Thursday, March 13, 2008

Armenia: Officials, Opposition Take Tentative Steps Toward Conciliation

Under intense outside pressure to enter into a political dialogue, government officials and their opponents in Armenia have started making cautious moves to repair the damage done by the March 1 violence in Yerevan.

The most significant gesture made by the government was President Robert Kocharian’s announcement that mass media restrictions, imposed under a state of emergency, would be lifted no later than March 14. In effect, the emergency regulations enabled the government to control the dissemination of information. “Now, under the state of emergency, we are telling you what you can do regarding the internal political situation. After signing the decree we will tell you what you can not do,” Kocharian stated in comments broadcast on state television.

Earlier, president-elect Serzh Sarkisian indicated that the government intended to soften its hardline treatment of opposition leaders. In the days following the March 1 clashes, in which at least eight people died, officials insisted that the opposition bore sole responsibility for violence. They specifically accused opposition leaders -- who organized a permanent protest in Yerevan to denounce fraud in the in February 19 presidential election -- of attempting a coup d’etat. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. More than 80 opposition activists have been detained since March 1 and face conspiracy charges. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Sarkisian, during a March 12 public appearance, seemed to present a face-saving formula that would serve as a starting point for conciliation efforts. He said the alleged plotters would still be prosecuted, but, apparently assuming guilty verdicts to be a foregone conclusion, he emphasized that the accused could expect leniency. “The court verdict might be mild, and a president can always grant a pardon, but people should know who plotted and perpetrated the crimes,” Sarkisian said.

During a March 13 meeting with Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Kocharian insisted that the mood in Yerevan was returning to normal. “Unfortunately we failed to avoid an undesirable course of events and authorities had to take action,” the PanArmenian news website quoted Kocharian as saying. “However, the situation is stabilizing.”

Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian, speaking to journalists on March 11, appeared to grudgingly accept the fact that Sarkisian would end up as Armenia’s president, and that he had no choice but to enter into a political dialogue with him as such. At the same time, Ter-Petrosian insisted that he would not recognize the official results of the presidential election. Ter-Petrosian has claimed he actually won a plurality of votes, yet the official tally shows him to have finished a distant second to Sarkisian. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

“The world did not recognize Yasir Arafat’s legitimacy for a long time, but it negotiated with him,” Ter-Petrosian said. “I do not recognize the legitimacy of Serzh Sarkisian, but I cannot ignore him and he cannot ignore me.”

Fearing that prolonged political rancor in Yerevan could have severe consequences not only for Armenia, but also for regional stability, the United States, European Union and Russia, in a rare act of geopolitical unity, have pressed for the opening of political dialogue aimed at restoring a semblance of normalcy in the Armenian capital. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Although the way for such discussions between the Kocharian/Sarkisian team and the Ter-Petrosian camp now seems to be open, it remains uncertain whether talks can be productive, or whether they might simply fuel mutual animosity.

A key to whether a dialogue can yield potential results may well be connected to the question of culpability for the bloodshed. The government remains adamant that it is not responsible for the loss of life, even though eyewitnesses say security forces used lethal force on demonstrators with little or no advance warning. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Armenia’s ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, likewise, has asserted that the use of deadly force was initiated by the government side. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Kocharian administration officials continue to denounce in shrill terms all those who publicly criticize the government’s handling of the election-related protests. For example, the Armenian Foreign Ministry expressed outrage over a statement made by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, who characterized the actions of Armenian security forces on March 1 as “harsh and brutal.” The Foreign Ministry on March 12 termed Bryza’s comments “groundless,” “useless” and “arbitrary.”

The president has also heaped scorn on Harutiunian, inferring that the ombudsman’s public criticism of security forces was unpatriotic. Harutiunian, speaking at a March 12 news conference, shrugged off Kocharian’s attempt at character assassination, saying the president’s opinion did not matter to him. “I believe that in my work I am guided by the constitution and the country’s legislation, as well as by the European Convention for Human Rights, and it is the people [not the president] who should assess my work,” Harutiunian said.

During his March 11 news conference, Ter-Petrosian alleged that government agents provoked the unrest. “Not even one car had been scratched [during protests and marches] prior to March 1. So what happened?” Ter-Petrosian said, according to a report distributed by the Regnum news agency. “Provocateurs went after the protesters with clubs. … That was the reason the situation spiraled out of control, although it was brilliantly managed by authorities.”

Officials have not backed away from portraying events purely as an attempted coup. On March 12, one Armenian prosecutor was quoted by the RIA-Novosti news agency as alleging that protesters used various means, including “psychotropic substances,” to induce aggressive behavior toward security forces.

Rather than confront issues related to the security forces’ actions, the government is trying to focus popular attention of the economy. In recent days, the Kocharian/Sarkisian team has sketched ambitious plans to raise living standards. For example, the government has expressed a desire to eliminate the need for Armenia to import grain by 2010. To do so, the country would have to more than double current output within just a few years -- a task that many experts believe the country would be hard pressed to accomplish.