With just over two months to go before a fateful presidential election, Armenia’s leadership is stepping up what increasingly looks like repression against supporters of its most formidable opponent, former president Levon Ter-Petrosian. The authorities in Yerevan have been busy in recent weeks harassing his loyalists (including a prominent businessman), orchestrating a televised smear campaign against him, and trying to muzzle the rare television station that dared to provide airtime to Ter-Petrosian.
The crackdown exposes the extent of their worries about the ex-president’s bid to return to power and may only be a taste of things to come during and after the election scheduled for February 19. The outgoing President Robert Kocharian and his preferred successor, Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian, seem to be emboldened by the West’s positive assessment of their handling of last May’s Armenian parliamentary elections. U.S. and European officials have so far avoided criticizing, at least in public, their latest actions, which could have alarming repercussions for the freedom and fairness of the upcoming vote.
The ruling regime claims to be untroubled by Ter-Petrosian’s political comeback, saying that he is widely loathed by Armenians and is not even the main opposition presidential candidate. Its jittery behavior suggests the opposite, however. In particular, the authorities have been anxious to minimize attendance at Ter-Petrosian rallies in Yerevan that attracted an unexpectedly large number of people. Unable to run TV advertisements on the government-controlled electronic media, Ter-Petrosian and his allies spread the word about those rallies mainly by leaflets and small publicity marches through the Armenian capital. Police broke up the first such march, staged in late October. Five of its active participants, among them two newspaper editors, were arrested on the spot and charged with assaulting “state officials performing their duties.”
There have also been reports of police hunting down young pro-Ter-Petrosian activists posting anti-Sarkisian leaflets in the city center. One of them claimed to have been ill-treated by the chief of the Yerevan police and warned against engaging in anti-government activities before being set free. The 20-year-old activist was severely beaten by unknown men and hospitalized for several days after publicizing his detention (Haykakan Zhamanak, November 16). That the opposition demonstrations are perceived to be dangerous by the authorities was confirmed on December 5, when tax inspectors confiscated 4,000 newly printed leaflets announcing the next Ter-Petrosian rally. The printing company that manufactured them was promptly accused of tax evasion (Aravot, December 7).
Tax-evasion cases have also been brought against several companies owned by Khachatur Sukiasian, the sole Armenian tycoon who has publicly voiced support for Ter-Petrosian. Two of their chief executives are now under arrest pending trial. Local observers believe the crackdown is politically motivated and aimed at discouraging other “oligarchs” from following Sukiasian’s example. Virtually all of them are dependent on and loyal to the regime, having helped it rig past elections.
Fear of a “dangerous” precedent was also behind the authorities’ harsh reaction to a decision by a small TV station in Armenia’s second city, Gyumri, to broadcast, as a paid advertisement, Ter-Petrosian’s September 21 speech in which he denounced the Kocharian-Sarkisian duo as “corrupt and criminal.” The GALA channel has since been fined $82,000 for tax evasion and could be forced this month to remove its transmitter from Gyumri’s sole television tower.
Kocharian and Sarkisian have gone to great lengths to keep their political opponents at bay throughout their decade-long rule. Their most recent large-scale crackdown on the Armenian opposition in spring 2004, launched in response to the latter’s attempt to replicate the 2003 “Rose Revolution” in neighboring Georgia, was accompanied by unprecedented human rights abuses. With the Ter-Petrosian camp clearly ready to challenge questionable vote results on the streets, similar unrest may well follow the upcoming presidential election.
The European Union, which never reacted to the 2004 repression, appears to have no such concerns, however. The EU’s special representative to the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, sounded quite optimistic about the Armenian presidential race after holding talks with Kocharian, Sarkisian, Ter-Petrosian, and other opposition leaders in Yerevan last month. The February vote, he said, will underscore the “maturity of Armenia’s political system” and a “high degree of pluralism” in the country (RFE/RL Armenia Report, November 20).
The EU praised the Kocharian administration’s conduct of the May parliamentary elections, which are regarded as fraudulent by the Armenian opposition and civic groups. The positive assessment paved the way for the release of €21 million ($29 million) in financial assistance to Armenia, stemming from its participation in the bloc’s European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) program. Just how that assistance will facilitate political reform in the country, a key aim for its inclusion in the ENP, remains unclear.
The Kocharian administration does not seem to be facing much pressure from the Council of Europe either. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian discussed preparations for the presidential election with Secretary General Terry Davis and other senior Council of Europe officials during a December 7 visit to Strasbourg (Statement by the Armenian Foreign Ministry, December 7). None of those officials has publicly expressed concern at the election-related developments in the country. In trying to promote Armenia’s democratization, the Strasbourg-based organization puts the emphasis on legislative reform, a strategy that has clearly failed to work, as evidenced by the recent erosion of civil liberties enjoyed by Armenians.
As always, the United States is more assertive than the Europeans in pushing for a clean vote. The U.S. charge d’affaires in Yerevan, Joseph Pennington, reportedly secured on December 4 Sarkisian’s consent to the holding of a first-ever exit poll in Armenia to be financed by the U.S. government. Still, Washington continues to tread carefully, apparently because it still hopes to broker an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace deal on Karabakh before the Armenian election. The chief U.S. Karabakh negotiator, Matthew Bryza, is due to visit Yerevan and Baku in mid-January in a last-ditch attempt to get the two sides to overcome their remaining differences.