarding the February 19th elections must be clear to all. Those who lament the fact that Armenians came to blows with fellow Armenians or that such events only bring shame upon the nation need to open their eyes to the realities that surround them and to free themselves from such outdated stereotypical illusions. Contrary to the absurd proclamations made by Parliament Speaker Torosyan, such social and political processes have occurred in the historical development of many nations that are now held up as shining beacons of civilization and democracy. The French Revolution had it numerous beheadings of royalty, the civil rights movement in the United States was not totally peaceful and majority-rule in South Africa wasn’t achieved merely by sit-down strikes.

The illusion that Armenians are content to bow their heads before those who seek to violate their basic rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has once and for all been shattered by the thousands of ordinary Armenians who displayed the personal courage and determination to take the streets. Today, there are tanks and armed soldiers patrolling those same streets. If anything positive is to result from all that has transpired, those same people and thousands more will once again fill the streets resolute that their renewed struggle will finally create the conditions for true democracy to take hold in Armenia.

Personal Reflections of a Resident Spyurkahye
March 5, 2008


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