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Weary Armenians Show Surprising Support For Yerevan Gunmen

Supporters of the opposition hold a protest march in support of the gunmen in Yerevan on July 26.

Supporters of the opposition hold a protest march in support of the gunmen in Yerevan on July 26.

YEREVAN -- Desperate times call for desperate measures -- or so a surprising number of Armenians seem to think.

Since an armed band took over a Yerevan police station on July 17, killing one officer and briefly taking several hostages, thousands of locals have rallied around the gunmen, urging the government to negotiate and make concessions.

"These guys are right," one elderly man told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on July 26. "All of them are veteran fighters [of the 1990s war in Azerbaijan's Armenian-majority Nagorno-Karabakh region]. They served in the army and they fought for the homeland. They did everything for the people."

"I definitely support these people," a young woman added, "because in our country such actions come as no surprise. These people are doing it for us. Everyone should -- and I will -- support them in every way possible."

It is a watershed moment in a country that has failed to develop a peaceful system of transferring political power or mechanisms by which public discontent can be converted into meaningful political change.

For this reason, says Yerevan-based political analyst Hakob Badalyan, the public's reaction may seem strange but is actually "a logical consequence of the situation" in the country.

"Society has lived for so long in the face of governmental indifference and disregard that the first reaction of a substantial part of it to any form of extremism directed against the government is to at least refuse to condemn it," he adds. "This somewhat paradoxical situation where the public supports [the gunmen] despite their extremism stems from the situation that has been created in Armenia by the current administration."

WATCH: Thousands of Armenians again took to the streets in support of an armed group that has been holed up in a police station since July 17, calling for the resignation of President Serzh Sarkisian. (RFE/RL's Armenian Service)

Others, however, are not so quick to downplay the violence that took the life of one police officer and has left others on both sides seriously injured.

"[The gunmen] shouldn't have done things this way," one elderly woman said. "They should have held protests to present their demands. They must stop occupying this building."

'War Heroes'

The gunmen are members of the Sasna Tsrer (Daredevils of Sassoun) movement, a radical offshoot of the opposition Founding Parliament political organization. They are supporters of jailed opposition leader Zhirayr Sefilian, who was arrested last month on weapons charges and suspicion of plotting the armed overthrow of the government. Like Sefilian, many of them are veterans of the Karabakh war.

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Those occupying the Yerevan police station are demanding the release of Sefilian and several of his comrades, as well as the resignation of President Serzh Sarkisian and the holding of new parliamentary elections.

The public's tolerance for the violence of the gunmen is conditioned by the widespread admiration Sefilian enjoys, both as an ethnic Armenian hero from the Karabakh conflict and as a steadfast opponent of the current governing system who has been arrested repeatedly.

"They should release Sefilian," one elderly woman who preferred not to be identified told RFE/RL. "He is a hero. [The government] has no respect for anyone."

Another passerby described the Sasna Tsrer members as "representatives of the people."

"It is a pity there was no alternative," she added.

'No Other Way'

Protest has become an entrenched part of post-Soviet Armenia's political culture. Most of its elections have been accompanied by mass demonstrations and allegations of fraud.

In the summer of 2015, thousands of Armenians took to the streets in a sustained protest against rising utility rates that was dubbed Electric Yerevan. After weeks of round-the-clock protests and sit-down strikes, the public managed to extract a few concessions from the government but its demands were largely rejected.

"We are now witnessing a situation that we have warned about for years," human rights activist Vardan Harutiunian says. "And it shows that people are so embittered and desperate that they will resort to such means and even worse."

Harutiunian contrasts the current situation with a protest in 2013 in which opposition activist Shant Harutiunian and 13 others attempted to take over the presidential palace. Those activists were all arrested and Shant Harutiunian is considered by many a political prisoner.

"The sticks that Shant Harutiunian and his supporters had in their hands [in 2013] have morphed into machine guns today," says analyst Harutiunian, who is not related to Shant.

As the standoff drags on and nears its third week, Sasna Tsrer supporters are urging the government to resolve it peacefully. One told RFE/RL that if the government can negotiate with Azerbaijan, they should be able to negotiate with the gunmen.

"The resolution to this crisis," one woman said, "is in the hands of [President Sarkisian]. If he wants to find a way out, we will."

Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague