Amidst Armenian protesters, soldiers in uniform shoulder-to-shoulder
The protests that started in Armenia on April 13 lasted more than 10 days. Demonstrations escalated as Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan attempted to overcome a legacy of weak democratic rule. After a period of controversy, Sargsyan resigned suddenly on Monday, April 23. The resignation came only a few hours after nearly two hundred soldiers joined the protesters. @DFRLab investigated the available open source data to see what actually happened.
On Sunday, April 22, Prime Minister Sargsyan and opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan met for a live broadcast meeting. Shortly after the meeting, as the protests continued to escalate and clashes erupted between protesters and Armenian security forces, Nikol Pashinyan was detained. The following day, a number of soldiers deserted their posts to join the protests. In a video that appeared as early as 12:28 (UTC), a number of uniformed soldiers were recorded running out of a gated area, which resembled a military base.
— Thomas van Linge (@ThomasVLinge) April 23, 2018
In order to see if this information was genuine, @DFRLab verified the video with reverse image search and geolocated the structure. The building captured in the video was in the southwestern part of central Yerevan.
The base in the video was marked as “Yerevan Fortress place” on Wikimapia, marked as a military base in Russian language. The location of the building was found to be at the southwestern part of the old-town.
Soon after the video was posted, photos and video footage appeared on the social media showing these soldiers joining the crowd. Reportedly, around two hundred uniformed soldiers joined the protests.
The soldiers that joined the protest were claimed to be the Blue Berets — Peacekeeping Forces, according to EVN report. In some of the photos and videos, military insignias on the arms of the soldiers were visible.
— Liveuamap (@Liveuamap) April 23, 2018
These soldiers, seen in the video were, in fact, wearing the Armenian Peacekeeping Forces military insignia on their right sleeves.
The Armenian Peacekeeping Forces are consolidated in the 12th Peacekeeping Brigade (PKB) where they wear the blue berets, color-wise very similar to the ones used by Armenian Airborne Forces. This finding confirms the EVN Report claims.
On the left arm, these soldiers had the insignia of the Armenian Ministry of Defense.
The 12th PKB is an Armenian unit that contributes troops to multinational peacekeeping missions. This unit has been deployed to places like Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Lebanon. In 2017, the U.S. renovated the Peacekeeping Training Area (Zar PTA) in Yerevan, to increase the readiness and training of this unit. These soldiers were spotted in various geolocatable locations of Yerevan’s old town. Here is a likely location of the soldiers in the center of Yerevan.
Soon after the soldiers joined the march, the Armenian Ministry of Defense responded that these soldiers would be punished severely.
Breaking: Defense Ministry has announced that the soliders who joined the student march this morning, are indeed part of the professional army corp (Blue Berets) and that they will be punished severely. More updates soon #RejectSerzh #YerevanProtests #Armenia
— EVN Report (@evn_report) April 23, 2018
Nonetheless, no concrete actions towards the protesting soldiers were taken at the time of this report. Standing in the square filled with thousands of protesters, Sargsyan said he would fulfil the opposition demands. Amongst the protesters, in the crowd stood around 200 soldiers of the 12th PKB. Their decision to join the protests was one of the last significant to occur before the resignation. This decision of Peacekeeping Forces soldiers might have been a pivotal turn leading to Sargsyan’s resignation.
Despite Sargsyan public announcement to step down, the protests continue in Armenia. On April 25, yet another wave of protesters filled the streets of Yerevan. A large police force deployed with armored personnel carriers, raising more tensions in the Armenian capital. It is unclear how the situation will play out, but the nearly two hundred Peacekeeping Forces soldiers joining the protests served as a strong statement that the society is ready for change. No further military units joined the protests so far, but this situation is likely to change if the atmosphere in the capital will continue to heat up.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor unfolding protest and events in Armenia.
Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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