YEREVAN, Armenia — It is perhaps a measure of his desperation that Sayat Harutunyan, still in a hospital bed here days after police beat him to a pulp and he lost an eye, asked us to plead with Kim Kardashian, the world’s most famous Armenian, and her husband Kanye West to try do to something, anything, that might help the fight for democracy here.
What the celebrities could accomplish is not clear at all. But what’s obvious is that calls for greater freedom and an incipient uprising have been met on the streets with ferocious violence by a regime close to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin—and also with the West.
The police crackdown on the anti-government protest last weekend left dozens of Armenians wounded. It had grown out of the actions of a tiny rebel band that took weapons, killed two policemen and held hostages in the center of Yerevan. But most of the victims had nothing to do with the rebels, and many had nothing to do with the protests.
To prevent a scenario like Ukraine’s revolution in the winter of 2013-2014, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan opted for an iron fist.
On Friday night, squads of well-armed security forces used gas, clubs, guns and stun grenades against a demonstration full of children. Some of the victims were random pedestrians or the merely curiosity who ran to see the fire and the rows of policemen in shining black helmets. Ambulances took more than 60 people to hospitals, including 17-year-old Sayat Harutunyan.
From his bed at Grigor Lusavorich hospital on Tuesday, Harutunyan, along with his younger sister Susanna and older brother Robert, asked The Daily Beast to tell Kimye about “Armenia bleeding,” about what had happened to the protesters on Khorinatsi Avenue here in the nation’s capital.
“People were running away from police, some were wounded; at first I did not feel anything, then I felt sharp pain in my eye and I began to run,” Sayat Harutunyan told The Daily Beast. “My eye was bleeding but one of the policemen knocked me down and continued to club me on the ground.”
Yes. This is a small country in the Southern Caucasus, and when Kim Kardashian came to Armenia in the spring of last year to explore her roots, her visit inspired many young people. Now Harutunyan and his family want millions of people in the United States and Europe —“whoever cared”— to know about his trouble and the trouble in this country.
The scale of Armenia’s bad news was shocking both to local and international observers.
On Monday, three U.S. Army soldiers who are part of a training mission were discussing police violence and shaking their heads in astonishment in the lobby of Yerevan’s Marriott Hotel: ”It was crazy, lots of people got burns and shrapnel injuries from grenades; shocking news,” one of the officers told The Daily Beast.
According to the Helsinki Group, in the period between July 17, when a group of armed rebels stormed a district police station and took nine hostages, to July 31 when the rebels surrendered, police detained 675 people in Yerevan. The official aftermath of the crisis included 367 detainees and more than 100 injured people, including 49 policemen and 86 protesters.
Many in Armenia sympathized with the 31 rebels and their two-week-long standoff. At least 11 rebels were veterans of the ongoing war in Nagorno-Karabakh, and they called themselves Daredevils of Sassoun, after David of Sassoun, the hero of Armenia’s national epic.
There is a proud monument of David of Sassoun on top of a rearing horse in the square in front of the railway station in Yerevan. On Friday night, several hundred people, some from the opposition, others just random locals, tried to walk toward the occupied police station and prevent violence.
Police beat journalists and destroyed their equipment. U.S. Ambassador Richard Mills visited some injured journalists at the hospital last weekend. "Free speech,” he said, “requires a press that can report the news free from the fear of injury. Injuring journalists injures the entire society and its democratic promise.”
By Friday, the rebels had released all hostages, but continued to occupy the police station and demand the resignation of President Sargsyan, as well as the release from jail of their group’s activists.
During the two weeks of the crisis, Armenia saw the president on television just once, and then he was talking to police commanders.
“That hellish night a war came right to the porch of our house,” said Averik, a resident near Saritakh Avenue. Her family had nothing to do with the revolutionary attempt and its supporters. Averik’s mother and six children were inside the house when the crowd of several hundred protesters rushed by, looking for a place to hide from the cops, the gas, and the clubs.
Women and children among the protesters looked for shelter in courtyards or in private houses, but policemen and some unidentified men wearing civilian clothes and gloves continued to chase everyone who had been in the march. Dozens were beaten, arrested, and threatened.
At one point, Averik saw a bright flash. The tree in her courtyard was burning, children screamed in horror, her mother’s ear was bleeding—the woman could not hear anything. On Monday, signs of destruction were all over Averik’s house, and her children still look horrified. She pointed at a big fragment of the black “bomb” on the porch.
“That bomb left my mother deaf, my children traumatized, and look what police did to my brother,” Averik said and opened the door to the bedroom.
On the couch her brother was moaning, bandages with blood stains covered his arms, legs and his stomach. Averik’s mother showed her wounded legs and her bleeding ear.
The family was so terrified by police, Averik said, they preferred to treat their family members at home and not at a hospital.
Armenia has a strategic partnership with Russia. In June, President Serzh Sargsyan met with Putin to discuss Moscow’s support in the conflict with Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh region.
At the same time, Armenia has strong ties with the West. NATO has trained Armenian soldiers for peacekeeping missions—just the kind of thing that makes Moscow suspicious. Any attempts to bring down the sitting president in Armenia is seen as an American plot of some kind.
“That was an attempt to repeat the Ukrainian scenario but it failed,” Russian MP Robert Schlegel told The Daily Beast.
Armenian politicians denied any foreign involvement in the current political crises and several blamed the poverty and social issues more than the rebels.
Parliamentary Deputy Zatuhi Postanjyan, an elegant mother of three children, marched with the protesters and witnessed the violence. “Police threw stun grenades at people, at the crowd with children in it—that was a disaster,” the deputy said.
On Tuesday, Postanjyan tried to visit detained opposition activists, including three members of her Heritage Party, but she could not get a permit to enter the detention center.
“The president of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, is terrified he’ll lose power, but all he has left is police, nobody else supports him,” said the deputy.