The unrest sparked by Armenia’s February 19 presidential election, praised by the West but considered fraudulent by many Armenians, could have hardly had a worse denouement. At least eight people were killed and more than a hundred others wounded on the night of March 1-2, as security forces put a bloody end to daily demonstrations staged in Yerevan by supporters of Levon Ter-Petrosian, the country’s former president and the main opposition presidential candidate. The United States and the European Union have stopped short of explicitly condemning the unprecedented use of firepower against opposition demonstrators, saying that both the Armenian authorities and Ter-Petrosian are responsible for the violence.
The authorities had already been emboldened by Western observers’ generally positive assessment of their handling of the election, which was controversially won by Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian. Official results gave him 52.8% of the vote and put Ter-Petrosian in a distant second place with 21.5%.
The former Armenian president refused to concede defeat, alleging widespread fraud and demanding a rerun of the ballot. Tens of thousands of his supporters rallied in Yerevan for eleven consecutive days. More than 2,000 of them joined Ter-Petrosian in keeping a round-the-clock vigil in a tent camp set up in the city’s Liberty Square on February 20. Riot police, interior troops, and other security forces used truncheons and electric-shock devices to clear the square in the early morning of March 1. Scores of protesters were beaten and detained on the spot, while Ter-Petrosian was forcibly taken home and placed under house arrest.
The brutal use of force triggered a wave of popular indignation that manifested itself just hours later. Hundreds of opposition supporters began gathering in another part of the city center, a major street intersection outside the Yerevan mayor’s office, later in the morning. Riot police attacked them as well, but met with fierce resistance and left the scene altogether as the angry crowd swelled dramatically in the afternoon. The protesters, most of them angry men in their 20s and 30s, began arming themselves with sticks, metal rods, and stones and blocking all streets leading to the sprawling site with vehicles seized from police and public transportation buses. By late afternoon opposition leaders took charge of the spontaneous protest, urging tens of thousands of people to stay put until the authorities let Ter-Petrosian leave his residence and address them.
By 9 pm legions of riot police were deployed on two nearby street intersections. From one of them, special police units began firing tracer bullets in the direction of the crowd before interior troops in full riot gear charged towards the opposition barricades to face a hail of stones and Molotov cocktails. The pitched battles ended by 10 pm with a hasty police retreat from the scene. Some of the protesters pursued the fleeing troops, burning dozens of police vehicles and private cars and looting several shops.
The police gunshots that sparked the violent scene were apparently fired not only into the air. According to eyewitness accounts, the gunfire, which lasted for more than 40 minutes, left one and possibly two opposition protesters dead. The London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) quoted on March 3 a Yerevan-based foreigner who had witnessed the street battle from his balcony as saying, “There were special-forces snipers with black ski masks mixed in with the young, scared policemen, who were not masked. While the police shot tracers into the air, these riflemen directly aimed at and shot protesters. I saw two men fall on the ground below me, one with a massive hemorrhage to his head.”
This is what appears to have made barricade defenders go on a rampage that departing President Robert Kocharian used as a pretext for declaring a 20-day state of emergency and sending army units into the city center. The move forced Ter-Petrosian to urge (by phone) the crowd of several thousand people remaining outside the Yerevan municipality at around 4 am to go home.
Speaking at a late-night news conference, Kocharian defended the imposition of emergency rule, saying that Ter-Petrosian supporters were the first to open fire. Armenian officials point to an interior troop officer who was killed in the initial clash by a hand grenade, which they say was thrown from the barricades. However, journalists present at the scene did not witness any protesters carrying weapons.
Troops and armored vehicles have since been patrolling all major squares in central Yerevan amid a new wave of arrests of Ter-Petrosian allies, including at least two members of parliament, accused of plotting a coup d’etat. The state of emergency means not only a complete ban on all public gatherings in the Armenian capital, but also makes it a crime for local media to report anything other than government and police statements. The information blackout has led to the temporary closure of all independent and pro-opposition newspapers and online news services.
As far as the international community is concerned, the Armenian regime has essentially gotten away with its bloody crackdown on the opposition. While expressing serious concern at the dramatic events in Armenia and calling for the lifting of emergency rule, neither the United States, nor the European Union have condemned the use of lethal force against protesters. The Americans, in particular, urged the Kocharian–Sarkisian duo to “ensure that this peaceful situation continues” just two days before the break-up of the Liberty Square protest (Statement by the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, February 28). U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried and his deputy, Matt Bryza, had a phone conversation with Sarkisian on March 2, before or during the violent standoff in Yerevan. Judging from an Armenian government press release on the conversation, Sarkisian was not under strong pressure to avoid using force. A statement issued by a U.S. State Department spokesman right after the massacre called “on all sides” to avoid further violence.
Meanwhile, Ter-Petrosian, who remains under de facto house arrest, told foreign journalists that he would have prevented bloodshed had the authorities allowed him to leave his mansion located just outside the city center (Regnum, March 2). He also said the authorities deliberately provoked the worst-ever street violence in Armenia’s history and pledged to continue his campaign for a repeat presidential election.