Wednesday, March 6, 2008

Armenia: Criticism of Kocharian Administration Bubbles to Surface

The shockwaves created by the March 1 events in Yerevan are being felt beyond Armenia’s borders, heightening concern about a regional war. Meanwhile, criticism of President Robert Kocharian’s handling of the crisis is starting to surface.

The international community reacted with alarm to reports of a large-scale clash between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops along the so-called Contact Line. The March 4-5 fighting was some of the fiercest since the two sides agreed to a ceasefire agreement that halted fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory.

On March 5, US, European and Russian diplomats threw their collective weight behind calls for an immediate cessation of the fighting. “We believe there is no military solution to the conflict and further escalation will endanger regional stability,” US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Anne Derse told journalists in Baku on March 6. “These tragic events once again show that the sides need to work with the OSCE Minsk Group to seek a peaceful solution.”

Under heavy international pressure, both Armenian and Azerbaijani officials pledged to respect the ceasefire, and the Contact Line was quiet on March 6. Both sides blamed the other of making an armed provocation. “It [the ceasefire violation] was sanctioned by Armenian authorities to draw international attention away from tense post-election political situation in Yerevan,” Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov told journalists in Baku. “They [Armenian authorities] need such provocations to draw attention from internal problems.” Earlier, Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian accused Azerbaijani forces of making a “serious infringement” on Armenian military positions.

Efforts to reach a Minsk Group-brokered peace settlement to the Karabakh conflict have been stalemated for years. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In Baku on March 5, Matthew Bryza, a US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, as well as the American co-chair of the Minsk Group, admitted that the flare-up in fighting would set back the Karabakh peace process.

But many people now are not thinking so much about a peace process, as they are about the possibility of a resumption of warfare in the region. In the midst of a military buildup funded by energy-export profits, Azerbaijani leaders have indulged in belligerent language in recent months, hinting that they are readily contemplating a renewed military effort to settle the Karabakh dispute. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Azerbaijani officials have been chagrined by the relative silence of the United States, European Union, along with related multilateral organizations, especially the OSCE, over Kocharian’s handling of the domestic political crisis in Yerevan. The feeling among some analysts in Baku, as well as opposition supporters in Yerevan, is that Western reticence over the Armenian government’s handling of the February 19 election was a contributing factor in the Kocharian administration’s use of deadly force on March 1.

In an op-ed published by The Washington Post on March 5, Armenian presidential candidate and opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian decried the West for having a double standard, in which it criticizes political abuses elsewhere in the CIS, but turns a blind eye toward Yerevan.

“What do the people of Armenia expect from the West, and the United States in particular? At the very least, we expect a strong and unequivocal condemnation of the violence that occurred March 1 and recognition that the government, not the opposition, bears responsibility,” Ter-Petrosian wrote. “If these steps are not taken, Armenians will draw two very undesirable conclusions: that peaceful and lawful means of political struggle are ineffective and pointless, and that the West cares about democracy only when it is politically expedient to do so. The West must do everything possible to dissuade Armenia's citizens from reaching those conclusions.”

If Western governments and multilateral organizations adopt a similarly tentative line on the Karabakh question, the situation could quickly explode, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev warned. In comments made while he was on a tour of front-line areas involved in the March 4-5 fighting, Abiyev called for an intensified international response. “Otherwise, a worse scenario may unfold,” he said.

In Yerevan, the government, employing emergency powers, has gone to great lengths to control information about the March 1 events. With independent news outlets muzzled, Kocharian and others have tried to frame the March 1 events as a criminal act unconnected to politics. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Despite the state of emergency, alternative views are coming to light. On March 4, the Russian news agency Regnum distributed a statement issued the same day by Armenia’s ombudsman, Armen Arutiunian, who seemed to place most of the blame for the March 1 events on the Kocharian administration.

Arutiunian disputed the official version of events, under which security forces took action to contain looting and disorderly behavior by opposition supporters. “The March 1 events started with the forcible dispersion of a peaceful protest at Liberty Square,” Arutiunian stated.

Beyond the immediate dissatisfaction arising out of the controversial February 19 presidential election, Arutiunian said there were several underlying causes for the tragedy, many of them linked to the arbitrary behavior of the Kocharian administration. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. “The situation was caused by the harsh system of government, the hyper-concentration of power, a nominal system of checks and balances, social and economic polarization, the fusion of [big] business and government, the absence of public oversight of government, and a lack of civil liberties.,” Arutiunian’s statement said.

Arutiunuian also questions the government’s ability to conduct an impartial investigation into the events. He noted that authorities have already rounded up at least 30 opposition activists on charges of inciting violence. “Why is the question of possible violations by law enforcement agents and the prosecution of [potential] violators not being discussed?”

Kocharian reacted bitterly to Arutiunian’s assessment. He publicly regretted Arutunian’s selection as ombudsman, describing it as one of his worst political appointments. He also tacitly accused the ombudsman of treasonous behavior. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Kocharian said at a March 5 news conference. According to a report distributed by the Moscow-based Regnum news agency, Kocharian also fumed that as an Armenian citizen, Arutiunian should remember that he works “for Armenia, and not for Strasbourg,” where the European Court of Human Rights is located.

Some CIS commentators described the March 1 events in Yerevan as the end of an era of hope generated by the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. While the democratization process in the CIS lost momentum long ago, the use of force by Armenian officials to squelch opposition suggest that authoritarianism is ascendant all across the region. “The Nagorno-Karabakh warlord Kocharian proved to be far harsher than the ‘Red Director’ [Leonid] Kuchma,” wrote Ukrainian commentator Sergei Klimovich said in a March 3 analysis posted on the news website. Klimovich was referring to the Orange Revolution of 2004 in Ukraine and then-president Kuchma’s reluctance to use force in a situation similar to that just faced by Kocharian, in which a rigged election generated a large-scale, permanent protest.

The general US and European silence on the Armenian government’s handling of the presidential election and its aftermath has not escaped the attention of those CIS states with a Western-orientation, Klimovich said. To a certain extent, the West in general, and the OSCE and Council of Europe in particular, discredited itself with faulty election assessments that deemed the vote generally free-and-fair, when it, in fact, contained serious flaws and irregularities, he suggested. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. “The Armenian presidential election was one of those rare instances when the opinions of European and CIS [i.e. Russian] monitors coincided, and not in favor of the opposition,” he wrote.

US diplomats have provided no indication that they will press either Kocharian or the president-elect Serzh Sarkisian for an honest accounting of the March 1 events, or for adjustments that could promote reconciliation and the stabilization of the domestic political environment. Bryza, the deputy assistant secretary of state, arrived in Yerevan on March 6 and appeared to offer a strong endorsement for incumbent authorities. “You are a special leader,” the official Armenpress news agency quoted Bryza as telling Sarkisian during a meeting. “You have the vision and approaches which we want to see for the implementation of joint programs. We want you and Armenia to succeed.”

In sharp contrast to the US diplomatic stance, Canada on March 5 issued a broad critique of the Kocharian administration’s practices. “It is a democratic right of people everywhere to gather and express their views, as long as it is done in a peaceful manner,” Canadian Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier said in a statement, referring to the Yerevan election protest. “We urge the government of Armenia to respect these fundamental freedoms by lifting the state of emergency as soon as possible.”

Editor's Note: Rovshan Ismayilov provided reporting for this story from Baku.