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Armenia: Will Crackdown Backfire?

Will the clashes weaken Sarkisian's credibility as a future president? (AFP) Calm has returned to the streets of Yerevan following an outburst of violence on March 1 in which opposition protesters clashed with police, leaving eight people dead and hundreds injured.

Shops have reopened, and the capital is once again bustling with cars. But the calm is deceptive.

"Everything seems very quiet, the city is calm, there are people in the streets, and few troops," says Aleksandr Iskandarian, a political analyst at the Yerevan-based Caucasus Media Institute. "But inside, people are in shock. Society is deeply divided, many people no longer speak to each other. The situation is serious, dramatic."

The decision by outgoing President Robert Kocharian to impose a state of emergency after the clashes erupted on March 1 put an end to 11 days of mass public demonstrations in the capital.

The opposition rallies, which drew tens of thousands of protesters, were called to challenge the narrow first-round victory of Kocharian's ally, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, in presidential elections on February 19.

The fatal clashes, which left at least seven civilians and one policemen dead, according to official reports, are the worst civil violence in Armenia's post-Soviet history, and can only fuel the controversy further.

"This undoubtedly weakens the authorities," says Iskandarian. "They displayed incompetence by failing to deal with the situation in another way. Had the protests simply been disbanded, they may have gotten away with it. But people died."

Clashing Versions

Officials say the police had to use force to quell a group of demonstrators who were looting downtown stores, barricading streets with city buses, and assembling gasoline bombs.

But opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian -- Armenia's first post-Soviet president and the loser, by more than 30 percentage points, to Sarkisian in last month's vote -- claims police initiated the violence, and has vowed to continue the public rallies after the state of emergency ends on March 20.

Watchdog groups like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House have condemned the violence and called on authorities to investigate the use of force. But Western governments have stopped short of targeting Kocharian and Sarkisian specifically, saying that both the ruling authorities and Ter-Petrossian are to blame for the violence.

Ter-Petrossian was the galvanizing figure behind the 11-day protests; he and his supporters claim the vote was rigged and that he is the rightful winner.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in its initial report, described the February 19 election as "mostly" in line with international standards despite a raft of irregularities.

The OSCE is due to release a final report this week, and its findings are expected to be far more candid and critical, although it is unclear to what degree they will substantiate Ter-Petrossian's claims or cast aspersions on Sarkisian's credibility as Armenia's future president. The country's Constitutional Court is also in the process of hearing the opposition's challenge to the election results.

With no signs of a breakthrough in the political deadlock, Armenia appears headed for a period of uncertainty. Heikki Talvitie, a special OSCE envoy sent to Armenia to broker dialogue, said negotiations were unlikely to start in the near future.

A Risky Move

The ruling regime is certainly aware of the political danger of resorting to force against protesters.

While ongoing crackdowns against opposition activists have failed to significantly undermine the leaderships of Russia, Belarus, and Uzbekistan, the violent dispersal of protesters in neighboring Georgia in November 2007 severely dented President Mikheil Saakashvili's credentials.

Saakashvili imposed a state of emergency after riot police used tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets to break up weeklong street protests.

He was able to regain the presidential seat in snap January elections. His 53 percent win, however, was a far cry from the tide of optimism that propelled him to power during the 2003 Rose Revolution, and has forced him to the negotiating table with an opposition that five months ago had virtually no leverage.

The stakes in Armenia could be even higher.

"There is a wider perception that the vote was unfair; the media is less free; the opposition candidate, Levon Ter-Petrossian, was much stronger; the government is much tougher and has responded much more brutally," says Tom de Waal, a London-based Caucasus analyst. "I think the tension in Armenia is much greater and the chances of defusing the tension are quite distant."

To add to the confusion, some observers are even suggesting that Sarkisian may be the victim of a deliberate setup from within his own camp.

"Sometimes I think that Kocharian decided to take a farewell step that harmed Sarkisian even more than the election," says Adam Abramian, the editor in chief of the Armenian newspaper "Aravot." "I think the use of violence against demonstrators was staged by Kocharian and will seriously weaken Sarkisian's legitimacy."

Still, Armenia-watchers agree that Sarkisian's first instinct -- with his background as defense minister -- will be to further tighten his grip on dissent.

He has pledged to punish troublemakers, and numerous opposition leaders and demonstrators have already been detained on charges of attempting a coup.

"I think the authorities will maintain their current line, regardless of the unrest and of Ter-Petrossian's actions," says Russian political analyst Aleksei Malashenko. “Sarkisian definitely got about 50 percent of the vote, although the election was rigged, and he feels he has enough power to treat the opposition roughly. I think he will succeed in crushing it."

RFE/RL correspondent Salome Asatiani contributed to this report

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