Monday, March 3, 2008

Armenia: Is a Government Cover-Up In Progress?
03/03/08

In the center of the Armenian capital Yerevan, the debris left by the March 1 violent clash between opposition protesters and security forces is being carted away. Outside of the country, meanwhile, political analysts and human rights activists are wondering whether Robert Kocharian’s administration is also striving to cleanse the narrative of the March 1 events. With the government controlling all channels of information, it is difficult to determine the extent of the brutality. However, the initial impression of some observers is that state security forces used excessive force.

Officially, the death toll from the March 1 confrontation is eight. However, eyewitness accounts provided before the imposition of government restrictions on the dissemination of news from non-official sources suggest that the body count is actually much higher. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

“It’s hard to say if there’s a cover-up. … What’s evident is the need for a full, independent investigation,” said Rachel Denber, the deputy director of HRW’s Europe and Central Asia division.

Denber declined to comment on whether Human Rights Watch deemed the government’s official death toll of eight as reliable, or whether the number of dead was probably higher. She would only describe the March 1 events as a “very chaotic and violent situation.” Denber added that Armenia, as a member of the Council of Europe, was “obligated” to abide by internationally recognized standards for the investigation of government actions.

In written statements released March 2, HRW questioned whether the use of force by Armenian security troops on March 1 was disproportionate to the threat to public order. “Armenian police used excessive force and violence to disperse demonstrators protesting peacefully against recent election results,” said one HRW statement.

“A political crisis doesn’t give the government carte blanche in how it responds to demonstrators,” the statement went on to quote Holly Cartner, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director as saying.

Under the state of emergency imposed by the Kocharian administration, the ability to get at the facts is greatly impaired. It is illegal for Armenian journalists and mass media outlets to disseminate any information, other than that coming from official sources. Likewise, a foreign correspondent reportedly faces immediate expulsion from the country, if he or she is deemed to have violated “the regime of the state of emergency.”

State of emergency regulations also provide for the suspension of non-governmental organization activities that “impede the elimination of circumstances causing the emergency situation.”

At least one Armenian web news outlet, A1+, is being blocked. Others are complying with the government restrictions under protest.

“We fully support all legitimate efforts to stabilize conditions following the tragic events of March 1,” said a statement posted on the news website ArmeniaNow.

“We do not accept that silencing non-state media is a legitimate means of maintaining order,” the statement continued. “Rather, we fear that the restrictions, even for the short period announced, could lead to the sort of propagandized media that re-unites Armenia with its Soviet past, while doing nothing to resolve the problems it faces in the present.”

Government news communiqués “present only a partial picture of present conditions,” the ArmeniaNow statement added.

Amid the news vacuum, international reaction to the March 1 events has been circumspect, tending to avoid addressing directly the Kocharian administration’s tactics. Governments and multilateral organizations thus far have limited their comments to calls for restraint. OSCE chairman-in-office Ilka Kanerva, for example, called for Kocharian and opposition to engage in dialogue. An OSCE diplomatic trouble-shooter, Heikki Talvitie, traveled to Yerevan on March 2 to try to hasten the reconciliation process.

Political divisions arising out of the controversial February 19 presidential election were the root cause of the March 1 confrontation. Levon Ter-Petrosian, the second place finisher, has asserted that the electoral process featured widespread fraud, in order to ensure that the government’s favored candidate, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, would emerge as the winner. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Amid the use of force against anti-government protesters, authorities appeared to place Ter-Petrosian under house arrest, although administration officials portrayed him as being under state protection. The restrictions on Ter-Petrosian’s freedom of movement drew criticism from Terry Davis, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, who indicated that the limitations placed on the opposition leader constituted arbitrary action on the government’s part.

Some of the most vocal criticism of the government’s conduct has come from Armenia’s neighbors. In Georgia, where Mikhail Saakashvili’s administration and opposition parties have been, as in Armenia, wrangling over election results, comments on the Yerevan events seemed largely divided along partisan lines. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On March 2, Saakashvili discussed the situation with Kocharian, conveying “his support to the people of Armenia and its authorities,” the official Armenpress news agency quoted Viktor Soghomonian, an Armenian presidential aide, as saying. A statement issued March 3 by the opposition Republican Party of Georgia, however, assailed the Kocharian administration for resorting to force before “having exhausted resources for dialogue.” Other opposition parties in Georgia also denounced the Kocharian administration’s handling of events.

Officials in Azerbaijan, which is still grappling with Armenia over the fate of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, used the tumult in Yerevan as an opportunity to try to score public relations points. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. For example, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev attributed the outbreak of violence in Yerevan to “the ill-considered policies of the [Armenian] government.”

In Yerevan, regular army troops are now charged with maintaining public order. Late on March 2, the armed forces chief, Col. Gen. Seyran Ohanian, cautioned in a televised address that the terms of the state of emergency would be strictly enforced. In particular, he warned that troops would respond quickly and forcefully to the “slightest” sign of any non-sanctioned public gathering. “I am asking you to refrain from attempting to assemble in Yerevan even in small groups,” said Ohanian.