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Armenia: Government Crackdown Fails To End Standoff


Emil Danielyan

Yerevan, 15 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The bitter standoff between the Armenian leadership and the
opposition is entering a new and unpredictable phase fraught with the
specter of more violence. The brutal dispersal early on 13 April of
thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Yerevan dealt a heavy blow to
President Robert Kocharian but is unlikely to prevent further
challenges to his rule, whose legitimacy the Armenian opposition
questions.

The Armenian opposition, smarting from the worst crackdown to
date on its activities, has vowed to continue its campaign for regime
change and plans to resume its anti-Kocharian rallies on 16 April.
Whether its supporters will again be directed toward the presidential
palace remains unclear. Much will depend on the size of the crowd,
which should signal whether ordinary Armenians unhappy with their
government have been intimidated by the early-morning mass beatings
and detentions unleashed by security forces or goaded by such
official actions.

That the use of force was aimed at not merely dispersing the
demonstrators but injuring and terrifying as many of them as possible
seems obvious. More than 10,000 people mobilized by the opposition
Artarutiun bloc and the National Unity Party (AMK) walked up the
city's Marshal Baghramian Avenue leading to the presidential palace
on 12 April. They were stopped by hundreds of riot police lined up
behind two rows of razor wire about 200 meters away from Kocharian's
residence. They never attempted to break through the cordon
throughout the eight-hour standoff.

There were still between 2,000 and 3,000 protesters on the
street when the attack began at 2 a.m. local time. Within minutes,
truncheon-wielding special police and deafening stun-grenade
explosions sent them fleeing toward a key intersection in downtown
Yerevan. But their escape route was blocked by other police units,
which joined in the indiscriminate beating.

Even journalists were not spared the violence. Three of them,
including a photographer for a leading Armenian daily and a cameraman
for Russia's ORT television station, were severely beaten and had
their cameras smashed by police. This writer had to seek refuge in
the backyard of a nearby private home along with about 30 fleeing
protesters, elderly men and women among them; at least two men had
ghastly wounds to their faces, and one of them fainted at one point.
His companions did not dare summon an ambulance for fear of exposing
the hideout.

The orgy of beatings was accompanied by the ransacking of the
offices of the main opposition parties. There has been no official
explanation of that extraordinary measure. According to the Armenian
police, 115 people, including three members of parliament, were
arrested that night, although most were released in the next 24
hours. Kocharian and his senior allies have justified the crackdown
by accusing the opposition of planning the "violent overthrow of
constitutional order." They have warned that any further attempts to
force them out of power will be countered with similar steps. But the
opposition has said the authorities themselves violated Armenia's
constitution by rigging last year's presidential and parliamentary
elections.

The joint Artarutiun-alliance and National Unity Party (AMK)
rallies in Yerevan, which began on 9 April, were not big enough to
seriously threaten the ruling regime, which effectively blocked the
roads leading to the capital to reduce attendance at the opposition
demonstrations. But its heavy-handed response suggests that Kocharian
fears the kind of snowball effect that set off the November "Rose
Revolution" in neighboring Georgia in the wake of reputedly
fraudulent parliamentary elections. The success of the Georgian
uprising, hailed by the West, clearly inspired the Armenian
opposition.

Yet the West's reaction to the latest events in Armenia has
been markedly different. In what some observers interpret as a
gesture of support for Kocharian, the U.S. State Department issued a
cautiously worded statement on 13 April expressing regret over the
mass arrests and calling on "both sides" to embark on a "dialogue."
Washington commented on neither the police response to the peaceful
demonstration nor the increasingly dangerous conditions in which
Armenian journalists operate.

The Council of Europe has reacted in a similar fashion, with
its secretary-general, Walter Schwimmer, complaining that information
coming out of Armenia is "incomplete and conflicting." Schwimmer has
a permanent representative in Yerevan, Natalia Voutova, but she has
kept a low profile throughout the crisis, remaining silent even after
Armenian authorities renewed the wholesale arrest of opposition
activists earlier this month under the country's Soviet-era Code of
Administrative Offenses. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of
Europe has repeatedly expressed "shock" at authorities' arbitrary
enforcement of that code during and after the February-March 2003
presidential elections.

There has been no official reaction so far from the European
Union, which pledged recently to pay greater attention to political
reform in the South Caucasus. The Yerevan-based ambassadors of the
largest EU member states urged Kocharian last week to exercise
caution in dealing with the opposition protests.

The dramatic developments in Armenia highlight the root cause
and the principal source of long-term political instability in that
country: the absence of an effective mechanism for the democratic
rotation of power among the main political groups. None of the
national elections held there since independence have been judged
free and fair by the international community. The only regime change
the country has had in the last 13 years resulted from government
infighting, not the expression of popular will.

Any dialogue between the government and the opposition is
highly problematic under such circumstances. For the latter, the path
to state power lies along Marshal Baghramian Avenue rather than at
polling stations. As long as this remains the case, Armenia will not
be immune to political upheavals.

Emil Danielyan is an RFE/RL correspondent in Yerevan.
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