Armenia’s embattled leadership has unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on the opposition following the bloody suppression of street protests against the official results of last month’s disputed presidential election. More than a hundred supporters of the main opposition presidential candidate, former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, have been arrested and are facing lengthy prison sentences for their involvement in what the ruling regime calls an attempted coup d’etat. The crackdown, aggravated by a virtual ban on independent news reporting, intensified last week despite the West’s calls for dialogue between the Armenian government and the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition.
The mass arrests, increasingly resembling a witch-hunt, stem from the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between security forces and opposition supporters that left at least eight people dead. Thousands of protesters barricaded themselves outside the Yerevan mayor’s office just hours after riot police forcibly ended Ter-Petrosian’s 11-day non-stop demonstration in the city’s Liberty Square. The clashes, triggered by police attempts to disperse the crowd, ended only after outgoing President Robert Kocharian declared a 20-day state of emergency and ordered troops into the Armenian capital. Kocharian and other Armenian officials claim that the violence was instigated by Ter-Petrosian as part of his broader plot to use the February 19 presidential election to overthrow the government.
Relevant coup charges have already been leveled against the vast majority of the detainees. Among them are three parliament deputies, Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign manager, and several dozen senior members of opposition parties aligned with the former president. Dozens of other prominent oppositionists have gone into hiding. Both Kocharian and his controversially elected successor, Serge Sarkisian, have said that Ter-Petrosian may end up behind bars, too. According to Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian, law-enforcement authorities already have “sufficient evidence” to prosecute him (AFP, March 10).
Armenia’s Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian indicated on March 7 that the coup case may be complemented by an Orwellian charge of “psychological sabotage” against the country’s population (RFE/RL Armenia Report, March 7). He said Ter-Petrosian resorted to mass hypnosis and other “psychological tricks” to attract a large following after his dramatic political comeback in September 2007.
The authorities continue to justify the use of lethal force against the protesters, stressing the fact that one security officer was killed and dozens wounded on March 1. But they have yet to clearly explain the circumstances of the deaths of at least seven protesters. The official line is that security forces fired gunshots only into the air. However, amateur video clips of the deadly violence posted on the Internet last week suggest the opposite. One clip shows several heavily armed men in special police uniforms firing what appear to be live rounds in the direction of the demonstrators. In another, more harrowing, footage, pieces of a human brain and skull can be seen strewn in a pool of blood.
The ruling regime has clearly been emboldened by Western observers’ largely positive preliminary assessment of its handling of a ballot seen as fraudulent by many Armenians and by the failure of Western powers to condemn the use of force against Ter-Petrosian supporters. U.S. and European envoys who rushed to Yerevan in the first week of March blamed both the government and the opposition for the unrest and contented themselves with making vague calls for “dialogue” between the two sides.
The West began pressuring the Sarkisian-Kocharian duo in earnest only after it became evident that those calls fell on deaf ears. In a March 10 interview with the Associated Press, Matt Bryza, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state who was in Yerevan on March 6-7, described as “harsh and brutal” the Armenian government’s response to the March 1 protests and the ensuing mass arrests of opposition supporters. Another senior U.S. diplomat wrote to Kocharian the next day, warning that Washington could “suspend or terminate” its multimillion-dollar economic assistance to Armenia. “The government of Armenia needs to uphold the rule of law, lift the state of emergency, and restore press freedoms,” a White House spokesman said on March 13, according to Western news agencies.
For its part, the European Union expressed serious concern on March 12 about the continuing crackdown on the Armenian opposition. A statement by its Slovenian presidency also reiterated the EU’s earlier calls for Yerevan to end the state of emergency, release all political prisoners, and agree to an “independent investigation” into the deadly post-election unrest.
The Armenian authorities have so far responded to the pressure with largely symbolic gestures. On March 13, Kocharian signed a decree allowing media outlets not controlled by his administration to resume their work, so long as they do not provide “obviously false and situation-destabilizing information” (Statement by the Armenian president’s press service, March 13). However, the decree proved to be little more than a gimmick. The National Security Service, the Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB, continues to prevent the country’s leading independent and pro-opposition newspapers from publishing and to block Internet users’ access to local online publications.
Western pressure may still not be strong enough, but it should make it harder for the regime to arrest Ter-Petrosian and/or extend the state of emergency for another 20 days in order to forestall opposition demonstrations before Sarkisian’s inauguration, which is scheduled for April 9. Ter-Petrosian made it clear at a March 11 news conference that he will continue to challenge the official vote results and stage more street protests. It is not clear, however, whether he will do that with virtually all of his close associates in jail or on the run or will wait for the dust to settle. In any case, Ter-Petrosian can count on the unwavering backing of tens of thousands of angry Armenians who rallied in Yerevan to back his demands for a re-run of the presidential election.
Many of them are young people who have previously shown little interest in politics and barely knew their revered leader just a few months ago. They are the ones who set up barricades and took on riot police on March 1. The government repression may have quelled their spontaneous rebellion, but it did nothing to address the underlying causes of anger that drove them to the streets in the first place.