Armenia has marked the first anniversary of its worst political violence ever amid signs of easing tension between its leadership and the main opposition forces. The top opposition leader, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, has made it clear that he will no longer seek to topple the government with the kind of street protests that nearly catapulted him back to power following the disputed presidential election of February 2008.
The protests ended on March 1, 2008, in vicious clashes between security forces and opposition protesters who barricaded themselves in central Yerevan. Ten people were killed and more than 200 injured in what the Armenian authorities call an attempt to "usurp state power by force" but what the opposition regards as a bloody suppression of a popular revolt against the alleged falsification of election results.
Thousands of opposition supporters rallied in the Armenian capital on the first anniversary of the unrest. It was the first opposition demonstration since a moratorium on antigovernment protests declared by Ter-Petrosian last October. At the time, Ter-Petrosian cited the need not to weaken President Serzh Sarkisian in the ongoing peace talks with Azerbaijan, which he said would soon result in the resolution of the Karabakh conflict.
The charismatic opposition leader made no mention of Karabakh as he addressed more than 10,000 people who gathered in downtown Yerevan on March 1. Many of them hoped that the rally would mark the start of renewed "decisive actions" promised by Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) alliance in the summer and early fall of 2008. Ter-Petrosian stated, however, that he would not seek to stage an antigovernment "revolution" but made a case for a "prolonged struggle" against the ruling regime "through solely constitutional means." "The old-fashioned ideas of revolution or uprising must finally be driven out of our country’s political agenda," he said. "As long as that hasn’t happened, Armenia can have no chance of becoming a rule-of-law and democratic state. History knows virtually no revolutions that have engendered democracy and welfare" (witnessed by Jamestown).
Ter-Petrosian went on to denounce unnamed opposition elements advocating radical actions, saying that some of them "usually flee the scene at decisive moments" while others might be government "provocateurs." He also claimed that the Armenian authorities "will destroy themselves" in a matter of months because of the growing fallout from the global economic recession, which he said would thrust Armenia into a "humanitarian crisis." "I am deeply convinced that the country is simply descending into an abyss," he stated, predicting a plethora of catastrophic economic consequences. "The calmer we stay, the more we save our nerves, the quicker [the authorities] will collapse," added Ter-Petrosian.
The 45-minute speech clearly failed to live up to the expectations of many diehard opposition supporters. Some of the ensuing opposition press commentaries reflected their disappointment. The pro-opposition daily Hraparak openly blasted Ter-Petrosian in a March 3 editorial, saying that he gave the impression of a "weak, unconfident, and tired person." "Rejecting a revolt or a revolution is a sign of weakness and indecision, rather than a commitment to civilized methods of struggle," it said.
"In any case, the authorities have no reason to worry about the opposition at the moment," wrote a commentator for another, more neutral newspaper, 168 Zham. Indeed, a spokesman for Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), Eduard Sharmazanov, reacted to Ter-Petrosian’s speech saying that the opposition movement was now "in decline." "I appreciate that the first president has at last accepted the view, repeatedly expressed by the authorities, that a revolt or a revolution is not the way to go for Armenia," Sharmazanov said (Iravunk, March 3).
For his part, Razmik Zohrabian, an HHK deputy chairman, said that Ter-Petrosian had increased the chances for the release of more than 50 oppositionists who were arrested in the wake of the 2008 election and remain in prison. Zohrabian said that Sarkisian could grant them amnesty "in the near future" (RFE/RL Armenia Report, March 2). The release of all "political prisoners" remains the Armenian opposition’s main precondition for engaging in a dialogue with the authorities. The latter implicitly pledged to free at least some of these prisoners as they managed to avoid embarrassing sanctions by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) in January. The Strasbourg-based body is due to reexamine the issue at its next session in late April.
Incidentally, the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition scheduled its next rally for May 1. The announced change in its tactic should give the authorities a further incentive to comply with PACE resolutions demanding the liberation of all members of the opposition arrested on "seemingly artificial or politically motivated charges." Ter-Petrosian’s March 1 speech was also an indication that his HAK alliance is gearing up for the May 31 first-ever elections of a municipal assembly, which will choose a new mayor of Yerevan (Yerevan mayors until now have been appointed by the president of the republic). A strong showing in the polls would give the HAK some stake in the country’s existing political order and push it further away from street politics. Conversely, blatant vote rigging could reignite the year-long standoff between the authorities and the opposition that seems to be subsiding now.