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Armenia: Was The Yerevan Crackdown Planned, Or A Fatal Miscalculation

Predictably, the response both in Armenia and abroad to the clashes in Yerevan late on March 1 between supporters of defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian on the one hand and police and security forces on the other has focused primarily on the extent of the brutality and the ramifications of the ensuing state of emergency. But the timing of the crackdown -- one day before the Russian presidential election -- and the diverging responses to the ongoing protests by outgoing President Robert Kocharian and President-elect Serzh Sarkisian pose a number of disquieting and as yet unanswered questions.

Kocharian categorically condemned the protests by tens of thousands of Ter-Petrossian supporters that began on February 20 and continued on a daily basis, showing no sign of abating. On February 23, he issued orders to police and security officials to be ready to use force if necessary to thwart what he termed a bid by Ter-Petrossian and his supporters to seize power by illegal means, and on February 26, he warned that the state will not tolerate violations of the law over a long period of time. On that occasion, Kocharian expressed the hope that "common sense will prevail," given that "six days is a long enough period to sober up."

Speaking to Yerevan State University students on February 29, just hours before the initial police action to remove some 2,000 protesters encamped on Liberty Square, Kocharian listed four possible scenarios: that the protests would continue indefinitely and become more intense; that, as in September 1996, participants would illegally attack government buildings, bringing down on themselves the full force of the law; that Ter-Petrossian asks his supporters to disperse and go home, and then set about preparing for the next parliamentary election (not due until 2011); or that, having ended the protest, Ter-Petrossian again retires from politics and returns to his historical research.

By contrast, President-elect Sarkisian struck a more conciliatory note. Speaking on February 26, he addressed Ter-Petrossian's supporters as our "brothers and sisters" and acknowledged their desire "for a better Armenia," but implied at the same time that they were unwittingly allowing themselves to be used to satisfy "a few persons' political ambitions and desire for revenge." He stressed the need to "heal the wound" that the election inflicted "on the body of our people," and warned against attempts to "divide the nation" into "our own people" and "strangers from outside" -- an allusion to the fact that both he and Kocharian were born and grew up in the then Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast when it was still part of the Azerbaijan SSR.

In the same address, Sarkisian appealed to his defeated rival presidential candidates, advocating cooperation, including their possible inclusion in a coalition government. "One of our goals is to use all constructive major forces in the name of Armenia's development," Noyan Tapan quoted him as saying.

The initial police operation early on March 1 to remove the encamped protesters (including Ter-Petrossian himself, who slept out night after night in his car) was overseen by Yerevan police chief Nerses Nazarian and by Grisha Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh), who heads Kocharian's personal security detachment, and it ended with only minor injuries sustained by a dozen or more young men who were hit by truncheon-wielding police. The timing of that intervention -- 24 hours before the Russian presidential election -- raises the question: were the Armenian authorities hoping that the protest participants would simply disperse to their homes? In that case the operation might only have warranted a couple of lines in international wire dispatches.

In the event, however, the protesters driven out of Freedom Square regrouped later the same day at a major traffic intersection near the French Embassy, where tens of thousands more Ter-Petrossian supporters joined them. By around 8 p.m. local time tensions spilled over into violence, with police first firing tracer bullets into the air and then gas cylinders into the crowd. Kocharian responded to the violence by declaring a state of emergency for a period of 20 days in order to "prevent the danger threatening constitutional order and to protest the rights and legal interests of the population."

In an address to the Armenian people on March 1, Kocharian explained his rationale for imposing the state of emergency, accusing Ter-Petrossian's supporters of having accumulated arms and ammunition in public places and of holding unauthorized rallies. Kocharian said Ter-Petrossian refused to accept the official results of the February 19 election and continued to "dispute the outcome by illegal means," even though a recount of votes failed to reveal "serious violations." He said opposition representatives "behaved disgracefully" in Yerevan earlier that day and thereby threatened national security, as well as tarnishing Armenia's international reputation.

On March 5, Kocharian threatened to jail Ter-Petrossian, arguing that it would be "unjust" to jail only rank and file participants in the protests and not the instigators. He rejected calls by prominent international figures, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, to lift the state of emergency, and harshly criticized a statement by Armenia's human rights ombudsman Armen Harutiunian suggesting that the violent clashes might not have occurred if police and security forces had not intervened using force earlier on March 1 to clear Freedom Square of several thousands of Ter-Petrossian supporters encamped there. Harutiunian described the police violence later on March 1 as "illegal," and expressed "bewilderment" that some television companies are currently promoting "an atmosphere of hatred." Kocharian said Harutiunian "does not know what he is talking about."

Sarkisian by contrast made a short statement on March 3 deploring the "grievous" and "irreparable" losses sustained during the March 1 clashes in Yerevan. Sarkisian said the violence resulted from "the illegal actions of radical oppositionists" and "revolutionary leaders" who sought to make use of their supporters to satisfy their "insatiable ambitions." He did not mention Ter-Petrossian by name.

Sarkisian elaborated on that message at a government session on March 6, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Acknowledging that "we are all guilty" for failing to prevent the violence, he said he prefers to focus on overcoming the consequences. Noting that Armenian society is increasingly angry and divided into two camps, he urged ministers to "engage in dialogue, argue, explain, even if your interlocutor doesn't understand, even if he is blinded by hatred."

The question thus arises: is Sarkisian playing good cop to Kocharian's bad cop? Or do their very different tones reflect diverging assessments of whether the violence was indeed justified, and how to resolve the standoff between the two sides? Could Kocharian even have given the green light for the late night violence against demonstrators in order to strengthen his own position vis-a-vis Sarkisian and show that he is the sole official capable of preventing the country descending into chaos, and therefore merits the post of premier? In the run-up to the ballot, the Armenian media drew attention to Sarkisian's failure to indicate who he intends to name a as prime minister.

Alternatively, is Kocharian's current hardline stance rooted in the argument that the Armenian response to the post-election protests was not markedly harsher than that of the Azerbaijani authorities following the October 2003 presidential ballot (when two people were reported killed in clashes with police, and seven oppositionists were arrested and subsequently stood trial), and that the Georgian authorities too deployed police and security forces to disperse protesters and imposed a state of emergency in the wake of six days of opposition demonstrations in Tbilisi in November 2007?

Senior diplomats Heikki Talivitie and Peter Semneby, who visited Armenia earlier this week at the behest of the OSCE Chairman in Office and the EU respectively in the hope of bringing the two sides together to talk, are not optimistic. Talvitie on March 3 quoted Ter-Petrossian as saying he will agree to a dialogue with the authorities only after the state of emergency Kocharian declared late on March 1 is lifted and the Constitutional Court rules on his appeal to declare the official election results invalid. Kocharian's spokesman Viktor Soghomonian told journalists on March 4 that dialogue was still possible before the opposition "incited disorder that claimed human lives," but not any longer. He said Ter-Petrossian repeatedly rejected such offers of dialogue. Sarkisian has not spoken explicitly either in favor or against such talks, but human rights ombudsman Harutiunian said in his March 3 statement that he considers it reassuring that Sarkisian has opted for "dialogue and cooperation."