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Caucasus Report: March 7, 2008

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

By RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller
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."

Analysis: Daghestan Adopts New Program On Ethnic Relations

By RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller
On February 28, Daghestan's parliament adopted in the final reading a draft law approving a new Complex Program for the Development of Nationality Relations for the period 2007-2010, reported. The draft was first unveiled for public discussion early last year, since when it has been the subject of protracted heated discussions that delayed its final approval. But even in its final form, it is unlikely to assuage the grievances of the republic's smaller ethnic groups, who resent the dominance of the Avars (the largest ethnic group), but are equally disposed to quarrel among themselves over scarce resources and jobs.

Daghestan is by far the most ethnically diverse of Russia's federation subjects, being home to over 120 ethnic groups of whom no fewer than 14 are ranked as titular nationalities. They are the Avars (who in 2002 constituted 29.4 percent of the total 2.57 million population), Dargins (16.5 percent), Kumyks (14.2 percent), Lezgins (13.1 percent), Laks (5.4 percent), Russians (4.7 percent), Azeris (4.3 percent), Tabasarans (4.3 percent) Chechens (3.4 percent), Nogais (1.5 percent), Rutuls (0.9 percent), Aguls (0.9 percent), Tsakhurs (0.3 percent), and Tats.

In an attempt to ensure the broadest possible representation of those ethnic groups in government, and to preclude the concentration of political power in the hands of one single ethnic group, the post-Soviet constitution adopted in 1993 provided for a collective presidency in the form of the State Council. That body comprises 14 members, one from each of the 14 titular nationalities, and was initially elected by the 242-member Constitutional Assembly. When the State Council was first elected in 1994, it was intended that the chairmanship should rotate among the 14 members. Magomedali Magomedov, a Dargin and the last Soviet-era chairman of the Daghestan Oblast Soviet, was duly elected to that post in 1994. But the constitution was subsequently amended in March 1998, several months before the expiry of his first term, to abolish the article stipulating that a representative of one and the same ethnic group should not serve two consecutive terms, and Magomedov was reelected. At the same time, to counter the influence of the Dargins in the person of Magomedov, a Kumyk, Khizri Shikhsaidov, was named prime minister and an Avar, Mukhu Aliyev, parliament speaker. Shikhsaidov resigned in 2004, but another Kumyk, Atay Aliyev, was named his successor.

Magomedov was elected for a third term in June 2002, but stepped down in February 2006, whereupon Russian President Vladimr Putin proposed parliament speaker Aliyev to succeed him. (By that time, the State Council had been abolished and replaced by the post of president.) To preserve the ethnic balance, Magomedov's son Magomedsalam was named parliament speaker to succeed Aliyev; the younger Magomedov was replaced one year later by another Dargin, Izberbash Mayor Magomed Suleymanov, following the election of a new republican parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2007). The post of prime minister went again to a Kumyk, Shamil Zaynalov.

One of Mukhu Aliyev's first moves as president was to decree the drafting of the new Complex Program, a preliminary version of which was submitted to the government in late 2006. It was subsequently amended and shortened to comprise 42 points, and the republic's parliament approved it in the first reading in May 2007, but at the same time called for additional changes to exclude duplication of effort among various different state agencies and to provide for the maximum clarity with regard to responsibility for, and financing of, specific tasks.

In September 2007, parliament held special hearings devoted to the revised program that described as "stormy." Although all the speakers reportedly agreed that the program was badly needed, almost all found fault with it on various grounds. Those various objections, together with an overview of the differing approaches to nationality relations espoused by various political groups in Daghestan, were summarized in an article by Nationalities Minister Eduard Urazayev that was posted on one month later.

Urazayev enumerated the primary objectives of the program, which are promoting the use of the languages and cultures of the various ethnic groups, together with the role of Russian as lingua franca; strengthening unity among the various ethnic groups; and addressing the problems and grievances of those ethnic groups that were repressed under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. While efforts to prevent the disappearance of the languages and cultures of the smaller ethnic groups are laudable, the proposal to "strengthen unity," a euphemism for encouraging the development of a supra-ethnic sense of Daghestani identity, is chillingly reminiscent of the 1980s campaign to bring the various nations of the USSR closer together in a bid to create a supra-national Soviet identity. The program's second major flaw is that it does not address the most acute and urgent problems in relations between the ethnic groups: resentment of the Avars as exercising a virtual monopoly over top political and economic posts, and every-day competition between the smaller ethnic groups for jobs, land and resources.

Those issues were, however, raised during the September parliament hearings, according to Urazayev. Urazayev made the point that the abolition in 2001 of the federal Nationalities Ministry and the division of its responsibilities between other ministries resulted in the primary responsibility for inter-ethnic relations devolving on to the governments of individual federation subjects. The need to bring Daghestan's legislation into line with federal law created additional problems, given that it precluded guaranteeing parliamentary representation for representatives of the 14 titular nationalities.

Urazayev said the issue of equitable representation within the organs of state power for representatives of all 14 titular ethnic groups was one of the most hotly debated, with some speakers insisting it be continued while others argued in favor of abandoning it as "archaic" and a barrier to selecting the most competent applicant for any given post. He said that "no one is insisting that specific posts should be reserved for a specific nationality." He referred in that context to President Aliyev's insistence that a candidate's moral and professional qualities, not his ethnicity, should be the decisive factor. But those arguments have failed to win over some skeptics who remain convinced that since Aliyev's appointment as president, Avars have landed a disproportionately large number of leading posts, including some previously held by Kumyks and Lezgins. Beginning last year, official announcements of new appointments no longer specify to which ethnic group the appointee belongs.

Urazayev went on to warn against inferring that what he termed "petty everyday disputes" were ethnically motivated simply because the persons involved belong to different ethnic groups. But it is probably such disputes, especially over land, resources and jobs, that reflect most accurately the level and intensity of mistrust and enmity between the various smaller ethnic groups. In its issue for April 27, 2007, the independent weekly "Chernovik" listed several territorial disputes involving competing claims by two rival ethnic groups. They included a long-standing quarrel between the Kumyk and Dargin communities in Karabudakhkent Raion (which lies directly south of Makhachkala on the Caspian Sea coast) that culminated in a demand by the Dargins to divide the raion into two to give them a separate raion -- Gubden --of their own.

A second example cited by "Chernovik" was the southern Derbent Raion, where the local authorities' pro-Azerbaijani sympathies and concomitant discrimination against the Tabasarans and Lezgins (the second and third largest ethnic groups) reportedly resulted in demands by the Lezgins to carve out their "own" raion in the south. (According to Urazayev, some militant Lezgins have even demanded the federalization of the entire republic as the sole means of guaranteeing national self-determination for the various ethnic groups. That proposal is, however, unrealistic insofar as most ethnic groups are scattered randomly, rather than living compactly in a single region.)

"Chernovik" suggested that in many cases, the catalyst for demands for the partitioning of a raion between two feuding ethnic groups was a deliberate attempt by the senior local government official to destabilize the situation simply in order to demonstrate to the republic's leadership that he is the sole person capable of keeping the lid on nascent tensions. The paper observed that local officials tend to resort to that tactic when they incur criticism from the government, or in order to distract attention from their personal involvement in embezzlement of government funds or their unfair distribution of land to co-ethnics. In that context, the paper affirmed its support for the maximum devolution of power to the village level as reflected in President Aliyev's proposal that village heads be elected, rather than appointed by the raion head, to whom they would serve as a more effective counter-weight. Individual villages tend to be populated by members of a single ethnic group.

But while Aliyev appears to support increasing the autonomy of individual villages, he remains suspicious of any move that could strengthen the collective authority of any ethnic group. During a November 2007 visit to Magaramkent Raion, which is located on the border with Azerbaijan, Aliyev stressed the need to "nip in the bud" any efforts to establish either religious administrations or councils of elders on a monoethnic basis.