Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Armenia: Top Challenge Now is Repairing the Rift

During a memorial service for victims of the March 1 events, Karekin II, the spiritual leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, touched upon the dilemma that now confronts Armenia: Stability in the country may come at the cost of much-needed unity.

“There is no greater goal in our national life than the solidarity of our people, the tranquility of their lives, the stability of our country and the security of our homeland,” the official Armenpress news agency quoted Karekin II as saying March 2. “It pains us that we were unable to successfully transmit this awareness to our people, and to restrain them from unwise actions.”

Karekin II did not specifically assign blame for the March 1 events in Yerevan, in which efforts by security troops to disperse opposition protesters escalated into an armed clash that left at least eight dead. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Experts outside of Armenia, where state of emergency regulations are limiting the flow of information, believe that President Robert Kocharian’s administration and opposition backers of presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian share responsibility for letting what was, at its core, a political squabble get out of hand. The permanent rally in central Yerevan that sparked the tragic chain of events was convened to protest vote-rigging in the February 19 presidential election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The challenge facing the country’s political establishment now is trying to repair the damage done to national cohesion. A unified sense of purpose in the post-Soviet era has enabled Armenia to withstand adverse geopolitical conditions, namely the presence of two antagonistic states on its borders, Turkey and Azerbaijan. The strong sense of cohesion has also helped Armenia deal with the economic isolation arising out of its tense relations with its neighbors. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The extent to which Armenia’s social unity has been damaged by the March 1 events cannot yet be fully determined. But initial indicators suggest that the gulf that opened on March 1 cannot be quickly bridged.

Recognizing the potential danger of prolonged domestic instability in Armenia, European and American diplomats have quickly descended upon Yerevan, all of them repeating essentially the same message: political dialogue is needed to bring about a return of lasting domestic stability. Armenian authorities, however, seem more interested in punishing their political adversaries than in reconciling with them. While administration officials voice a desire for political talks, their actions indicate that they are in no mood for a compromise. Ter-Petrosian, meanwhile, is similarly in no mood for cooperation.

Following talks with the European Union’s South Caucasus envoy Peter Semneby, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, the officially declared winner of the February 19 presidential vote, said the administration was prepared for an “open, straightforward and honest discussion.” According to a report by the Russian Itar-Tass news agency, Sarkisian added that authorities were “ready to cooperate with all those who want Armenia to develop.”

It would seem, however, that the Kocharian-Sarkisian team does not believe Ter-Petrosian and his supporters meet the criteria for dialogue. During discussions with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s diplomatic troubleshooter, Heikki Talvitie, President Kocharian denied that the March 1 events had any connection to politics, but instead was a purely criminal matter. He thus indicated that he did not feel a need to discuss ways to overcome the March 1 tragedy with Ter-Petrosian.

“Legal issues must be solved within the legal framework, and all masterminds of the unrest and unlawful actions will be called to account,” Kocharian told Talvitie, according to a report distributed by Armenpress.

To reinforce Kocharian’s apparent determination to deflect any blame over his administration’s handling of events, as of March 4 police had arrested at least 30 opposition activists on charges of inciting the violence, the Prosecutor-General’s office announced in a statement. In addition, Armenpress reported, parliament, acting on a request issued by the prosecutor-general, moved to strip four MPs of their legislative immunity. The MPs – Hakob Hakobian, Myasnik Malkhasian, Sasoon Mikaelian and Khachatur Sukiasian – are all accused of helping to stoke the March 1 violence.

Prosecutor General Agvan Ovsepian alleged at a March 4 news conference that Ter-Petrosian and his supporters conspired to overthrow the government by force. “In their speeches, the protest organizers said one thing, but internally, they gave different instructions: to have clubs, iron sticks, firearms," Ovsepian alleged.

Opposition activists and witnesses assert that authorities initially tried to plant evidence, especially weapons, on protesters, in order to justify the initial, pre-dawn attempt to disperse the permanent rally in central Yerevan. In addition, witnesses reported, before the March 1 restrictions on the dissemination of information went into effect, that security forces opened fire on opposition protesters.

Ter-Petrosian, like his political opponents, shows little interest in listening to the international drumbeat for dialogue. He has insisted that, as soon as state-of-emergency limitations are lifted, he will organize fresh protests against the administration’s actions and the election results. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

“Even if Serzh Sarkisian miraculously becomes president, I can’t imagine how that president will rule these people,” Ter-Petrosian said March 2. “We will come out. Let them beat us again. Let them arrest us again.”

Given the mutual animosity between administration and opposition, Talvitie, the OSCE diplomat, could only lament that substantive discussions between “Ter-Petrosian and the government at the moment is not possible.”

“But let’s not exclude it from the future,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty quoted an optimistic Talvitie as saying.

While many US and European leaders have been cautious in their assessment of Armenian developments, Terry Davis, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, has offered pointed criticism of the Kocharian administration’s tactics. “I hope that the state of emergency will be lifted very soon,” Davis said in a March 3 statement. “Meanwhile, I call on the authorities to review the justification for the restrictions imposed – especially on media, political parties and non-governmental organizations. These restrictions are an obstacle to political dialogue, which is the only way to find a political solution to the present situation.”