Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Armenia: A Political World Turned Upside Down
03/11/08

In 1995, Ashot Manukian was a candidate in Armenia’s parliamentary elections, and one of his campaign brochures contained a ringing endorsement from Robert Kocharian, the incumbent president and one-time leader of Nagorno-Karabakh. “If Ashot Manukian is elected to the National Assembly, we will be proud to call him one of our finest,” Kocharian proclaimed.

Today, in the wake of the March 1 political violence in Yerevan, Kocharian has a very different opinion of Manukian, who, along with more than 80 others, is facing charges of trying to overthrow the government. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Manukian’s friends and relatives vehemently deny that he conspired to engage in anti-state activity, insisting instead that he was arbitrarily detained in the early morning of March 1 while exercising his right to peacefully protest suspected government malfeasance.

Manukian’s situation highlights how Armenia’s political landscape has turned upside down in the wake of the February 19 presidential election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. An individual such as Manukian, who is described by those who know him as “an archetypal patriot,” has suddenly found himself being treated by the government as a traitor.

Armenia’s political future could now be intertwined with the fate of Manukian and his co-defendants. Armenia has benefited in the post-Soviet era from a high degree of political consensus on key issues. But if the government persists in treating the March 1 events as a coup conspiracy, without examining the underlying factors that brought thousands of protesters out into the streets, that feeling of consensus will likely shatter and political opinion will become polarized. “This will politicize society,” said John Lowe, Manukian’s son-in-law, who lives in Washington, DC. “It could well backfire” on Kocharian and his political ally, president-elect Serzh Sarkisian.

Events have already reached the point that restoring a semblance of political stability will be difficult. If those facing treason charges are prosecuted and convicted, feelings of enmity could be cemented in place that will make governing difficult for years to come. Such instability in Yerevan could easily have adverse repercussions on economic development and national security issues, including the Karabakh peace process. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

So far, the treatment of Manukian and other detainees suggest that the Kocharian administration’s political course is being guided by personal considerations. Manukian is being held at the Sovetashen pre-trial detention center in Yerevan. While he reportedly has access to a lawyer, authorities have refused to allow any form of contact with family members.

On March 10, officials took two more men into custody on charges related to the March 1 unrest. One, Aleksandr Arzumanian, served as campaign manager for opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian in the recent presidential vote. The other, Ararat Zurabian, is the chairman of the Armenian All-National Movement (AAM), which was founded by Ter-Petrosian in 1989. Both are likely to be charged with trying to overthrow the government.

Like most of those in jail, Manukian, whose home is in the northern Armenian city of Vanadzor, has long-standing ties to Ter-Petrosian, the second-place finisher in the February 19 presidential election, who, claiming the vote was marred by fraud, organized a permanent protest in Yerevan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Though he failed in his 1995 race for a parliamentary seat, and never became a political player on the national level, Manukian served as the head of the Vanadzor chapter of the AAM. During the waning days of the Soviet Union, he had been active in environmental and social causes, including organizing relief aide for the victims of the 1988 earthquake.

More than any sense of personal loyalty to Ter-Petrosian, Lowe said, thorough disgust with political corruption that has hampered Armenia’s development prompted Manukian to join the anti-government protest that began in Yerevan on February 20. “He just wants Armenia to realize its potential,” Lowe said of his father-in-law.

Many of those currently being detained on coup-related charges are, like Manukian, mid-level activists and organizers. This fact leads Lowe to suggest that the Kocharian-Sarkisian team intends to destroy their opponents’ political infrastructure and thus ensure the political dominance of their own so-called Karabakh clan for many election cycles to come.

It is not just the relatives of the detained who believe that the Armenian government is heading in a dangerous direction. The growing chorus of international leaders is urging political dialogue, rather than persecution. On March 10, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s political supremo, echoed earlier calls made by US and European diplomats for an immediate move toward conciliation in Yerevan. Putin said such conciliation was needed to keep Russian-Armenian relations on a sound footing. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The United States in recent days has also toughened its rhetoric on Armenia. For a week after the March 1 confrontation, US diplomats largely refrained from commenting on the Kocharian administration’s actions. Washington’s tone has changed noticeably in the aftermath of a March 7 visit to Yerevan by Matthew Bryza, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. "We don't believe that [a] further crackdown, further arrests, are the right way to go,” Kurt Volker, the US acting assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, said in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Volker went on to urge the immediate lifting of the state of emergency imposed by Kocharian on March 1.

The large Armenian diaspora community in the United States has had little to say about recent developments in Yerevan. However, a group from Los Angeles traveled to Washington on March 10 to stage a protest outside the Armenian Embassy.

Kocharian responded to the growing international pressure by lifting restrictions on political party activity on March 10. However, other extraordinary powers vested in the government under the state-of-emergency remain in place, including an information blockade that prohibits all but official sources of news in the country. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Meanwhile, an interim report on post-election developments issued March 7 by the OSCE completely sidestepped the issue of the March 1 political violence. The interim report, covering the February 20-March 3 period, devoted only a few lines out of a nine-page report to the violent confrontation, ostensibly adhering to the official version of events. For example, the interim report, which was prepared by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, accepted the government’s death toll of eight without striving for independent verification. Eyewitnesses assert a significantly higher number of people died on March 1. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The interim report did contain details that raised new questions about the government’s handling of the ballot counting and the overall post-election political process. Even before the imposition of the state of emergency, state television was providing highly slanted coverage of political developments, observers said. “The main broadcast media, including public television and radio, provided extensive coverage of the views of authorities, but rarely aired the views of those who raised concerns regarding the conduct of the February 19 poll,” the interim report said.

The report also said that election officials basically ignored complaints filed in connection with voting or tabulating irregularities. “The CEC [Central Election Commission] did not facilitate the process of effective redress for complaints, hence de facto obstructing the realization of the complainants’ rights,” the interim report stated.