Both ancient and modern writers have used the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC between the Greeks and the Persians as an example of the power of a patriotic army defending their native soil. The Spartan King Leonidas, who was in charge of the Greek forces, aware that his troops were outflanked, remained to guard the retreat of its army with 300 Spartans (and a few hundreds of others), most of whom were eventually killed by the advancing Persian troops. These men gave the most precious asset they had—their lives—to save their country.
On July 17, 2016, 30 Armenians decided to do something similar: stop their country from an imminent economic and demographic demise and prevent a future military defeat believed to be orchestrated by the country’s ruling elite. In an act of ultimate sacrifice, a group of activists and former freedom fighters calling themselves the “Daredevils of Sassoon” took over a key police compound in downtown Yerevan to ring the bells and trigger an uprising. What ensued was a strong outpouring of support and a series of mass protest rallies across the country supportive of the gunmen and against the regime. Having squandered much of the country’s wealth and manipulated the results of every single election since 1991, the regime has little, if any, support among its population.
The takeover revealed interesting facts about the life on the police base. The gunmen found pornographic materials and evidence of a prostitution ring being housed on the base. This came as little surprise to the general public, given the largely negative image of the Armenian police within the society due to ties with organized crime, politics, and corruption.
The occupiers have a clear political program devised by their political wing, the Founding Parliament, to guide the country out of this impasse. A national unity government is proposed to be formed to replace the Sargsyan regime and prepare the ground for free elections following an interim period. Details of new economic, social, and foreign policies are also outlined in the program. The Founding Parliament is expecting to rely on the vast human capital of the Diaspora for forming the temporary administration, thus making sure the new team is representative of the world-wide 10 million Armenians.
The public support of the desperate actions of the gunmen has been very strong. Virtually everyone interviewed by BBC in a recent poll approved the actions of the Daredevils, calling them “heroes”. The social media is full of opinions essentially stating that people have the right to defend themselves against the state terror and to help put the country on a more meaningful path
The history of mankind essentially consists of a series of exogenous structural shifts that helped societies propel to new levels of progress. Examples are many throughout the modern history, some of which were associated with the use of arms. Could anyone possibly imagine today what the United States would have been if the Founding Fathers did not oppose the British rule and called for an armed rebellion, or what France would have looked like today if the heroes of Bastille decided to stay on the fence? The world would have been a much worse place today if it weren’t for the willingness of the best and bravest to put their lives on the line for the common good.
In the Armenian context, taking up arms against the state terror is self-defense and effectively the only way to uphold the Constitution, which has been consistently abused by the regime that came to power by hook or crook every single time it had to go through an election process.
The overly cautious and ambiguous position of the Western powers to what was happening since July 17 has been disheartening for those, who have watched the corrupt regime and its Nazi-style police force to get more powerful using western dollars. This is when the same Western governments have offered relatively little support to civil society and opposition institutions in Armenia over the years, leaving them without much hope for survival in the face of state oppression and abuse.
The Western powers have also fallen victim to the regime’s tricks and deception, the most significant being the commitment to sign the Association Agreement with the EU in 2013, subsequently reversed overnight by the regime. This time the lies are reinforced by age-old dogmas of the first president and founding father of Armenia’s corruption, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, and are very dangerous. His insistence that territorial concessions to Azerbaijan are the only way for Armenia to avoid war (a clearly outdated thinking that allows no room for improved governance to help the country out of the current deadlock) is as far from the reality or experience of the rest of the world as it can be. Aided by Ter-Petrosyan, the regime’s propaganda machine is now most likely trying to convince the Western powers that the Daredevils are Kocharyan-style hardliners unwilling to compromise on the issue of Nagorno Karabagh and are therefore not worthy of their support.
Unfortunately, whatever the regime’s propagandists are doing seems to be working. The latest statement by the US Embassy in Armenia was a disappointment, clearly putting the perpetrator on the same scale with the victim and not offering any real solutions. In an ironic way, this must reflect a fundamental shift in policy following the (open and transparent) support of anti-government forces in places like Libya, Syria, Ukraine, among others, in recent years. Armenia must indeed be somehow different to be singled out in such a manner.
This and previous statements failed to acknowledge the fact that the actions of Daredevils are intended to be (and has worked as) a trigger for a nation-wide peaceful protests, and is not per se a mechanism for overthrowing the regime. They also—and perhaps more importantly—do not serve the best interests of the United States in an important geopolitical region: sweet-talking with counterparts from Baghramyan 26 is facing a serious risk of losing the support of people of Armenia and pushing them back into Russia’s hands.
The Erdogan-style heavy-handed tactics with respect to peaceful protests by Sargsyan, nevertheless, did get the attention of some Western politicians. Thorbjørn Jagland, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, reportedly called on the Sargsyan regime to respect the right of assembly and protest. More will undoubtedly follow as the video footage from the July 29 brutal police action—showing plain-clothed officers and criminal thugs dispersing men, women, and children with tear gas, hand grenades, and metal bars—are disseminated by international media outlets, such as BBC.
The sacrifice of 30 Armenians should not go in vein. The regime that is arresting its citizens off the streets just to suppress dissent cannot live long in the 21st century. The pressure from within the country, international community, and the Diaspora will mount and eventually result in the fall of the regime and its leaders. However, given its precarious geopolitical situation all sides should do the best to help the country’s leaders avoid the fate of Ceausescu and Gaddafi. More importantly, the Daredevils will not have to die, like their 300 Spartan brothers in spirit 25 centuries ago, just to make a case. If we all wake up from our sleep and support them, they will become the force to help avoid an upcoming disaster and to lead Armenia to stability, freedom, prosperity, and unity.