In a major boost to the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian, the Council of Europe has once again refrained from punishing Armenia for a government crackdown on the opposition sparked by the disputed presidential election of February 2008. The Strasbourg-based organization’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) has given the Armenian government at least three more months to address its concerns about the continuing imprisonment of dozens of opposition members and supporters.
The PACE was widely expected to impose sanctions on Yerevan in the run-up to its winter session, which started on January 26. A draft resolution submitted by its Monitoring Committee referred to the arrested oppositionists as "political prisoners" and called for the suspension of the voting rights of the assembly’s Armenian members.
The resolution underwent significant changes, however, the day before it was passed overwhelmingly on January 27. The adopted version says only that the oppositionists "may have been charged and imprisoned for political motivations." The change of language was the result of a January 15 visit to Yerevan by the Monitoring Committee’s two Armenia rapporteurs, John Prescott and Georges Colombier. Scrambling to avoid the embarrassing sanctions, Sarkisian and other Armenian leaders assured the two men that they would amend two articles of the Armenian Criminal Code used against the most prominent of about 60 oppositionists remaining in jail.
The articles relate to provoking "mass disturbances" and "usurping state authority by force," something that the Armenian authorities say occurred during the March 1, 2008, clashes in Yerevan between security forces and supporters of Levon Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition presidential candidate. At least 10 people were killed and more than 100 others wounded in what was the worst street violence in the country’s history. Ter-Petrosian and his opposition allies dismiss government claims that they provoked the clashes to try to stage a coup d’etat.
According to Prescott and Colombier, the Ter-Petrosian loyalists who were charged under the two clauses should be released following the promised revision of the Criminal Code. Accordingly, promises made by the government were construed by the PACE as a "signal indicating the readiness of the Armenian authorities to begin to address the concerns of the assembly in relation to the situation of the persons deprived of their liberty in relation to the events of 1 and 2 March 2008." Its resolution, available on the Council of Europe website (www.coe.int), instructed the Monitoring Committee to continue to observe the situation closely and "propose any further action to be taken by the assembly" at its next session in late April.
Not surprisingly, the Armenian leadership welcomed the PACE about-face. Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesman for Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), said that it was the result of "the recent display of political will and reforms on the part of the authorities" (Azg, January 29). Some HHK leaders had harshly criticized the Council of Europe in the previous weeks.
The Armenian opposition, which had described the Monitoring Committee’s earlier sanction threats as its "brilliant victory," was clearly disappointed with the latest development. In a statement on January 28, Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) alliance claimed that the authorities had no intention of freeing the political prisoners and were simply trying to dupe the Council of Europe with the promised legal amendments. The HAK noted that the PACE had already twice extended deadlines for Yerevan’s compliance with its earlier resolutions demanding the immediate release of all oppositionists arrested on "seemingly artificial or politically motivated charges."
Ter-Petrosian, who had served as Armenia’s first president from 1991 to 1998, has been highly critical of the West and the Council of Europe in particular for what he sees as their leniency toward the Sarkisian administration. He has repeatedly accused Western powers of turning a blind eye to government "repressions" in Armenia in hopes of accelerating the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations. Some pro-Ter-Petrosian newspapers have linked the PACE’s January 27 resolution to the latest meeting of Sarkisian and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, which took place in Zurich on January 28.
Another, more neutral newspaper, Hraparak, pointed out on January 28 that despite the PACE reprieve, the authorities in Yerevan remained under Western pressure to end the post-election crackdown. "If we also take into account the Armenian government’s pledge to free political prisoners, then the situation becomes rather favorable for the opposition," it wrote. Iravunk, a paper highly critical of the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition, appeared to agree with this assertion in an editorial on January 30. It said that by keeping up the pressure on the Armenian authorities, the PACE was effectively encouraging "new coup attempts" by the opposition.
The opposition, meanwhile, plans to end its moratorium on anti-government demonstrations (declared by Ter-Petrosian in October) and again rally supporters in Yerevan on the first anniversary of the March 1 clashes, but analysts doubt that the rally will mark the start of the kind of nonstop street protests that nearly brought Ter-Petrosian back to power in the wake of the February 2008 election. The ex-president himself admitted in a December speech that his opposition movement lacked the muscle to topple the government. The PACE’s cautious stance will hardly encourage Ter-Petrosian to make a fresh push for power in the months to come.