Serzh Sarkisian was sworn in as Armenia’s new president on April 9 amid a lingering political crisis triggered by his extremely controversial victory in last February’s presidential election. Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, the 53-year-old former prime minister sought to reach out to hundreds of thousands of Armenians who voted for his main challenger, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, and who refuse to accept the official outcome of the vote. His calls for national “reconciliation” rang hollow, however, as the ruling regime continued its harsh crackdown on the opposition, ignoring criticism from Western powers and human rights organizations.
The crackdown began even before the deadly clashes between heavily armed security forces and thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters in Yerevan on March 1. The official death toll from the country’s worst street violence ever rose to ten on April 14 as a 29-year-old opposition supporter died in the hospital of severe injuries sustained during the clashes.. The precise circumstances of this and other, mainly civilian, fatalities remain unclear. The Armenian authorities defend the use of lethal force against the protesters, saying that they had barricaded themselves outside the Yerevan mayor’s office as part of Ter-Petrosian’s attempted coup d’etat. The opposition leader and his allies insist, however, that the protest erupted spontaneously following the brutal break-up earlier on March 1 of Ter-Petrosian supporters’ 10-day peaceful sit-in in the city’s Liberty Square.
In his inauguration speech delivered during a special session of parliament held in the national opera house, Sarkisian mentioned the violent unrest and urged Armenians of differing political convictions to “seek and find the path of reconciliation.” “Even if a wall of misunderstanding stands between us, I urge you to join us in eliminating that wall,” he said, appealing to the disgruntled segment of the electorate (Armenian Public Television, April 9).
That “misunderstanding” was only deepened, however, by the unprecedented security measures taken by the authorities on April 9. In an effort to stave off opposition demonstrations in the vicinity of the opera house, thousands of baton-wielding police cordoned off much of downtown Yerevan hours before the swearing-in ceremony. The area off limits to cars and pedestrians stretched for hundreds of yards away from the building. “The impression was that all roads were leading to a blind alley and that the new president was shielding himself from his own people,” the Yerevan newspaper 168 Zham commented the next day. “Three hundred miles north of Baghdad, Yerevan had its own ‘Green Zone’ on Inauguration Day,” editorialized an independent website, www.armenianow.com.
In a coincidence that opposition leaders find symbolic, Sarkisian took office 40 days after his government had put a bloody end to the post-election demonstrations. By Armenian Christian tradition, the souls of the deceased are remembered on the 40th day after their death. As Sarkisian took oath and addressed the nation in his new capacity, several hundred opposition supporters converged on the site of the March 1 violence to pay their respects to the victims.
The first days of Sarkisian’s presidency produced no easing of the government’s crackdown, with dozens more opposition activists rounded up by the police across the country. Some of them were charged and put under arrest, swelling the ranks of more than 100 opposition leaders and activists jailed for their involvement in Ter-Petrosian’s bid to return to power. Most of them are set to go on trial on coup charges, while others stand accused of committing other crimes, including illegal arms possession and vote rigging.
Ter-Petrosian supporters, rather than government loyalists, have become the first Armenian citizens imprisoned for election-related crimes. A court in the eastern town of Gavar sentenced two of them on April 11 to three years in prison for allegedly pressuring the chairwoman of a local election commission to forge the vote protocol in Ter-Petrosian’s (and strangely enough, other major candidates’) favor. The commission chief got off with a suspended jail term in a trial denounced as a travesty of justice by the oppositionists’ lawyers (Haykakan Zhamanak, April 12). Nobody has been prosecuted so far, however, in connection with the beatings of dozens of Ter-Petrosian supporters, vote buying, multiple voting and other irregularities reported on election day, irregularities that helped Sarkisian score a first-round victory in what was arguably the most violent election in Armenia’s history.
Sarkisian has thus stuck to his hawkish predecessor Robert Kocharian’s uncompromising stance on the opposition, betraying a deep sense of insecurity and making a mockery of his pledges to “deepen democratic reforms.” The pledge was made in a power-sharing agreement signed between his Republican Party and three other pro-establishment parties on March 21. Their coalition cabinet is expected to be formed by the end of this week. Sarkisian appointed the long-time chairman of the Armenian Central Bank, Tigran Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh) as prime minister immediately after his inauguration.
The new Armenian leader appears to have calculated that the benefits of continued repression outweigh the resulting internal and external risks. With the vast majority of his associates in jail or on the run, Ter-Petrosian has so far refrained from defying a de facto government ban on opposition rallies. He may well be waiting for the regime to bow to mounting pressure from the European Union and the United States to enter into discussions with the opposition, release all political prisoners, restore civil liberties and agree to an independent investigation into the unrest of March 1.
As always, the United States is more assertive than the EU, having threatened to freeze multimillion-dollar economic assistance to Armenia. And unlike European leaders, President George W. Bush declined to send a congratulatory message to Sarkisian. Matthew Bryza, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, attended the inauguration but made it clear to Sarkisian that he had to take “dramatic steps” to repair damage caused to U.S.-Armenian relations (RFE/RL Armenia Report, April 9). Bryza also used the occasion to meet with some of the few Ter-Petrosian allies not arrested by the authorities as well as with the wives of several prominent detainees.
In separate statements issued on April 8, the International Crisis Group (ICG) and Human Rights Watch again condemned the Armenian crackdown and urged the West to put pressure on Yerevan. “Unless prompt steps are taken to address the crisis, the United States and EU should suspend foreign aid and put on hold negotiations on further and closer cooperation,” said the ICG.