President Serzh Sarkisian on Monday praised Armenian security forces for neutralizing an armed opposition group and said further attempts to effect political change in Armenia by violent means would also fail.
Sarkisian accused a radical Armenian opposition group of trying to “import” militant extremism from the Middle East the day after gunmen affiliated with it surrendered to the authorities following a two-week standoff. But he pledged to ensure an “objective investigation” into their July 17 seizure of a police compound in Yerevan.
Addressing Armenia’s top security officials, senior lawmakers, pro-government public figures as well as media representatives, Sarkisian also promised “radical changes” in the country’s political life.
“We will not allow anyone to erode the foundations of our state,” he told them in a speech. “In Armenia, issues will not be solved with weapons and through violence.”
“Yerevan is not Beirut or Aleppo. Let nobody try to import Cold War-era solutions from the Middle East to Armenia,” he said in a clear reference to the Lebanese background of Zhirayr Sefilian, the jailed leader of Founding Parliament, a fringe nationalist group seeking regime change in Armenia.
The 30 or so gunmen affiliated with Founding Parliament stormed the police compound in Yerevan’s Erebuni district nearly one month after Sefilian was arrested for allegedly plotting an armed revolt. They demanded not only Sefilian’s release but also Sarkisian’s resignation.
Other senior Founding Parliament members, notably Alec Yenikomshian, organized demonstrations in Yerevan in support of the gunmen until being arrested by law-enforcement authorities. Like Sefilian, Yenikomshian was born and raised in Lebanon. He is a former member of ASALA, a now defunct militant group that assassinated Turkish diplomats in the 1970s and 1980s.
Sefilian, for his part, reportedly fought in an ethnic Armenian self-defense militia during the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s.
It was not clear whether Sarkisian also alluded to Vartan Oskanian, a Syrian-born former foreign minister who voiced support for the gunmen and demanded government concessions to them during the standoff. Oskanian holds a seat in the Armenian parliament and leads a recently formed opposition party which some observers believe is linked to former President Robert Kocharian.
The gunmen killed at least one police officer and wounded several others before laying down their arms late on Sunday.
Sarkisian commended the Armenian police and National Security Service (NSS) for forcing them to surrender without a large-scale assault. He also spoke of his “disgust” with unnamed opposition and public figures that backed the armed attack in Erebuni. He claimed that their stance amounted to endorsement of “terrorism.”
The gunmen’s sympathizers, who have rallied in Yerevan in their thousands, vehemently deny that the attack involving hostage taking was an act of terror. They say that chronic vote rigging in the country makes it practically impossible for Armenians to change their government through elections.
Many of them also back Founding Parliament’s strong opposition to any significant Armenian concessions to Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
“True, Armenia’s authorities are not perfect,” Sarkisian said in that regard. “True, there are many shortcomings and difficult problems in Armenia. But our goal is to speed up solutions to them.”
The president did not specify those solutions, saying only that a controversial constitutional reform which his administration enacted late last year will lead to the formation of a “government of national accord.”
“I can say for certain that in a matter of months we will have such a government,” he declared, apparently referring to parliamentary elections due in April 2017.
The elections will take place one year before Sarkisian serves out his final presidential term and Armenia completes its transition to the parliamentary system of government. Sarkisian has not yet clarified whether he will retire from active politics or seek to become prime minister in 2018.
The Armenian leader emphasized on Monday that he is ready to cooperate with only those opposition groups and leaders that favor non-violent methods of political struggle.
In their reactions to the Erebuni standoff, the United States and the European Union have spoken out against any recourse to violence in Armenia’s political life. “Use of force and violence to achieve political change are not acceptable,” a spokeswoman for the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said over the weekend.