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Armenia: Events In Yugoslavia Rekindle Memories

As the international community watched the post-election drama unfold in Yugoslavia, there was at least one place in the world which had a strong sense of having lived through the same experience. In Armenia, thousands of kilometers from the Balkans, it looked strikingly familiar: an election rigged in favor of the incumbent ruler and opposition crowds storming the parliament after authorities refused to recount ballots.

Yerevan, 9 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Four years ago, Armenia held elections that followed a pattern similar to those in Yugoslavia.

But there was one big difference: While the election aftermath ended in triumph for Yugoslav opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica, his Armenian opposite number, Vazgen Manukian, had to go into hiding to avoid arrest. Levon Ter-Petrossian, the former Armenian president who was officially declared winner of the 1996 vote, did far better than his more experienced Yugoslav counterpart, Slobodan Milosevic.

A senior member of Manukian's National Democratic Union (AZhM), Filaret Berikian, smokes nervously when asked whether he agrees that the events in Belgrade were like those in Yerevan four years ago.

"I don't just agree. As my comrades and I watched TV reports from Serbia, tears came to our eyes. We realized what a chance for this country we had lost."

For Berikian, the two situations were very similar:

"The parallels are clear. The same scenario had been written here [by the authorities.] We should have gone on to the end in an organized fashion, no matter what might confront us. I have no doubts that the army and police would have similarly taken the people's side had we been more organized."

Official results of the presidential elections held in Armenia on September 21, 1996 gave victory to the incumbent Ter-Petrossian, with just over 50 percent of the vote.

Manukian, his main challenger and then leader of the opposition alliance, had 43 percent, according to Armenia's Central Election Commission. The opposition cried foul, insisting that Manukian had in fact polled enough votes to win outright.

Four days after the elections, tens of thousands of opposition supporters marched to the parliament building in Yerevan -- which at the time housed the election commission -- to demand that the ballots be recounted. As negotiations between opposition leaders and election officials dragged on, the crowd broke into the building. The speaker of the parliament and his deputy were severely beaten in an outburst of popular anger.

The violence provided a suitable pretext for Ter-Petrossian to order troops into the streets of the Armenian capital. Dozens of opposition activists, including the AZhM's Berikian, were arrested. A handful of opposition deputies were forcibly brought into the parliament chamber the next day to face verbal and physical abuse from their more numerous pro-government colleagues. The scene was broadcast live by state television.

Meanwhile, a monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, also questioned the official results of the polls, adding more weight to the opposition's case. Two years later, the credibility of vote-fraud allegations was further boosted when Armenia's former interior minister, Vano Siradeghian, a key player in the crackdown on the opposition, effectively admitted that the results of the 1996 elections had been rigged.

But Ter-Petrossian's victory proved short-lived. In February 1998, he was forced to step down by the same security ministers who had helped him crush the opposition revolt.

Some political analysts believe the 1996 election debacle ushered Armenia into a new era in which its security apparatus now plays the dominant role in political life. Berikian says political progress in the country was pushed back at least 10 years.

In 1998, after Ter-Petrossian's resignation, new presidential elections brought current President Robert Kocharian to power. That vote was also marred by fraud and irregularities, with Western monitors again concluding that they fell short of OSCE standards.

The popular overthrow of Milosevic last week had Armenian analysts asking if the same scenario could have enacted in the south Caucasian nation four years ago. Some argue Manukian made a fatal mistake during the night of September 25 to 26, when he told the protesters to go home and return to the streets in the morning. With arrests overnight and tanks rolling into the city, that became impossible.

But also important was the fact that Western powers did not quickly recognize the opposition victory in Armenia, as they did in Yugoslavia. Semeon Baghdasarian, another AZhM leader, says that had there been Western recognition, "those who ordered the army into the streets would have thought twice before taking such actions."

The way hundreds of thousands of Serbs dealt with the Milosevic regime last week also raises the question of how legitimate is the use of force against state institutions. Western leaders referred to the violent protests in Belgrade as an "uprising." Armenia's former leadership still views the 1996 storming of the parliament as an attempted coup d'etat.