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Armenia: Sarkisian Sworn In As President

Relatives of a protester killed during clashes surrounding the presidential election lay flowers in his memory in Yerevan (AFP) Serzh Sarkisian promised to uphold the Armenian Constitution and respect human rights as he was sworn in as the country's new president.

"Taking the post of president," he said, "I swear to act in accordance with the constitution; to respect the human rights and freedoms of citizens; to guarantee the independence, territorial integrity and security of the republic -- in glory of the Republic of Armenia and for the prosperity of the people of the Republic of Armenia."

The former prime minister made the pledges before a special parliamentary session held near the scene of large-scale protests that followed his February election victory. His inauguration took place inside the Yerevan Opera House, which stands adjacent to the square where the monthlong protests came to a violent conclusion 40 days ago.

In the course of the ceremony, the new president also addressed the controversy surrounding his election, promising to reconcile with his opponents.

"This ceremony takes place about a month after painful events, which inflicted wounds that are still fresh," he said. "Today, I urge everybody to look forward, together, to seek and find the way for reconciliation, development, and future of Armenia."

Eight People Killed

On March 1, police moved in to break up rallies staged on Freedom Square by opposition supporters who believed Sarkisian's victory was rigged. Eight people, including one police officer, died in the violent clashes that ensued, leading the authorities to impose a 20-day state of emergency.

As the April 9 inauguration ceremonies were taking place, hundreds of supporters of the man who finished second to Sarkisian in the February 19 poll, Levon Ter-Petrossian, gathered in the capital to lay flowers in memory of those killed. Police forces watched from afar, but some arguments between protesters and police forces were reported.

Aram Abramian, political analyst and the editor in chief of the Armenian newspaper "Aravot," says the opposition harbors significant animosity over the violence.

"There is an active group, among the youth especially, who attended Ter-Petrossian's rallies for 10 days in a row after the elections -- well, they are still significantly electrified," Abramian says. "But I would not say that the whole society lives only with this memory. The society is preoccupied with its everyday concerns."

Sarkisian's ascent to the presidency led to widespread speculation that his predecessor, Robert Kocharian, might take over Sarkisian's post as prime minister. The two men are leaders of the so-called Karabakh clan, which critics claim is given preferential treatment within government circles.

Both Sarkisian and Kocharian are from Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-controlled and -populated exclave within Azerbaijan over which Baku and Yerevan fought a war from 1988-94. But Sarkisian's position as prime minister is now expected to be filled by Armenia's Central Bank chief, 48-year-old Tigran Sarkisian, who is of no relation to the new president.

Not Another 'Karabakhian'

On April 8, Tigran Sarkisian's candidacy for the vacant post was backed by the country's ruling coalition, led by the new president's Republican Party.

According to Abramian, the appointment of Tigran Sarkisian -- who is not from Nagorno-Karabakh -- could serve to distance the new president from allegations that he will pad his administration with officials from the region.

"I think this factor -- that [Tigran Sarkisian] is not from Karabakh -- did influence Serzh Sarkisian's choice," Abramian says. "However, in reality, this is not the most important aspect. What's important is the policies that he will implement. But the fact that on a day-to-day level people will not say, 'Look, another Karabakhian was appointed' -- perhaps this really matters."

Serzh Sarkisian's fledgling presidency faces a stern test in repairing the Armenian government's image both at home and abroad. Delegations from 58 countries and 12 international organizations reportedly took part in the ceremonies, but criticism over the violence that marred the postelection rallies continues to linger.

Western governments have stopped short of targeting Kocharian and Sarkisian specifically, saying that both the ruling authorities and Ter-Petrossian had a hand in the violence. But watchdog organizations have been less forgiving of the government's actions.

In the run-up to Sarkisian's inauguration, the New York-based Human Rights Watch and the Brussels-based International Crisis Group released reports reiterating their condemnation of the violence, as well as recently passed restrictions on public demonstrations.

'Dramatic Steps' Needed

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza said in an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service on April 9 that "dramatic steps" are needed to restore a sense of confidence that the country is moving in the right direction.

"What happened on March 1 is unprecedented in the latest and, of course, permanent phase of an independent Armenia -- or in the South Caucasus," he said. "After an election, despite all of the turbulence in Georgia and Azerbaijan and Armenia over the course of the last 18 years, or 17 years, something like this has never happened, with people being killed -- at least eight people killed."

Bryza said liberties such as freedom of the media and assembly should be restored, "with the understanding that all such freedoms are a two-way street." He also called on the authorities to release opposition figures who were arrested before and during the state of emergency that was declared after the violence.

The European Union has kept a low profile on Armenia since the bloc's Slovenian presidency issued a statement on March 12 demanding an independent inquiry into the violence and asking all political parties to engage in dialogue.

However, one EU diplomat told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that the fact that EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana put off sending a congratulatory letter to Sarkisian until this week was intended to convey the bloc's disapproval of the government's resort to violence.

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