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Kocharian's Arrest: 'Velvet' Victory Or Vendetta?

Then-Armenian President Robert Kocharian speaks at a press conference in Yerevan on March 20, 2008, shortly after the violence in the capital and just before the inauguration of Serzh Sarkisian as the country's next president.

Robert Kocharian became the first former head of state of an ex-Soviet republic to be jailed after a court in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on July 27 ordered him to be held in pretrial detention.

Kocharian, who served as Armenian president from 1998-2008, has been charged with "overthrowing Armenia's constitutional order."

The charges stem from the end of his presidency, when he ordered security forces to break up a March 2008 demonstration protesting the results of the election to choose his successor.

Eight demonstrators and two police officers died in postelection violence in Yerevan in what was to become one of the bloodiest chapters of Armenia's post-Soviet history.

Kocharian has denied the charges and accused the country's new leadership of pursuing a "vendetta" against him.

Kocharian's is the most high-profile of a spate of arrests of prominent officials and others since Nikol Pashinian, a longtime anticorruption campaigner, became prime minister in May following what is often referred to as Armenia's "velvet revolution."

Pashinian was propelled into government on the back of mass street protests by Armenians -- many of them young -- who were fed up with the country's persistent corruption and poverty.

Now, Pashinian, in targeting an ex-president, has taken his pursuit of justice much further.

Pashinian Has Public Backing

Armenians, for the large part, appear to support Pashinian's actions so far. Many cheered the June 16 arrest of Manvel Grigorian after a raid on the retired general's palatial home turned up sports cars, tigers caged in a private zoo, and food rations sent by Armenian schoolchildren to Armenian soldiers fighting in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armed with the public's support for addressing past abuses of power, "it would be difficult for Pashinian not to touch March 2008," argues Laurence Broers, an associate fellow specializing in the South Caucasus at Chatham House in London.

"This is clearly a national trauma that needs to be addressed," Broers adds, noting the March 2008 unrest and the 1999 assassination of Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian, and six other lawmakers during a question-and-answer session in parliament rank as two of the most traumatic -- and unresolved -- events in Armenia's post-Soviet history.

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Many Armenians cheered the arrest of Kocharian, with some organizing street shashlik parties for neighbors and friends, explains Olesya Vartanyan, a South Caucasus analyst at the International Crisis Group.

"The general public sees Mr. Kocharian as a person responsible for accelerating the political stagnation that led to economic decline and social problems in the country," Vartanyan explains.

Is It Personal?

Pashinian and Kocharian have a history marked by a "special animus," explains Emil Sanamyan, a fellow at the Institute of Armenian Studies at the University of Southern California.

"Under Kocharian, Pashinian was taken to court a number of times for libel and, of course, after 2008 Kocharian's prosecutors charged Pashinian with the same charge he [has] now brought against Kocharian," explains Sanamyan.

Earlier this year, Pashinian, who was tried and convicted in 2010 of being an organizer of the 2008 protests, demanded the authorities investigate Kocharian's activities during the postelection violence.

Kocharian is the highest, but not only, former official charged over the 2008 unrest.

Then-President Robert Kocharian (right) and Defense Minister Mikael Harutiunian in November 2007
Then-President Robert Kocharian (right) and Defense Minister Mikael Harutiunian in November 2007

In early July, the SIS issued an arrest warrant for retired General Mikael Harutiunian, who served as defense minister during the 2008 unrest.

It charged Harutiunian with "illegally" using the armed forces against the protesters, saying that it also amounted to an "overthrow of constitutional order."

The 72-year-old remains in Russia after surgery earlier this year.

Yuri Khachaturov
Yuri Khachaturov

On the same day that Kocharian was taken into custody, Yuri Khachaturov, the Armenian chief of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), was charged, like Kocharian, with overthrowing Armenia's constitutional order related to the 2008 crackdown.

However, while Khachaturov was released after posting bail, amounting to some $10,000, Kocharian was ordered to remain in pretrial detention for two months.

Sanamyan says the differences in the way Kocharian and Khachaturov were treated suggest that the Pashinian government could be exerting influence.

Kremlin Concern?

The latest steps by Pashinian's government have attracted Moscow's attention.

Regarding the charges against Khachaturov, the official Russian TASS news agency quoted an unnamed "high-ranking diplomatic source in Moscow" as calling it "amazingly unprofessional."

"It is all the more strange to hear such statements given that the changes that occurred in Armenia did not reflect on the staff of the [Armenian] Foreign Ministry, which only recently submitted Khachaturov's candidacy to the CSTO," the source said, adding that Yerevan must formally "recall" the Armenian head of the alliance before asking the other members to replace him.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov weighed in on August 1, expressing "concern" over the arrest warrants.

"We informed the Armenian leaders about our concerns several times in the past few days," Lavrov was quoted as saying by TASS.

An opposition supporter stands alone in front of a wall of riot police in central Yerevan on March 1, 2008. Eight demonstrators and two police officers died in postelection violence in the capital.
An opposition supporter stands alone in front of a wall of riot police in central Yerevan on March 1, 2008. Eight demonstrators and two police officers died in postelection violence in the capital.

Russia has rarely made public statements critical of Armenia in the past. The two states have maintained close political, military, and economic ties ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Pashinian has repeatedly pledged to maintain the "special" relationship with Moscow since gaining power, although he criticized it when he was in the opposition.

Pashinian has denied interfering with the process, although Kocharian and his backers are not convinced.

Kocharian said he was called as a witness on July 26 to testify in the investigation into the aftermath of the 2008 election, but was quickly accused himself.

"I had come [to Yerevan] especially to give testimony. As soon as my status was changed, from the very beginning I decided not to give testimony," he told Yekir Media TV on July 26. "Because when I read that indictment, I was astonished. I was astonished at the zero level of that indictment from the legal point of view. One doesn't have to be a lawyer [to see this]."

Pashinian Overstepping Authority?

Whether Armenia's judiciary will be able to offer Kocharian a "credible legal process" is questionable, Broers says.

"The problem is that Armenia's justice sector has hardly had time to reform, and the danger is that any failure to uphold the highest standards could make the process look more like 'victor's justice' than a society coming to terms with its past," he says.

With Pashinian's popularity remaining high months after the country's "velvet revolution," few politicians or journalists dare question his actions, according to Vartanyan.

"The public is ready to support anything he is to say, and many local politicians and journalists complain it is difficult to raise critical questions, not to mention open protest statements," Vartanyan says.

A lawmaker from the Gagik Tsarukian faction -- which supports Pashinian -- submitted his resignation on July 31 after his public criticism of Kocharian's arrest landed him in political hot water.

Vazgen Manukian, Armenia's first post-Soviet prime minister, understands the public euphoria over the jailing of past leaders but has warned about the threat of too much power concentrated at the top.

Chatham House's Broers says that "Pashinian would do well to look at the lessons from neighboring Georgia, where successive United National Movement and Georgian Dream administrations tainted their wider agendas for political reform with dubious justice meted out to opponents and rivals."

The Kocharian case, Broers adds, can either help finally lay the ghost of March 2008 to rest or worsen divisions in Armenian society that could "come back to haunt Pashinian in the long-term."

Written by Tony Wesolowsky, with contributions from RFE/RL's Armenian Service
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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    RFE/RL's Armenian Service

    RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, operating out of a bureau in Yerevan, is a leading source of trusted reporting and technical innovation, reaching outsized audiences when developments demand authoritative, up-to-the-minute news most.