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Armenia: Will Violence Fuel Passions Further?

Armored troops in the capital, Yerevan, on March 2 (AFP) For many watching Armenia, the question now is what impact the deadly clashes between police and protesters will have on the resolve of opposition supporters.

Seven protesters and one police officer were reported killed in clashes late on March 1 after demonstrators defied a state of emergency and regrouped in a central square in the capital, Yerevan. Earlier in the day, police and Interior Ministry troops had used truncheons, tear gas, and electric stun guns to disperse thousands of opposition protesters.

The weekend violence erupted at a point when the daily demonstrations had already begun to lose momentum, after swelling to at least 35,000 people earlier in the week.

RFE/RL regional analyst Liz Fuller says the government, in authorizing the use of force, might have inadvertently given the protests a longer life than they would have had otherwise.

"They might not have died out for another week, or two weeks, or three weeks," she says, "but if the authorities had simply turned a blind eye, I would think that within two weeks you would have seen a falling off in the number of people out there in the streets -- people would have simply given up hope."

The First Stone

The government and opposition are now fighting over different versions of how the violence began.

The police say they had to use force to quell a group of demonstrators who had looted downtown stores and were barricading streets with city buses and assembling gasoline bombs. The opposition, meanwhile, accuses the government of sending provocateurs into the crowd.

Fuller calls "exceedingly doubtful" the authorities' claims that they were forced to act because protesters were gathering weapons. The timing of the first round of crackdowns, moreover, showed possible signs of forethought, she says.

"I think the timing of the initial police action was significant -- the early morning of the day before the presidential elections in Russia," she says. "If everything had gone smoothly, without violence, then possibly the international community would barely have registered what had happened, and perhaps this is what the Armenian authorities were hoping for."

Media Blackout

Incumbent President Robert Kocharian imposed a state of emergency following the initial wave of violence on March 1, 11 days after the contested vote.

The state of emergency bans mass gatherings and requires media outlets to use only official information when reporting on the domestic political situation. It also restricts the movement of citizens and allows authorities to search vehicles.

The measure has effectively muzzled the country's already largely compliant media. There has been virtually no news coverage inside Armenia regarding the clashes and deaths. (RFE/RL's Armenian-language broadcasts have been banned from the airwaves since March 1, and its website has been blocked.)

Opposition figure Levon Ter-Petrossian, whose failed bid in the February 19 election sparked the protests, remains under virtual house arrest. His home is surrounded by police and he says he has not been permitted to leave the grounds.

Ter-Petrossian has accused Kocharian of using the 20-day state of emergency to paralyze his ability to continue rallying the opposition. "Losing the square means losing the connection to the people," he told reporters from his home on March 2.

Kocharian's preferred successor, current Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian, won the election in a vote warily characterized by Western observers as basically free and fair. Ter-Petrossian and his supporters contest the official results, saying fraud and pressure were rampant and that he, not Sarkisian, is the rightful winner.

Heikki Talvitie, a special envoy for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), is continuing talks in Yerevan with Kocharian and Sarkisian on preventing further violence.

In Washington, the State Department announced that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza would travel to Armenia to help "facilitate discussions" between the government and the opposition.

U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said that the United States does not want "people to move from peaceful expressions of political opinions and engage in violence," but is in no way signaling its support for a crackdown.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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