Bowing to Western pressure, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian has formed a supposedly independent body to investigate the deadly clashes in Yerevan that were sparked by his controversial victory in last February’s presidential election. The new inquiry could undermine the Armenian government’s justification for the use of lethal force against thousands of opposition supporters protesting official vote results. Nonetheless, the Armenian opposition has downplayed the move’s significance and set conditions for its indispensable involvement in the probe.
At least eight civilians and two members of the security forces were killed on March 1 and 2 as the Armenian authorities suppressed a campaign of non-stop street protests launched by the main opposition presidential candidate, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, following the disputed vote on February 19. The worst street violence in Armenia’s history was triggered by the pre-dawn dispersal of a tent camp set up by Ter-Petrosian in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. Later on March 1 thousands of his furious supporters regrouped and barricaded themselves in a sprawling area elsewhere in the city center
Despite firing live rounds and using heavy anti-riot equipment, the police and other security forces failed to break up the unprecedented protest. The most aggressive of the protesters armed with Molotov cocktails, iron bars, and sticks chased them away from the scene, burning police and other cars and looting shops in the process. The crowd dispersed at Ter-Petrosian’s urging in the early hours of the next morning after outgoing President Robert Kocharyan declared a state of emergency and ordered the military into the Armenian capital. The authorities branded the opposition actions an attempted coup d’etat and arrested at least 100 opposition members and supporters in the following weeks.
Ter-Petrosian and his allies rejected the accusation, saying that Kocharyan had organized the “slaughter” to install his longtime chief lieutenant Sarkisian in power. The official version of events has also been questioned by Western governments and human rights bodies, notably the Council of Europe. One of their key demands to the Armenian authorities since then has been to allow an “independent, credible, and transparent” inquiry into the bloody unrest.
The authorities claimed to have complied with this demand when they launched a separate parliamentary inquiry in June. The tiny opposition minority in Armenia’s National Assembly as well as Ter-Petrosian’s opposition alliance, which is not represented in the legislature, were also given a chance to name representatives to an ad hoc parliamentary commission formed for that purpose. They both rejected the offer, however, on the grounds that the commission was dominated by pro-government lawmakers.
The opposition boycott led Council of Europe officials to express serious misgivings about the parliamentary body. Visiting Yerevan in July, the Strasbourg-based organization’s commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, proposed a new format for the inquiry, whereby the main investigative work would be done by another, purely fact-finding body, in which the government and opposition camps would have equal representation. The parliamentary commission would only make a political assessment of that body’s findings.
The authorities in Yerevan accepted the proposal, with Sarkisian signing an executive order on the formation of the Fact-Finding Group of Experts on October 23. A statement by Sarkisian’s office said that its main mission would be to collect information that would shed more light on the “legitimacy” of police actions and the circumstances in which 10 people were killed on March 1. The fact-finding group will have the right to obtain that information from “any state or local government body or any of their officials” and to question individuals who played a part in the unrest.
Under the presidential directive, Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) alliance and the opposition Heritage party of U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian will each name one member of the group. Two other members will be nominated by Armenia’s governing coalition loyal to the president. The remaining fifth member will represent the state human-rights ombudsman, Armen Harutyunyan, who cautiously welcomed Sarkisian’s decision, calling it the first “serious step” toward a dialogue with the opposition (168 Zham, October 28).
Opposition leaders, however, were far more skeptical about the implications of the move. Ter-Petrosian told RFE/RL on October 27 that the new body could not be independent because it was supposed to report to the parliamentary commission, to which it would therefore be “subordinated.” He claimed that those guilty of the March 1 deaths would not be brought to justice as long as Sarkisian stayed in power. In a joint statement on November 1, the HAK and Heritage described Sarkisian’s October 23 directive as “unconstitutional” but said they would participate in the new inquiry if the body conducting it was given more power and was joined by foreign experts.
Sarkisian and his four-party coalition have yet to respond to the opposition’s demands. The very fact of them agreeing to forego control over the purportedly independent probe is in itself quite significant. The fact-finding group, assuming that it takes shape and starts working, is extremely unlikely to endorse the official theory of the unrest, which is at the heart of the ongoing criminal investigation launched by Kocharyan. There is speculation in Armenia that Sarkisian is not only eager to avoid sanctions by the Council of Europe but is also seeking to distance himself from his hawkish predecessor, who is widely blamed for the bloody post-election crackdown.
Kocharyan’s lingering influence on law-enforcement bodies is seen by some local observers as the main reason why the vast majority of the oppositionists arrested in the aftermath of the February election remain in jail. Their release is another key demand by the Council of Europe to Yerevan. Government loyalists have fueled talk of an impending amnesty for the opposition detainees. One loyalist, former Justice Minister David Harutyunyan, hinted on November 5 that Sarkisian might announce it before the end of this month. (Aravot, November 6.)