The Council of Europe looks set to impose embarrassing sanctions on Armenia over its failure to release dozens of opposition activists arrested following the February 2008 presidential election. The move would deal a massive blow to the credibility of the Armenian government’s assurances that its post-election crackdown on the opposition was a legitimate response to a coup attempt rather than unbridled repression.
The Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) in particular have been at the forefront of international criticism of the crackdown, which involved mass arrests and the bloody suppression on March 1 of non-stop opposition demonstrations in Yerevan against alleged vote rigging. At least eight civilians and two police officers were killed and more than 150 others wounded in the worst street violence in Armenian history. The administrations of the controversially elected President Serzh Sarkisian and his predecessor Robert Kocharyan have defended the use of deadly force against the protesters, saying that the opposition led by the country’s first President Levon Ter-Petrosian had attempted to stage a coup d’etat. The opposition denies the government claims and says the authorities resorted to “slaughter” to enforce what it sees as fraudulent election results that gave the victory to Sarkisian.
In two resolutions on the Armenian crisis adopted in April and June 2008, the PACE demanded that the authorities immediately release all opposition members arrested on “seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges,” restore civil liberties, and allow an independent inquiry into the March 1 clashes. It warned that failure to do so would result in the suspension of the voting rights of the PACE’s Armenian members. The Strasbourg-based assembly has repeatedly extended its deadlines for Yerevan’s compliance with the resolutions, prompting opposition allegations that the West was too lenient toward the ruling regime and not necessarily interested in democratic change in Armenia.
Opposition leaders argue that most of the more than 100 Ter-Petrosian loyalists arrested in the wake of the disputed election have still not been released. Among those remaining in jail are Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign manager and former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian and three influential members of parliament. They, along with three other opposition figures, went on a collective trial on December 19, accused of organizing “mass riots accompanied by murders” in order to “usurp state authority by force.” The authorities refrained from arresting and bringing similar charges against Ter-Petrosian, despite their earlier claims that the charismatic ex-president was the mastermind of the coup plot. This only raised more questions about the official version of the post-election events.
The high-profile trial started two days after the PACE’s Monitoring Committee described the jailed oppositionists as “political prisoners” for the first time and urged the 47-nation assembly to impose the threatened sanctions on Yerevan at its winter session scheduled for January 26 to 30. A new draft resolution on Armenia submitted by the committee to the PACE and posted on the Council of Europe’s website (www.coe.int) on December 18 decries the fact that a “significant number” of those oppositionists have been given prison sentences solely on the basis of police testimony. It also sees “strong indications” that the coup charges leveled against the most prominent of the detainees are politically motivated.
The proposed resolution was welcomed by Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) alliance but rejected as unfair by the Sarkisian administration, which insists that there are no political prisoners in Armenia. Sarkisian has so far resisted domestic and Western calls to declare a general amnesty for all jailed oppositionists, a face-saving solution favored even by some government loyalists. The president has been willing to pardon only those oppositionists who admit their guilt. To date only a dozen Ter-Petrosian supporters have asked him for clemency and regained their freedom. Approximately 60 others remain behind bars.
Sarkisian and other Armenian officials made last-ditch efforts to avert PACE sanctions during a visit to Yerevan on January 15 by the Monitoring Committee’s two Armenia rapporteurs, John Prescott and Georges Colombier. Official Armenian sources gave few details of the talks. Sarkisian was only quoted by his office as reaffirming his “determination to implement the provisions of the [PACE] resolutions” (Statement by the presidential press service, January 15). Prescott and Colombier avoided any contact with the local media in the Armenian capital. Judging from what some pro-government politicians and media said the next day, their one-day trip was hardly fruitful for the authorities in Yerevan. In a January 16 editorial, the daily Hayots Ashkhar accused the PACE of blackmailing the Armenian government and “blatantly interfering” in the country’s internal affairs.
Throughout its more 50-year history the PACE rarely has frozen the voting rights of parliamentarians representing a particular member state. Such action was most recently taken against Russia in 2000 over its renewed military campaign in Chechnya. Moscow went to great lengths to have the Council of Europe repeal it a year later. For a much smaller and more vulnerable country like Armenia, PACE sanctions would be an even greater embarrassment.
Yet, the Armenian leadership seems prepared to endure such embarrassment for the sake of keeping its political opponents at bay. From its perspective, as damaging as the continued imprisonment of some of Ter-Petrosian’s most influential associates may be for Yerevan’s international reputation, it significantly reduces the risk of another opposition push for power. Sarkisian clearly sees a bigger threat to his hard-won rule emanating from men like Arzumanian and the three opposition lawmakers than from Strasbourg.