Storming parliaments: New Europe's greatest hits

Storming parliaments: New Europe's greatest hits
Russian state-owned media has been having a field day with the storming of the US Capitol in Washington DC and has given the story blanket coverage.
By bne IntelliNews staff January 7, 2021

US democracy was shaken on January 6 when a mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building to try to prevent Joe Biden being named the 46th president of the United States. Four people died during the riot, one woman being shot by police.

Events in Washington DC were unprecedented, but they are much more common in the New Europe, where young democracies are struggling to establish themselves (often with the urging and advice of American ambassadors and the US State Department).

People in Eastern Europe and across Central Asia are now looking on somewhat bemused by events that are a lot more familiar to them, this time playing out in what was supposed to be the bastion of Western democracy.

Here is a list of recent parliamentary storms in Central and Eastern Europe.


Armenia: defeat sparks anger

There were scenes of chaos in Armenia’s capital Yerevan last November as protesters stormed government buildings, smashed up furniture and occupied the parliamentary chamber. Outside, an angry mob caught up with Speaker of Parliament Ararat Mirzoyan. He was brutally beaten.

Emotions were running high because Armenia had just essentially surrendered following a bloody 44-day war with Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Protesters claimed the government had not squared with them during the conflict over just how badly things were going. 


Kyrgyzstan: rioters dispute elections

In Kyrgyzstan where the “Kyrgyz Donald Trump”, Sapyr Japarov, will on January 10 attempt to claim the presidency in a snap election protesters last October stormed the president’s office and took control of government buildings, including the headquarters of the intelligence services, following parliamentary elections that opposition parties said were fixed.

Amid the turmoil, Japarov was busted out of prison, where he was serving a sentence for kidnapping a political opponent. Japarov was accused of exploiting the upheaval by bussing hordes of aggressive supporters into the capital Bishkek to intimidate those that had taken to the streets to back other figures who were attempting to launch bids to become the country’s new president. At one rally that broke up after an attack by Japarov supporters, an ex-president, Almazbek Atambayev, survived an apparent assassination attempt by an alleged Japarov supporter.

The US embassy in Bishkek has voiced concerns about the threat organised crime may pose to Kyrgyz democracy by exploiting the formation of a new government.


Georgia: a site of conflict

Georgia is well used to violent confrontations outside the parliament in Tbilisi. Thousands of protesters attempted to storm the building in June 2019 after word spread that a Russian lawmaker had been invited to make an address from the speaker’s chair. Some demonstrators lost eyes to rubber bullets fired by riot police.

In November 2019, police used water cannon to dislodge protesters that had barricaded the entrance to the parliament.

Currently the only debates MPs of the ruling Georgian Dream Party can enter into are those between themselves since the parliamentary election last autumn, opposition parties have refused to take their seats, claiming the poll was rigged.


Russia: a constitutional coup

Russia faced a constitutional crisis in 1993 when protesters led by vice-president Alexander Rutskoi and Duma speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov defied the president, Boris Yeltsin, and mounted a sit-in at the White House, the parliament building that sits on the banks of the Moskva in central Moscow.

Tension ratcheted up for over a week until October 3, when a large group of their armed supporters occupied the Moscow mayor’s offices and drove out to the Ostankino TV centre in an attempt to take over the transmitter, intending to broadcast a call for a nationwide insurrection. The OMON riot police and Alfa group special forces beat the protesters to the building by a few minutes and a gunfight broke out in which dozens of people were killed, including British TV cameraman Rory Peck. During the course of the night Russian general Alexander Lebed came down on the side of Yeltsin and by morning his tank battalion had taken up position on the bridge and embankment overlooking the White House and proceeded to shell it into submission.

Fighting went on for several days as snipers from both sides took up positions on the surrounding rooftops, indiscriminately shooting anyone on the streets. Refugees hid under the bridge and in surrounding apartment blocks but 147 people were killed – thousands according to some sources – until the deputies holed up inside the burning White House building finally conceded defeat.

Despite his reputation as a leading force for democratic change in Russia, Yeltsin illegally dissolved Parliament and changed the constitution to give himself extended powers in what was in effect a constitutional coup d'état.

The 10-day conflict was the deadliest episode of street fighting in Russia since the 1917 Russian Revolution.



Ukraine: oligarchs co-opt protests

Protesters occupied the whole of central Kyiv in a legendary tent camp, as well as several buildings around Maidan Square during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and quickly trashed the city centre, which came to resemble a scene from Hell as tyres burnt and debris was strewn across the streets.

But the protesters did not attack the Verkhovna Rada building on Khreshchatyk, a stone’s throw from the Maidan. The Rada is the scene of regular punch-ups, but these have been exclusively between MPs who work there and are supposed to be in the chamber.

However, other government buildings have come under attack, most recently the offices of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU), which is up the hill from Maidan on Instytutska Street.

In November 2019 protesters stormed the offices of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU), demanding the resignation of then governor of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) Yakiv Smolii. They crashed through the security and occupied the ground floor as the central bank staff cowered on the upper floors.

The police on duty made little effort to expel the protesters and the attack was widely seen as a paid-for provocation by oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who had been dispossessed of his bank PrivatBank by the NBU in 2016.

The attack on the NBU building followed several arson attacks on NBU members, including the burning down of former governor Valeriya Gontareva’s house on September 16 that year.

The NBU branded attacks on its staff and Gontareva as a “terror” campaign and named Kolomoisky as being responsible. Smolii unexpectedly quit seven months later on June 2, citing “systemic political pressure” as the reason for his departure.


Belarus: peaceful protests

Mass protests broke out in Minsk on August 9 following the disputed presidential election, which the Central Election Commission (CEC) claims was won by a landslide by incumbent Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. No one believed the results and street fighting broke out the same day.

The OMON riot police brutally beat demonstrators, and more than 30,000 people have been arrested in the last six months.

But Belarusian protesters have specifically ruled out storming government buildings, as that would almost certainly lead to Russian troops being sent to Minsk in support of Lukashenko.

Lukashenko came close to being ousted a few weeks later until Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he was willing to send a special military unit to quell the protests “if necessary” on August 27.

Some in Belarus have called for violence, but in a country where the population respect the "keep off the grass" signs, the chances of a violent uprising seem remote. Moreover, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and the Co-ordinating Council that represents the protesters have so far continued to call for restraint, determined to get rid of Lukashenko by peaceful and democratic means.

Still, Belarusian Twitter has been having fun with the events unfolding in Washington DC, by likening Trump supporters to the minority of hardliners that have supported Lukashenko, despite the almost universal rejection of the August election results. 

In one meme doing the rounds on January 7, an image of US President Donald Trump and his son had been photoshopped so both appeared to be wearing body armour and carrying machine guns in a spoof of a famous image of Lukashenko and his son, who descended from a helicopter during the worst of the August riots also wearing body armour and carrying a gun.


North Macedonia: politicians bloodied in Skopje Parliament storming 

Around 200 nationalist demonstrators forced their way into the parliament in Skopje on April 27, 2017, angered by the election of ethnic Albanian politician Talat Xhaferi as speaker, a move that paved the way for the appointment of a government led by the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM). Over 100 people were injured, including Zoran Zaev, the then opposition leader and current prime minister. Footage from the parliament showed Zaev with blood pouring from a cut on his forehead. MP Ziadin Sella was knocked unconscious and local television also showed one demonstrator ruthlessly pulling the hair of SDSM MP Radmila Sekerinska, who became defence minister in the new government.

The storming of the parliament followed almost daily protests organised by the civil association For United Macedonia. They included supporters of the conservative VMRO-DPMNE that had been in power for the previous decade. Among those put on trial after the investigation into the attack were several top VMRO-DPMNE officials. The new government led by Zaev was approved by the parliament one month after the incident. 


Serbia: lockdown frustrations boil over 

The hardship caused by the spring lockdowns contributed to a hot summer in some SEE countries. In Serbia, a group of several hundred anti-lockdown protesters broke into the parliament during a series of often violent mass protests in summer 2020. Launched after President Aleksandar Vucic announced a curfew that many blamed on his decision to lift restrictions in time for the June general election, which was followed by a sharp upturn in infections the protests were hijacked by far-right groups who led attacks on police and state buildings. 71 people were arrested over the attack on the parliament. 


Bosnia: presidency torched in Sarajevo's “Arab Spring” 

Bosnian protesters set fire to the presidency and razed a regional government building, as well as torching politicians' cars, throwing some of them into a river in 2014. The unrest was sparked by fury over job losses and unpaid wages at failing privatised companies, sparking what some called Bosnia’s “Arab Spring”. 


Moldova: election of oligarch’s proxy sparks riot 

Hundreds of protesters broke into the Moldovan parliament in January 2016 when a new government led by Pavel Filip was appointed. The vote took place amid mass protests outside the parliament and disruptions from inside by pro-Russian opposition lawmakers. When it was announced that Filip seen by many as a proxy for influential local oligarch Vlad Plahotnuic, whose candidacy had previously been rejected had been confirmed as PM, demonstrators pushed their way inside the entrance to the parliament. 

The previous storming of the Moldovan parliament was in 2009, when anti-communist protesters rampaged through the building in an angry response to the re-election of Vladimir Voronin’s Communist Party. 


Romania: sheepdog protesters flock into Parliament

Thousands of Romanian farmers and shepherds, some in traditional costume and ringing cowbells, forced their way through the parliament gates in protest against new restrictions on the use of sheepdogs in 2015.