POLITICAL VIOLENCE IN ARMENIA
(Sources, Public Perception, Ways to Overcome the Problem)
Tigran Akopian, Chairman of the Board of the Public Organization “Society Against Terrorism” (Erevan, Armenia)
On 27 October, 1999, five armed men walked calmly into the Armenian parliament building in broad daylight and shot the prime minister, the parliament speaker, two of his deputies, three other parliament deputies, and a minister of vice premier rank point-blank right in the assembly hall. Several other deputies and Cabinet of Minister members were wounded. The terrorists held most of the deputy corps and essentially all the members of government hostage for fifteen hours. On the demand of the head terrorist honcho, former student leader and mediocre journalist, Nairi Unanian, an appeal was read on national television which said in particular that “in just a few years, a prosperous country has been brought to rack and ruin and turned into a homeland that everyone wants to leave. Our fathers and grandfathers are now dragging out a wretched and semi-starving existence, thousands of our children do not have shoes and textbooks to go to school, our economy has been devastated, the social situation is intolerable, and we are facing the loss of our independence…
“What happened was dictated by the desire of your sons to stop the nation’s downfall and restore its rights…”
By the next morning, the terrorists, without making any political demands, had surrendered themselves into the hands of justice. The head of state only gave a verbal guarantee that the murderers would remain unharmed and undergo fair and open trial.
But the very first comments by the press, politicians, and public officials proved symbolic and left their imprint on further discussion of the reasons for the terrorist act, the personalities of the murderers, and the problems of political violence in general. In most of the responses, the terrorists were designated as a gang of villains who had no right to be called people. But literally the day after the bloody events, directly opposite evaluations were heard to the effect that they were “romanticists” and “Robin Hoods” who resorted to violence in order to save the homeland. “Yes, of course, what happened is terrible, but these lads pursued selfless goals.” Whereby such arguments were uttered not by members of the marginal strata of the population, but by well-known and popular people in the country. What is more, the results of a sociological poll conducted on 30-31 October by the Armenian Academy of Sciences’ Sociological Research Center in Erevan among 600 respondents immediately after the tragedy were flabbergasting. More than a quarter of the respondents (26.8%) said that what the terrorists did was a political act aimed at saving the country and the people (Aravot newspaper, 4 November, 1999).
Other sociological polls showed similar results, in particular, the one conducted in December 1999 by the Asun Information Center among Erevan students (2,070 respondents). Approximately one quarter of them justified to one extent or another the actions of Nairi Unanian, referring to the intolerable living conditions and impunity of the country’s “leaders who are sucking the nation’s blood.”
During the past few years, sufficient examples (some of which will be presented below) have accumulated which justify the claim that present-day Armenian society is highly perceptible to political violence, and a large number of the country’s citizens are inclined to condone destructive ways of conflict settlement.
Of course, this inclination is not only inherent in us. Human history is teaming with conflicts which give violence the green light when it comes to their settlement. Terrorism, on the other hand, as the ultimate form of political violence, had and still has its own attractive features and suffers from no shortage of fans. But in Armenia the vicissitudes of history have left their stamp on the nation’s mentality and have prompted many people to justify terrorism if it is conducted “in the name of national hopes and dreams” and based on “national motives.” What is the reason for this tolerant (to use a fashionable word) attitude toward one of the most global challenges to mankind?
“Armenian terrorism” (the name is very provisional, since terrorism as a phenomenon is in no way imposed on us by nationality or religious confession) has its own special features. Armenian society reacts to political violence and terrorism in keeping with its own historical traditions. On the whole, terrorism is not perceived in the mass consciousness of our people as atrocious and horrific, does not arouse a feeling of shock, and the terrorist himself is not considered an amoral, merciless murderer who blows up everyone and everything in his path without a thought for women and children. And there are reasons for this.
The partisan war that broke out in the 1890s in Western Armenia against the insufferable Turkish yoke sometimes took the form of violent acts by present standards (the murder of Turkish bureaucrats, the seizure of the Ottoman bank in Constantinople, attacks on police stations, and so on), but nevertheless fit entirely into the framework of a national liberation struggle. Here I will repeat a well-known truth: violence committed in the name of freedom and human rights against repressors and tyrannical regimes is reinforced in the norms, traditions, and political culture of all nations.
The genocide committed against the Armenians in 1915 in the Ottoman Empire, along with the irretrievable human losses suffered by our people, had a profound psychological effect not only on the overall, but also on the political, ethnic, and criminal psychology of Armenians, and on the building of their hopes and dreams. In particular, the legitimate feeling of revenge against slaughterers and executioners, with which Armenians are seized, is one of the direct consequences of this genocide. This is where we should look for an explanation for the “acts of revenge” against the organizers of the genocide which descended on European capitals at the beginning of the 1920s (the so-called Nemesis operation).
Almost all the leaders of the Young Turk government (Jemal, Talaat, Shakir, and so on, who incidentally were sentenced to death in their absence in 1919 by a military tribunal) who headed the program for deporting and destroying hundreds of thousands of Armenians were executed by Armenian national avengers. In terms of their content, these operations could not be classified as terrorist acts, although they involved murder.
The wave of terrorist acts in the 1970s-1980s against Turkish diplomats, state officials, Turkish Airlines representative agencies, and western companies cooperating with the Turkish government was also a remote consequence of the genocide. The goal of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), created in the mid-1970s, and several other smaller groups was to attract the attention of world public opinion by means of terrorist activity to the “Armenian question” and force Turkey to admit that it had committed genocide and compensate the Armenians for the moral and material damage inflicted on them. It should be noted that all these actions were carried out by representatives of the Armenian diaspora abroad. The world community classified the acts of these secret groups as terrorism, and Armenian political parties abroad publicly denounced the ASALA and other structures, although they secretly sympathized with them, since they expressed the interests of the Armenian diaspora. This diaspora formed precisely as a result of the “Armenian Holocaust.” The representatives of this diaspora were mainly the children and grandchildren of the residents of Western Armenia who were tormented and driven from their native soil.
The population of Soviet Armenia, deprived of the opportunity to express their own viewpoint on this question, empathized with the “Armenian avengers,” as they were even called in official Armenian historiography. Particularly since, due to the complete dearth of information, the activity of the ASALA became enshrouded in legends, and the personalities of the terrorists were mythologized.
This is one of the reasons why Armenian political and social thought “overlooked” the fact that the acts of revenge against the Turkish executioners of the 1920s had turned into the untargeted terrorist acts of the 1970s-1980s. A particularly graphic example is the explosion at Orly Airport in Paris in 1983 at the check-in counter of Turkish Airlines, as a result of which eight people were killed and almost 60 injured (whereby not only Turks, but also French, Swedes, and others). Nevertheless, after this senseless performance, terrorist acts waned and came to a complete halt by 1985.
The young generation in Soviet Armenia also grew up on the example of Lenin’s pet, the “legendary revolutionary” Kamo (Simon Ter-Petrossian), whose claim to fame was expropriating money from the royal treasury for the revolution. The daring seizures of banks in 1905-1907, which were accompanied by bombings and violence, left dozens of dead bodies and hundreds of mutilated victims in their wake. Such deeds by a really outstanding person, who was nevertheless a bandit and terrorist, were lauded in a film trilogy; streets, schools and a city were named after him, and Kamo himself became a household name in Soviet Armenia. Has the assessment of his activity changed during the post-Soviet era? Not in the least. Admittedly, the schools and city have been renamed, but in the second volume of the Armenian Abridged Encyclopedia published in 1995 (not in 1985!), Kamo is referred to as a “sociopolitical figure.” And the word “terrorist” either conjures up the image of the national avengers who executed the Turkish slaughterers or, at least, courageous Kamo in the minds of Armenian citizens.
But the goal of this article is not to analyze or evaluate either the acts of revenge of the 1920s or the terrorist operations of the 1970s-1980s. These examples only help to understand the sources of Armenian society’s perceptibility to political violence and its justification of terrorist acts. “Killing No Murder,” this widely known aphorism by Colonel Sexby provides the key to understanding Armenian society’s interpretation of the many violent acts committed in the 20th century.
This interpretation of terrorism also made itself known in the 1990s after Armenia gained its independence, when the country encountered the problem of domestic terrorism. The agonizing processes occurring throughout the entire post-Soviet space were exacerbated in our republic by the consequences of the destructive earthquake of 1988, the communication blockade on the part of Azerbaijan and Turkey, and the country’s involvement in the hostilities kindled by Nagorny Karabakh. Social disorientation of the population, its mass impoverishment, the critical state of society, and the inefficiency of the legal system gave rise to a new wave of political extremism.
The assessment of the state of the nation, deliberately exaggerated by the opposition political forces, created new myths and electrified broad strata of the population. Appeals sounded at meetings to turn to the “Rumanian alternative” and violent methods of combat. “Smash the bloodsuckers’ skulls,” “sentence them publicly by the people’s court,” “traitors,”—this kind of vocabulary became a customary feature of the multitudinous speeches not only at street meetings, but also of those given from the parliament rostrum. “The current authorities are worse than the Turks”—this comparison often appeared on the pages of “patriotic” publications. “But if they are worse than the Turks,” reckoned the young “unanians,” “we can fight them using the methods left by our national heroes.”
The authorities did not have an adequate response to such appeals. Instead of shifting the conflict into a legal channel, conducting compulsory legal persecution of flagrant forms of extremism, and encouraging a public debate on the problems facing the country, the government completely ignored these methods of political struggle. This reinforced the hostility and aggression in the strata of society dissatisfied with their lot, and confirmed their certainty that only a small group of high-ranking bureaucrats were to blame for all the woes, who should be punished.
At the end of 1994, the Armenian special services exposed an underground terrorist organization called Dro, which had set itself the task of destroying political adversaries, carrying out political and economic intelligence activity, and ensuring the transit of drugs. The documents found during the searches and the confessions of those accused showed beyond the shadow of a doubt that Dro was the brainchild of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutiun (ARFD) and created by a clandestine decision of the Bureau—the supreme administration agency of this party. (A parliamentary newspaper Aiastani Anrapetutiun published all these documents in February-March 1995.) The overwhelming majority of Dro’s members, who were responsible for several murders, also belonged to the ARFD, a party which never concealed the fact that terrorism was one of its combat methods.
This time, Armenian society was encountering domestic terrorism, whereby the terrorist organization was made up of citizens of one nationality and faith, the target of the struggle was the domestic problems of the country where they live, and the subject its citizens. But society was essentially indifferent to this dangerous phenomenon as well. There are many reasons for such a calm attitude toward the flagrant facts of the creation and activity of this terrorist organization.
First, after exposure of the Dro group, the authorities temporarily banned the activity of Dashnaktsutiun by a special decree of the country’s president Levon Ter-Petrossian, and then by a decision of the Supreme Court (until the investigation was completed and the party’s statutory documents brought into harmony with the country’s legislation). Its publications were also closed. Putting a halt to the activity of one of the oldest Armenian parties, which was shrouded in mystery and myths and had much support, including financial, in the diaspora, aroused the discontent of a large percentage of society and essentially eclipsed the very reason for the authorities’ strict action, that is, the presence of an underground terrorist wing in a political organization. Dashnaktsutiun refuted and continues to refute any connection with Dro, but the country was quick to indulge the instigators of terrorism. A similar underground group (Vaan Ovanessian+31), the goal of which was to overthrow power by violent means and murder the power ministers, was exposed in July 1995. Again, it consisted of members of the Dashnaktsutiun party, was responsible for the murder of two policemen, entire stores of weapons were found in its clandestine apartments, and during an attempt to arrest them, some of its members put up frenzied resistance with the use of small arms right down to medium machine-guns. The group’s members went on trial and were sentenced. But under conditions of an almost complete absence of reliable information about the measures being taken by the government, many of the republic’s citizens evaluated the authorities’ actions as the persecution of political adversaries. Incidentally, four of the five terrorists (including Nairi Unanian) who shot the prime minister and parliament speaker were members of this same Dashnaktsutiun party at different times!
Terrorism and violence as a system of political struggle were ultimately reinforced in Armenia during the presidential elections on 21 September, 1996. The main rival of the president at that time Levon Ter-Petrossian, who won with a very slight edge, the single candidate from the opposition, Vazgen Manukian, who was dissatisfied with the results of the voting, gathered together thousands of his supporters at the parliament, who, on the evening of 25 September, after breaking down the fence, forced their way into the building, organized a pogrom there, brutally beating and then kidnapping the parliament speaker and his deputy.
Anti-systemic terrorism had given rise to systemic violence on the part of the government. The next morning, the authorities brought armored military equipment out into the streets of Erevan, dozens of the fomenters of the brawl were beaten up at police stations and commandant’s offices, and some of the instigators went underground. Impotent state propaganda and the overstepping by the police and military officials of their official powers again relegated to the background the very problem of anti-systemic political violence. The powers that be were once more to blame, and the illegal actions of the opposition were justified by a large percentage of society. What is more, not one of the instigators of the pogrom was sentenced to any prison term. The authorities backed off, and the dress rehearsal for the carnage on 27 October, 1999 was a roaring success…
Extremism and violence became an inviolable attribute of the country’s political life. After the “velvet coup” (February 1998), the leaders of Dashnaktsutiun, Grant Markarian (sentenced under the Dro case) and Vaan Ovanessian (sentenced under the so-called Vaan Ovanessian+31 case), who were serving long imprisonment terms, were released from prison by the very first decrees of the acting president, Prime Minister Robert Kocharian. Formulation of the decree under which both of these figures were released surprised experienced lawyers: “Due to a change in the political situation.” This was not even followed by an official court decision on a change of a measure of restriction, early release, or cessation of the case. Society also “digested” this flagrant violation of the law and pandering to terrorists who had become part of the country’s political establishment. So what happened next? A wave of murders swept the country again. In just one year, the republic’s prosecutor general, and the deputy ministers of defense and internal affairs were murdered. On 27 October, 1999, a massacre was organized in parliament. In March 2000, an assassination attempt was made on President of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Arkady Gukassian. His car was riddled with bullets, he was wounded, but miraculously escaped with his life.
The example proved catching. Someone dissatisfied with a delay in assistance threw a grenade into the office of a charity organization. A student took his classmates hostage, also in protest against injustice… And so the list goes on.
Society’s sympathetic attitude toward domestic terrorism cannot be rationally explained.
The unrealized hopes aroused by independence and civil freedoms gained, and by the expectations for a rapid rise in prosperity prompted the radical members of society to engage in anti-systemic violence. There is nothing unusual in the fact that the marginals in society headed by “eternal revolutionaries” saw and see such action as a means for suppressing a conflict. But the fact that most of the political elite, the mass media, and the creative intelligentsia was, at best, indifferent to acts of political violence and, at worst, condoned such action defies explanation. Here are just a few examples.
When speaking on 25 September, 1996 before a street crowd who had literally just organized the pogrom in the parliament building and brutally beat the country’s leaders, a well-known sociologist and doctor of science, who also heads a liberal (in her words) party, cried rapturously into the microphone: “People, I love you. At last, I am seeing inspired faces”…
During the investigation into the Dro case, several public politicians and mass media were more concerned about the procedural subtleties than the fact of the activity of a terrorist organization itself, and some newspapers published articles sent from pretrial prison by the murderers (whereby without any commentary), in which they tried to justify their action.
During investigation, the Nairi Unanian gang was taken care of (I cannot find a better way to describe it) by the Human Rights Commission under the Armenian President, the members of which visited those under investigation several times to find out what state of health they were in and how well they were being fed. I am in no way casting aspersions on the activity of the public and, in particular, of the human rights activists trying to ensure protection of the rights of even the most hardened criminals and observation of the law. But the commission did not show this kind of concern before, although we all know that the justice system in Armenia, as in other post-Soviet republics, leaves much to be desired.
A statement by Edward Oganessian, a radical ideologue from the same Dashnaktsutiun party (which has eight deputy seats in parliament and three ministerial portfolios), during the “A1+” TV company Postfaktum program, sounded like the quintessence of the views on terrorism as “life-saving and forced violence.” This official said that classifying the events of 27 October as a terrorist act is premature today. And that only after a political assessment of the latest period in history, the personalities and deeds of those murdered can we explain what happened. For example, Mr. Oganessian drew a parallel between today’s events and the murder by avenger Sogomon Teilerian (Berlin, 1921) of one of the organizers of the Armenian genocide of 1915, Talaat-pasha, and his acquittal by the Berlin court. I do not think that such a cynical statement and comparison warrants any comment.
In April 2001, Varuzhan Karapetian, sentenced to life imprisonment as one of the organizers of the explosion at Orly Airport in 1983, was released early from French prison and deported from the country. (I will note that a public committee worked actively for several years in Armenia on Karapetian’s defense, demanding that the French authorities release the “national avenger.”) Again, I am not casting aspersions on the right of the Armenian authorities to allow Karapetian to live in Armenia, since this was an act of magnanimity toward a person who had been in prison for almost 14 years. But he was welcomed and honored like a king, avidly invited to meetings and press conferences, and, what is more, received and fussed over by the prime minister. The timid attempts by several newspapers to explain that it is inappropriate to create such a furor around a person responsible for human deaths were severely rebuffed by many public figures and representatives of the intelligentsia, and these newspapers were called “antinational.”
As talented writer and essayist Georgy Kubatian noted so subtly in his book Good Intentions: Essays on Terrorism, Particularly Armenian, “the problem is that when the matter turns to Armenian terrorists in Erevan, this word immediately conjures up the name of Teilerian. It is Teilerian and other avengers of 1921-1922 who embody the concept of ‘terrorist’ in the minds of Armenians. And so a terrorist act is associated with a noble idea, with a righteous mission, and any terrorist, even Nairi Unanian, is imbued with some of this righteousness.” In general, the Marxist thesis that violence is the midwife of any development (in our case even a method for resolving the “Armenian question”) has become firmly ensconced in the mass consciousness of our people.
Unfortunately, neither the terrorist acts of the 1970s-1980s, nor the endless series of acts of political violence in Armenia in the 1990s have been subjected to analysis, assessment, or philosophical reflection. No one has summed up the results of these operations. And they involve hundreds of dead and wounded, dozens of perished young Armenian kamikazes, hundreds of people thrown behind bars, and accusations and protests from the world community. Have these actions helped to resolve the “Armenian question?” Of course not. The very thought of frightening the Turkish government was fantastical. Have these actions attracted the attention of the world community to the “Armenian question?” To a certain extent, yes. But the negative consequences have been worse. The world has started talking about “Armenian terrorism,” and in many countries, anti-Armenian sentiments have emerged. The same can be said of the carnage in parliament on 27 October. Of course, it did not solve the social problems, it did not stop emigration, and what is more it set the republic back several years, and plunged its citizens into a state of desperation and shock.
From the acts of revenge against the Turkish oppressors to the untargeted explosion in Orly Airport, and then the terrorist act in parliament… This transmutation, this degeneracy was not noticed or comprehended by public thought in Armenia. I will again present a quote from Georgy Kubatian’s book: “We can talk over and over about the inborn, genetic characteristics of terrorism—when it soars up, its wave cannot be restrained within the boundaries of the original intention, it loses all its sense and is ready to crush everything that arises in its path.”
Here is another episode relating to the public perception of terrorist acts. In October 2000, on the anniversary of the 27 October events, a seminar called “Journalists Against Terrorism” was organized in Erevan. In his speech, pointing out the inadmissibility of such zealous defense of Varuzhan Karapetian, who was in French prison at that time, the present author “drew” the following picture. In Erevan airport, a Chechen, Palestinian or Basque (it doesn’t matter who) sets off a bomb at the Aeroflot (Lufthansa, Swissair) check-in counter. People are killed. The “freedom fighter” serves his term in an Armenian prison. How would you, the people sitting in this hall, react to petitions from the Chechen (Palestinian, Basque) side demanding the immediate release of this “national avenger?” For the goals pursued by the terrorist were also noble: Chechnia (Palestine, the Basque Country) is fighting for its freedom and independence. Would you justify the blood of innocent victims, the death of your fellow countrymen with these noble goals?
This was the question. The response to it was accusations of anti-patriotism and misunderstanding the special features of Armenian acts of revenge and “ethnic terrorism.” The policy of “double standards” rose its ugly head, violence is justified and even glorified if it is committed against “others,” but after experiencing it ourselves, we consider violence unacceptable, atrocious, deserving of the harshest punishment.
Has Armenian society insured itself against the emergence of dozens of new “unanians,” against every more mutilating terrorist acts with these assessments?
Ways to Overcome the Problem
Overcoming in contrast to eliminating is nigh impossible. But we can make sure that violence does not take over society and become the prevalent form of communication between people. This is no easy task. Violent acts, for example, the murder of innocent people, are criminal and immoral, but if society deems the goals of criminals (“national avengers,” “freedom fighters,” “romanticists”) noble (several examples are presented above), it is capable of forgiving these deeds.
So what should be done? What measures can be taken by the state, society, and the mass media?
The state bears the main responsibility for combating political violence, terrorism, and extremism (of course we are talking about democratic countries and not authoritative regimes where violence is elevated to the rank of state policy). It is the state that should carry out the measures necessary to protect society and the individual. But it appears that the permanent violence in Armenia does not bother the authorities one iota. Even after the carnage of 27 October, a law on terrorism was not adopted, and no amendments were made to the Criminal Code. What is more, neither the government, nor any of the numerous parliamentary factions (and it was deputies and ministers who spent one and a half hours lying on their stomachs under the blast of automatic rifles) or parties, has come forward with any such legislative initiative, demand, or proposal. However, this kind of law has been adopted in dozens of countries where terrorist acts occur no less frequently than in Armenia (there is even a law on terrorism in Kazakhstan, a country which is extremely low key in this respect).
The terrorist act of 27 October had a powerful impact on public opinion, humiliated the authorities, showed their impotence, and changed the very logic of political behavior in society. But there are no signs that the authorities are taking measures to prevent something similar happening in the future. Admittedly, they are installing metal detectors in some of the government buildings and increasing security measures around the president. Armored cars have become the latest fad, before the 27 October events there was only one such specimen in Armenia.
Moreover, coverage of the trial against the terrorists by official and pro-government publications is giving the opposition reason to accuse the authorities of complying with the terrorists. And not only the opposition. There is a more significant argument in favor of the fact that the government is compelled to coherently and clearly declare its repudiation and non-acceptance of any forms and methods of political violence and terrorism (which was not done, even after the events on 27 October). The authorities must present a program for public discussion aimed at combating this evil in all fields: legal, information, social, and educational.
Under Armenian conditions, where the ruling administration has complete control over most mass media (both printed and electronic), it can and should put an end to open propaganda of violence. But the paradox lies in the fact that it is the pro-government mass media that are in the habit of interpreting terrorism as “life-saving violence.” Nairi Unanian need not have composed the statement by the terrorists himself, an excerpt from which was presented at the beginning this article, but merely gathered similar assessments from the monthly files of several newspapers. But there is no one in the country today (despite the large number of nongovernmental organizations) to keep track of the “dirty language” used by the mass media and the abundance of quotes by theoreticians and activists of extremism and terrorism. The publication, for example, in an individual brochure of all the statements and speeches of the past few years from which the terrorists of Unanian’s gang have derived their ideas and forged their entire revolutionary conviction would be an impressive argument in favor of rejecting the popularization of political violence, no matter what form it takes.
Along with the public and the academia, the state can and should begin a public discussion of the sources of political violence and give an objective assessment of the terrorist acts of the 1970s-1980s and domestic acts of political violence in the 1990s. A general historical trauma should not nurture the idea of “correcting the past,” or serve as an ideological foundation for the existence of an “eternal enemy” in the form of a specific ethnic group, state, or individual. We need to find the courage to stop considering ourselves a “unique nation,” a “long-suffering nation,” to which everyone and everything “owes” something. After all, unrealized hopes for the fair restructuring of the world as a whole and interstate relations in particular are giving rise to monsters who are trying to establish harmony in society and the world by means of violence.
I believe that the people can be made to understand that non-violence is the bearer of political morals, which rejects the use of any old means to achieve a noble end. Who if not the historian or political scientist or simply respected public figures, who have an influence on the minds of their fellow countrymen, should explain in easy-to-understand terms that terrorism has never achieved its intended goals.
I have deliberately not gone into the economic and social living conditions in society as a powerful factor of the emergence and use of violence. But it should be noted that, first, there will long be an enormous gap in Armenia between the rich and the poor, which will make it impossible to ensure social stability. Second, even countries with a high standard of living and a civil society are not immune from violence and terrorism if they have strong extra-economic and extra-social factors which condone this violence.
In Armenia, an extremely strong psychological aspect is inherent of political violence, terrorism, and their use. Therefore, bringing about a change in the nation’s psychological self-awareness and mentality is one of the ways to define the boundaries of political violence admissible today.