Armenian authorities have begun releasing dozens of political prisoners more than 15 months after suppressing massive opposition demonstrations against the official results of a disputed presidential election. They have ensured, however, that not all jailed supporters of the top opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian are set free under a general amnesty declared on June 19. President Serzh Sarksyan’s intention to keep more than a dozen of them behind bars is a measure of his self-confidence, resulting from opposition setbacks and Western support for his foreign policy.
Officially, the amnesty has little connection with the February 2008 presidential election and the ensuing deadly violence in Yerevan. It will affect approximately 2,000 individuals, or nearly half Armenia’s prison population, serving sentences for various crimes. According to the Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian, around 500 convicts will walk free in the coming weeks, while the others will have their sentences shortened (Aravot, June 20).
Few doubt that the measure is primarily a face-saving way of freeing more than 50 opposition members and supporters arrested in the wake of the troubled vote. The vast majority of them were jailed in connection with the March 1, 2008 clashes in Yerevan between the security forces and opposition protesters that left ten people dead and more than 200 others injured. Many received prison sentences solely on the basis of police testimony. The authorities claim that the "mass riots" were part of an attempted coup d’etat by Ter-Petrosian. However, neither the opposition leader, who had served as Armenia’s first president from 1991-1998, nor any of his associates have been prosecuted on corresponding charges. The official theory of the unrest looked even more far-fetched after the authorities dropped the controversial coup charges against seven senior opposition figures in late March 2009.
Under the terms of an amnesty bill drafted by Sarksyan and approved by parliament on June 19, only 35 jailed oppositionists are expected to be released. The authorities freed 15 of them on June 22. Those included two opposition members of parliament and the former foreign minister Aleksandr Arzumanian, who managed Ter-Petrosian’s presidential election campaign (www.a1plus.am, June 22). The three men walked free from courtrooms immediately after being sentenced, in separate trials, to five years in prison for allegedly organizing the post-election clashes. Four other opposition figures gained their freedom on June 23. One of them, Gagik Jahangirian, was sacked as Armenia’s deputy prosecutor-general and arrested the day after proclaiming Ter-Petrosian the rightful election winner at a February 22, 2008 rally in Yerevan.
Among approximately 15 oppositionists likely to stay in jail is Sasun Mikaelian, another opposition lawmaker charged with organizing riots as well as illegal arms possession. That he will not be freed was made clear by Justice Minister Danielian even before Mikaelian received an eight-year prison sentence on June 22 (www.tert.am, June 22). A fourth opposition parliamentarian, Khachatur Sukiasian, went into hiding and apparently fled the country to avoid arrest following the March 2008 violence. The tricky language of the amnesty bill means that Sukiasian as well as Nikol Pashinian, the fugitive editor of the pro-opposition daily Haykakan Zhamanak, may well choose to stay in hiding in the months and perhaps years to come.
The bill was overwhelmingly passed by the government-controlled National Assembly just three days before the start of the summer session of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). The PACE has repeatedly demanded the immediate release of all oppositionists arrested on "seemingly artificial or politically motivated charges," threatening to impose sanctions against Armenia. It has backed down on those threats just as frequently, much to the dismay of the Armenian opposition. The Strasbourg-based body took no punitive action against Yerevan when it again discussed the political situation in the South Caucasus state on June 24. Meeting in Strasbourg on June 22, the PACE’s monitoring committee reportedly welcomed the partial opposition amnesty initiated by Sarksyan (RFE/RL’s Armenian service, June 22).
The PACE’s stance reflects the West’s largely positive attitude toward Armenia’s current leadership and the apparent skepticism about the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition that in turn stem from its geopolitical agenda in the region. Ever since taking office in April 2008 Sarksyan has scored significant points in Western capitals with his dramatic rapprochement with Turkey and readiness to make concessions to Azerbaijan over Karabakh. That has enabled him to minimize international criticism and even receive praise from U.S. and European officials while holding political prisoners (their number exceeded 100 at one point) and restricting civil liberties.
The only tangible loss suffered by the Sarksyan administration internationally was a recent decision by the United States to cut about $70 million in additional economic assistance to Armenia contingent on democratic governance (Statement by the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation, June 10). The U.S. State Department has also been highly critical of the Armenian authorities’ human rights record and their handling of the May 31 municipal elections in Yerevan. But both the current and former U.S. administrations have been quite cautious in pressing the Yerevan government to address their concerns. Washington will likely tread even more carefully, now that it nears achieving two key U.S. goals in the region: a Karabakh settlement and the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.
The European Union, for its part, has been largely silent on political developments in Armenia since the spring of 2008, despite its claims of deepening its engagement in the South Caucasus. At least in public, E.U. leaders have only heaped praise on Sarksyan for his overtures toward Ankara and avoided any open criticism of his domestic policies. They did not react to the Yerevan polls at all. The E.U. has thus far done very little to promote democracy and human rights in Armenia, and there are no indications that this will change even after the country’s inclusion in the E.U.’s ambitious Eastern Partnership program.