The leaderships of Russia and Armenia have underscored their persisting concerns about the spread of anti-government uprisings across the former Soviet Union by holding a joint exercise of their special police forces. The extraordinary move comes less than two months before a tense constitutional referendum in Armenia that opposition groups will likely use for another attempt to topple President Robert Kocharian.
The Armenian opposition, buoyed by the spectacular success of the revolution in Georgia, already tried to do that in the spring of 2004. But its three-month campaign of nationwide street protests fizzled out due to a lack of popular support and unprecedented repression unleashed by Kocharian’s regime.
The police exercises took place near the southern Russian city of Krasnodar from September 24 through October 12. As many as 1,500 officers (the bulk of them presumably Russians) reportedly practiced quelling an anti-government demonstration in the presence of top law-enforcement officials from the two states, including Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev and the chief of Armenia’s Police Service, Hayk Haruitunian. The final and most important episode of the exercises involved about 50 imaginary protesters seizing a government building and taking hostages after demanding payment of their back wages and the authorities’ resignation. Special police then burst into the building and liberated the “hostages.”
According to Armenian press reports, participants in the exercises simulated several violent methods of crowd dispersal dating back to Soviet times. PanArmenian.net, a pro-government online news service, reported that they also tested their shooting skills and familiarized themselves with “rules for the use of firearms” and “technical equipment” against those who challenge the authorities in Moscow and Yerevan. “Russian and Armenian special forces are ready to fulfill the tasks they are set,” Nurgaliev declared afterwards.
The presence of Russia’s and Armenia’s top policemen at the drills attests to the great importance attached to them by the two governments. They both have watched with alarm the wave of ex-Soviet revolutions that set precedents for regime change through the expression of popular will. Armenia is widely regarded as one of the potential venues for the next such revolution, a prospect that sets pulses racing in Moscow, Yerevan, and a number of other former Soviet capitals.
“The Russian authorities have been having nervous breakdowns because of the revolutions that took place in post-Soviet countries,” the Yerevan daily Haykakan Zhamanak commented on October 12. “They are holding joint exercises with Armenian special forces because there has already been an attempt at revolution in Armenia and Russia fears that it could be repeated.”
Apart from helping their Armenian counterparts, Russian security forces also have something to learn from them. On the night of April 12-13, 2004, Armenian special police backed by interior troops brutally broke up a peaceful demonstration near the presidential palace in Yerevan that marked the climax of the last opposition offensive against Kocharian. Scores of protesters were beaten up and arrested by security forces armed with truncheons, stun grenades, and even electric-shock equipment. “The excessive use of police force” was strongly condemned at the time by Human Rights Watch.
The obvious purpose of the government-sanctioned violence was not only to disperse the crowd of less than 3,000 people but also to discourage as many Armenians as possible from attending further anti-Kocharian rallies. Security forces also severely beat up virtually all photojournalists that were present at the scene. One of those journalists, who required hospitalization, insists that Hovannes Varian, a police general who led the operation, personally confiscated his camera before ordering subordinates to attack him. Incidentally, Varian was among the Armenian law-enforcement officials who monitored the Krasnodar exercises. Also in attendance was Ashot Gizirian, the equally notorious head of a feared police unit that is supposed to combat organized crime and terrorism, rather than opposition activity.
The brutish police chiefs may again be called into action next month. Armenians will go to the polls on November 27 to vote on a package of constitutional amendments drafted by Kocharian and his governing coalition. The draft amendments, endorsed by Europe and the United States, are aimed at curtailing the sweeping constitutional powers enjoyed by the Armenian president. But Armenia’s main opposition forces dismiss the proposed changes as cosmetic and have pledged to scuttle their passage. Opposition leaders have repeatedly pledged to turn the referendum into a vote of no confidence in Kocharian. “November 27 will be our day,” the most radical of them, Aram Sarkisian, said in a recent newspaper interview.
With the Armenian public remaining apathetic about constitutional reform, the ruling regime is widely expected to at least try to falsify the referendum results. However, the kind of crude vote rigging to which the authorities resorted in the last presidential and parliamentary elections could give the opposition a powerful weapon to spark a mass pro-democracy movement. Kocharian and his entourage cannot fail to understand this. The Krasnodar exercises illustrate the extent of their worries.
Aravot, another paper critical of the Armenian leadership, reported on October 12 that the Armenian police are holding negotiations with the Interior Ministry of Belarus over the purchase of anti-riot equipment such as clubs, tear gas, razor wire, and even rubber bullets.
(Haykakan Zhamanak, October 12; Aravot, October 12; www.PanArmenian.net, October 11; Human Rights Watch statement, April 17, 2004)