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On Anniversary Of Postelection Violence In Armenia, EU Pushes For Dialogue

Supporters of then-presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian making a human chain on March 1, 2008, to protest the election results.
Supporters of then-presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian making a human chain on March 1, 2008, to protest the election results.
One year after the violent crackdown by Armenian police and security against supporters of defeated presidential candidate and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian in Yerevan, the political situation in Armenia remains polarized but, at least on the surface, stable.

Ter-Petrossian's Armenian National Congress (HAK) has scheduled a demonstration in Yerevan on March 1 to commemorate the anniversary of the violence, which caused 10 deaths. But it is not clear whether he can parlay the support he still enjoys among the electorate into a new challenge to the entrenched leadership of President Serzh Sarkisian. In a bid to prevent the March 1 commemoration spiraling into a new confrontation, EU special envoy Ambassador Peter Semneby has met separately two times in the past 10 days with both Sarkisian and Ter-Petrossian.

Outgoing President Robert Kocharian responded to the Yerevan violence last year by imposing a state of emergency, which was lifted after three weeks, and partial media censorship. In mid-March, the parliament amended the law on public gatherings to impose restrictions on demonstrations.

President-elect Sarkisian, for his part, took a more conciliatory approach. On February 26, days before the violence, he appealed to his defeated rivals to cooperate, and even join a coalition government. Former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian (Orinats Yerkir), who according to the official returns placed third after Ter-Petrossian, and Vahan Hovannisian (Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun) accepted that offer. Baghdasarian was named National Security Council secretary, and he and Sarkisian co-authored an op-ed that appeared in the "Washington Post" on March 17 appealing to "those who are still promoting instability on the streets to join us in political dialogue and to help us guide our country towards prosperity."

Unanswered Questions

Ter-Petrossian, however, has consistently said he will agree to Sarkisian's proposed dialogue only when all his supporters arrested in the wake of the March 1 violence -- there are estimated to be more than 100 of them -- are released. To date, at least 77 have been tried, with 40 receiving prison terms and 37 suspended sentences. Seven others, including three former parliamentarians and former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzoumanian, are currently on trial on charges of plotting a coup d'etat.

On May 2, in his first public address since the crackdown two months earlier, Ter-Petrossian told supporters in Yerevan that while he does not consider Sarkisian the legitimately elected president, he is ready to accept his invitation to dialogue provided that the authorities first comply with the demands contained in a resolution adopted on April 17 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). They include conducting an "independent, transparent, and credible inquiry" into the violence; the release of persons detained in the wake of those clashes "on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges"; and the immediate repeal of the legal amendments effectively banning opposition rallies.

Those amendments were finally rescinded in June, and Ter-Petrossian staged a series of rallies in Yerevan and Giumri during the summer and early fall that attracted thousands of people. But in mid-October, he unexpectedly announced a moratorium on further protests, saying that otherwise the opposition could inadvertently become "a tool in the hands of foreign forces" intent on coercing the Sarkisian leadership into sweeping unilateral concessions with regard to the Karabakh conflict.

Meanwhile, little progress has been made in clarifying the events that culminated in the March 1 violence. In June 2008, Sarkisian established an ad hoc parliament commission tasked with doing so, that was supposed to present its findings by mid-October. That deadline has been extended twice -- first until mid-February, ostensibly to enable the commission to incorporate the conclusions of a separate five-person fact-finding commission, and then earlier this week, until mid-September. To date, the commission has established that three of the deaths were caused by outdated tear-gas canisters fired into the crowd, but it was unable to identify which of four police officers armed with such canisters fired them or on whose orders.

Armenian human rights ombudsman Armen Harutiunian has publicly questioned that failure. "I don't believe that four officers used [tear-gas grenades] and three people died, and that it is impossible to clarify who is to blame," Harutiunian said.

Watching Closely

Speaking last fall to the "Financial Times," Harutiunian was even more outspoken, accusing the Armenian authorities of resorting to "the methods of 1937" -- an allusion to the Stalin purges -- and of tolerating political opposition "for decoration, to please the West." The authorities' tactic of playing for time and assuring human rights bodies such as the PACE of their sincere intent to comply with those organizations' demands but ultimately failing to deliver serves to substantiate Harutiunian's argument.

The human rights violations resulting from the postelection crackdown have been documented and analyzed in depth in reports issued this week by Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department. But they are paralleled by an equally disturbing trend in foreign policy: the eclipse of the concept of complementarity or balance that was its hallmark during Kocharian's presidency, and a concomitant shift toward Russia. A recent analysis by the Yerevan-based Civilitas Foundation makes the point that by soliciting and accepting a $500 million loan from Russia and simultaneously signing on to the proposed CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization rapid reaction force, Armenia "is already perceived to be even deeper in the Russian camp," a trend that, if not reversed, could result in Armenia no longer being regarded as a serious player in the Caucasus by either Moscow or Washington.

Ter-Petrossian's aides have made clear that the planned March 1 rally will take place despite the municipal authorities' refusal to grant permission for it within the required time frame. The visits by Ambassador Semneby to Yerevan over the past week suggest that the EU is aware of the potential for new bloodshed and seeks at all costs not only to prevent it, but to bring about a rapprochement between Ter-Petrossian and the authorities.

"How that anniversary is going to be observed is also going to be an important indicator for how the political life will continue to develop in this country," Semneby said.

If Semneby's efforts prove inconclusive, Ter-Petrossian may be able to tap rising popular discontent in the coming months as the impact of the global financial crisis bites increasingly deeply. Independent parliament deputy Viktor Dallakian noted on February 25 that gas and energy tariffs are set to rise on April 1, and the government has proposed legislation raising customs duty on some imported food products, in order to protect local producers, Noyan Tapan reported. Dallakian warned that those price hikes could easily trigger public protests.

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