Sunday, March 2, 2008
Armenia: Uneasy Quiet Settles over Yerevan, Residents in Shock over Use of Force by Kocharian Administration

Troops on March 2 began enforcing a state of emergency in the Armenian capital Yerevan, where the streets and squares in the center city were largely deserted of people, yet still strewn with the detritus of the previous day’s violent confrontation. At least eight people died in the melee involving security forces and opposition protesters.

Some witnesses said the confrontation culminated with security forces opening fire on demonstrators. Gunfire could be heard for over a half-hour echoing throughout the center of the city. Officials put the death toll at eight, but witnesses said the final count was probably much higher. All of those killed, according to police, died from gunshots.

The government likewise maintains that roughly 130 people suffered wounds, but a doctor at one hospital said that so many wounded were brought in so fast, that hospital staff had to place many of the injured on the floor and in corridors. This would suggest that the number of casualties was far higher than the official count. Authorities said an official inquiry was underway into the circumstances that led to the violence. Speaking on state television, Health Minister Arutyun Kushkyan said over half of those wounded were members of security forces.

The morning after, many Yerevan residents reported feeling in a state of shock. Meanwhile, troops in full battle gear and armored vehicles patrolled the city. Amid the March 1 confrontation, widespread looting occurred. Many stores and supermarkets along one of Yerevan’s main shopping avenues, Mashtots, were emptied of goods.

Under the state of emergency, imposed late on March 1 by President Robert Kocharian to quell anti-government protests, the government is tightly controlling the dissemination of information. Armenian news outlets face prosecution if they distribute news reports that do not come from official sources.

The state of emergency succeeded in putting an end to the protests carried out by supporters of presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petroisian, who insists that the government rigged the February 19 vote to ensure victory for its chosen candidate, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Ter-Petrosian was kept under house arrest on March 1, but restrictions were lifted late at night. He reportedly urged his supporters to return to their homes and not engage in violence.

Earlier, representatives of Ter-Petrosian blamed authorities for igniting the tragedy, pointing to security forces’ use of violent tactics to disperse what had been to that point a peaceful protest during the early morning hours of March 1. After initially being dispersed, opposition protesters regrouped and resisted the security troops’ use of force with force of their own. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Kocharian, meanwhile, assailed Ter-Petrosian for refusing to recognize his defeat in the presidential balloting, which, despite an initial endorsement from international monitors, was found to have major flaws that could have influenced the outcome. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Ter-Petrosian, along “with a group of adventure-seekers surrounding him, without acknowledging the reality of their defeat, took to illegal actions,” Kocharian insisted, adding that the protests against the election results had caused the “disruption of [Armenia’s] international prestige.”  

“As the guarantor of the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia, I will not allow anyone to endanger the constitutional order of our state,” Kocharian said.

The state of emergency will be in effect for at least 20 days. During that time, many basic civil liberties, including the right of peaceful assembly, are suspended. Police will also enjoy expanded powers of search and seizure, and officials will be able to control the flow of information.