Unwelcome Guest, Undesired Host: A Street Perspective of Putin’s Armenia Visit

Samson Martirosyan
On Dec. 2, 1920, Armenian Prime Minister Alexandre Khatisian signed the Alexandropol Treaty between the First Republic of Armenia and Turkey. Pro-Soviet forces took control of Armenia’s government, and the country was declared a Soviet state. Exactly 93 years later, on Dec. 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Armenia to welcome President Serge Sarkisian’s decision to join the Russian-led Custom’s Union, which many argue is an incarnation of the Russian imperialistic appetite and an attempt to create a Soviet Union 2.0.
Despite all odds stacked against Armenian civil society and strong pro-Russian and anti-European Union (EU) propaganda, a very diverse group of more than 1,000 citizens took to the streets of Yerevan to protest Putin’s visit, and the regime’s decision to join the Customs Union, and its failure to sign the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) and Association Agreement with the EU.
Early in the morning, prior to Putin’s arrival, large banners reading, “No to Customs Union Colonization” (Ո՛Չ ՄԱՔՍԱՅԻՆ ԳԱՂՈՒԹԱՑՄԱՆԸ), “Sovereign Republic of Armenia” (ԻՆՔՆԻՇԽԱՆ ՀՀ), and “Let’s get rid of the Sergiks” (ԱԶԱՏՈՒԵ՛ՆՔ ՍԵՐԺԻԿՆԵՐԻՑ) hung above the main streets of Yerevan. Police removed them almost immediately, and detained around six activists, who were released by noon.
While the activists were hanging banners, many others—suspected to be administrative staff of governmental institutions and Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) members—were shipped in on buses and handed Russian flags,  in order to greet Putin and participate in the opening ceremony of a monument that symbolizes Armenian-Russian friendship.
The main protest activity started at 1 p.m. at Freedom Square. I went to the venue earlier than planned as rumors had spread that the authorities were planning to close off a bigger part of Baghramyan Avenue near the Presidential Palace. Police numbers were overwhelming and the ratio of activists to policemen was approximately one to five. Policemen seemed more hostile than usual, more alert and determined.
Early on, a police car intervened, warning that the protest was not authorized by municipal authorities, and was thus illegal and had to be dispersed. Initially, it was planned that the protest would move from Freedom Square to the Presidential Palace via Northern Avenue and Amiryan Street. Protesters quickly began marching while chanting, “Putin, go home,” “We are the owners of our country,” and “Sergik, go away.”  Police blocked the march halfway through. The protesters reversed direction, but were again blocked off. The then protesters became trapped on Northern Avenue, with no way out. Eventually, after negotiating with the police, they were allowed to move once again. The protesters—numbering around 1,000—moved towards the government building, only to be blocked again.
Young men and women, mostly students, carried a large banner that read, “To the barricades.” Dozens of others held anti-Putin posters. Someone waived a huge anarchist flag. Others carried the Ukrainian and Armenian national flags tied together as a sign of solidarity with the recent Euromaidan events in Kiev. And finally, for the first time, there was the rainbow flag. All of these elements made this protest unique: Diverse backgrounds and sets of values (a bit unusual in Armenia) were represented here, united despite the absence of an organizing body.
The protesters took to Amiryan Street, and were again blocked by police, who started a crackdown. They detained every activist they managed to catch, and confiscated cameras. Simultaneously, a small skirmish took place between an ultra-nationalist group and those carrying the rainbow flag, although it didn’t result in major injuries and both sides avoided each other from then on. Later, after the protest ended, they too were detained.
In the meantime, those activists who separated from the main group to protest near the Presidential Palace on Baghramyan Avenue, where Putin was supposed to arrive, were arrested by the police.
Back downtown, as police began acting violently, protesters ran to another street to avoid being detained. Police announced that people had been warned that the march was unauthorized, and that they were now taking steps to detain them. Activists responded by chanting, “We are not slaves.”
Meanwhile in Gyumri—Armenia’s second largest city, where authorities had frantically prepared (*) for Putin’s arrival—Putin announced during a joint Armenian-Russian forum that “As for the South Caucasus, Russia has no plans of ever leaving it.”  The decision to join the Custom’s Union “was a sovereign decision,” said Putin in the presence of his Armenian counterpart and the Armenian political leadership. After the forum, both presidents went to the Russian military base in Gyumri, then headed to Yerevan.
The main protest activity started at 1 p.m. at Freedom Square. I went to the venue earlier than planned as rumors had spread that the authorities were planning to close a bigger part of Baghramyan Avenue near the Presidential Palace.
A few hours later, protesters—whose numbers had drastically decreased due to the numerous detentions—were finally allowed to leave the street. Several of them attempted to cross over to Baghramyan Avenue, but were unsuccessful. I, too, tried to make my way to Baghramyan via the metro, but it turned out that “due to technical reasons” the metro did not stop at Baghramyan Avenue. By 6 p.m., the area near the Presidential Palace was closed. Almost all police departments available were dispatched there. Even parents were not allowed to pick up their kids from the school in that vicinity. It appeared as though there was a state of emergency rather than a visit by the president of a foreign country.
The outcome of the visit was an agreement that would sell the last 20 percent of shares (**) belonging to the Armenian ArmRosGazprom Company to the Russian Gazprom Company, thus making Armenia even more dependent on Russia. Putin left later that night. His visit resulted in a record number of arrests: 110 in total. (***)
There are several conclusions to be made after the events that happened in Armenia on Dec. 2.
Time is ticking. During his two terms as president, Serge Sarkisian’s legitimacy has been questioned by many in Armenia. The more time goes by, the stronger the dissent and anger of the Armenian population. This was not solely an anti-Putin protest, but also an anti-regime protest, which was led mostly by young people: the “independence generation.” The majority of those who took to the streets consider it their duty to stay and fight against impunity, injustice, and hypocrisy. They hope to eventually build and live in their desired country—an economically and politically independent state. They do not wish to flee the country, but boost a change instead. If things go on this way with Sarkisian pushing deeper “cooperation” with Putin, while at the same time ignoring the urgent problems of unemployment, emigration, poverty, and human rights, the situation might easily get out of hand. Putin’s Russia, which appears to be chipping away at Armenia’s sovereignty and independence, can be a solid reason to unite groups that would normally find very little in common.
The regime is afraid. The very fact that protests, civil disobedience, and other events aimed at expressing dissent are met with heavy and overwhelming police response is more proof that the language of brutal force, threats, and provocation is seen as the only effective way of silencing citizens. The police have lost credibility in the eyes of many. They are no longer perceived as guarantors of the security of citizens, but as a brute force employed by the regime. This was clear in the number of detentions.
Protesters are no longer alone. The protest attracted the attention of major news media, including EuroNews, Human Rights House, Global Post, BBC, and Reuters. The protests attracted more attention than Putin’s visit, an encouraging feat. Of course, such media coverage is connected to recent developments surrounding the Custom’s Union, especially the events in Ukraine. Still, it is the activists who benefited most from this. Now that Sarkisian has turned his back to the EU and the West in general while considering Russia as a main and high-priority partner and ally, it will be more difficult to safeguard his legitimacy in the international arena. The EU hopefully learned its lessons, namely, that trusting rulers with questionable legitimacy is not useful in the long term. It is possible that, moving forward, human rights violations and other pressing issues will get more attention from the EU. Civil society institutions will hopefully come to replace Sarkisian’s administration as a main partner of the EU.
The situation in Armenia can often be depressing, and while I am writing this report, there is another protest at Baghramyan 26, near the Presidential Palace. This one is against the new pension law, and again the police are there to face the protesters. But there is hope as long as there is a group of young, energetic citizens who, instead of taking the emigration route, choose to stay on our land and strive for a future we want and deserve. On Dec. 2, I saw hundreds of such people, hundreds who are not ready to sell their future, hundreds who are ready to struggle for this worthy cause.

"The Armenian Weekly," December 3, 2013
(*) "Armenia’s second-largest city of Gyumri is becoming a Potemkin -- or rather a Putin -- Village for a two-day visit this December by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the best Soviet tradition, when the South Caucasus would tidy up and put on a show for a Communist big wig visiting from Moscow, Gyumri is having a long-overdue face-lift to look good for Putin, who himself is said to have a soft spot for facials.
Potholed roads are being fixed, facades are being painted, garbage is being carted away on a scale that Gyumri residents have not seen since communism. "If Putin comes to town twice a year, Gyumri will become a great city," joked municipal council member Levon Barsegian in comments to the Tert.am news service. "It is shameful that it takes a visit of a head of foreign state to renovate the city," he added.
Gyumri Mayor Samvel Balasanian said he is not even sure what Putin’s itinerary is going to be during the December 2-3 visit. Some expect the Kremlin boss to skip the capital Yerevan and head straight to Gyumri's Russian military base, a major strategic foothold for Russia in the Caucasus.
So, with that in mind, workers also are busy renovating the road from the local airport to the base, and everything around it.
The city will also be hosting an Armenian-Russian economic forum and its venue, a local drama theatre, is covered in scaffolding after 10 years of neglect. The forum is now more important than ever after Yerevan opted this September to go with the Russian-led Customs Union, a decision that put the kibosh on accelerated integration with the European Union.
But looks like Yerevan has more to give Moscow than just its economic ambitions. It also will be handing over additional territory to the Gyumri military base, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. In exchange, Russia will be handing over 18 helicopters to Armenian troops.
Yerevan seems to have done enough to please the Russian leader, but why stop when the going's good, some might ask. Landlocked as Armenia is, "at this rate, they may even open a sea port in Gyumri," joked Barsegian." (Giorgi Lomsadze, "Armenia's Gumri Becomes Putinville," Eurasianet.org, November 22, 2013).
(**) Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller, who arrived in Armenia with Russian president Vladimir Putin, told reporters that Gazprom "will acquire today the last 20% of the shares belonging to ArmRosGazprom Company." He added that, "the Russian gas price for Armenia will change, and will be supplied to Armenia at Russia’s internal price." Miller, however, refrained from mentioning concrete figures, Armenpress reported (www.armradio.am, December 2, 2013).
(***) According to the police report, "110 people were arrested and brought to the district departments of the Republic of Armenia Police. One of them was a minor and was delivered to parental custody; minutes of administrative violation were recorded against 43 people for committing an infraction according to article 182 of the Code for Administrative Infractions of the Republic of Armenia; 62 were subjected to administrative responsibility according to point 15 of article 180(1); one for article 182 and point 11 of article 180(1), and three for committing an infraction according to article 172(2) of the Code for Administrative Infractions of the Republic of Armenia" (www.hetq.am, December 3). Translated by "Armeniaca"

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