Friday, March 7, 2008

Armenia: Authorities Advance Conspiracy Theory

Armenian leaders are now casting the March 1 bloodshed in Yerevan as the product of an international conspiracy that sought the revolutionary overthrow of the existing political order.

Speaking at a March 7 news conference in Yerevan, Armenian Prosecutor-General Agvan Ovsepian asserted that “conspiratorial foreign forces” played a role in initiating the armed clashes between anti-government demonstrators and state security forces that left at least eight people dead. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. “Many factors related to the [March 1] events … provide a basis for such a conclusion,” Ovsepian added, according to an account published by the Russian daily Izvestiya.

Meanwhile, in an interview published by Rosssiiskaya Gazeta on March 7, Serzh Sarkisian -- Armenia’s prime minister, and, according to the official results of the February 19 election, outgoing President Robert Kocharian’s successor -- claimed that the anti-government protesters were intent on toppling the government. “It’s fair to say that an attempt to organize a ‘color revolution’ in Armenia really took place,” Sarkisian insisted.

Overall, 350 individuals have been interrogated in connection with a criminal probe being carried out by officials, Ovsepian said. So far, 53 individuals have been formally charged in connection with the March 1 violence. Another 16 have been detained and are under suspicion of wrongdoing, Ovsepian added.

Meanwhile, two members of parliament, Sasson Mikaelian and Khachatur Sukisian, have apparently gone into hiding, Ovsepian announced. The two, who are suspected of playing a role in organizing the anti-government protests, were recently stripped of their parliamentary immunity.

The government version is contradicted by eyewitness accounts of the March 1 events. Participants in the anti-government protests insist that security forces opened fire on a largely unarmed crowd. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, the preliminary findings of Armenia’s ombudsman have indicated that the Kocharian administration initiated the sequence of events that led directly to the bloodshed. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

State of emergency restrictions have hampered the ability of independent news organizations, both inside and outside Armenia, to gather information, thereby hindering the ability to verify the competing versions of events. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The United States and key members of the European Union have not challenged the Kocharian administration’s handling of the crisis, even though as part of its all-out effort to stifle a free press, the Armenian government pulled the plug on Armenian-language broadcasts of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In a March 7 editorial titled “Dark Days in Armenia,” the New York Times called on President George W. Bush, along with European leaders, to “make clear to Armenia’s government that such behavior is unacceptable and will jeopardize future relations.” A clear signal of disapproval is needed in order to halt what the editorial described as a “slide into authoritarianism” by CIS states.

Amid the relative silence of the United States and EU, Armenian authorities have started to vigorously attack the few Western officials who have gone on record as criticizing the Armenian government’s behavior. One such official is Terry Davis, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, who on March 3 called for a quick end to the state of emergency. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Without referring to Davis or other critics by name, Victor Sogomonian, Kocharian's press secretary, pointedly told outsiders to, in effect, mind their own business. “We must clearly realize that it is not foreign officials, but rather [Armenian] authorities that are in charge of the republic’s security,” Sogomonian said.