In Yerevan, the troops are gone, and the newspapers and protestors are back. Armenia's state of emergency came to a peaceful end on March 21, but, for most Armenians, one unanswered question lingers on: What next?
The first test of this uneasy calm came with a "silent protest" in central Yerevan by opposition supporters against the official results of the February presidential vote and the March 1 violence between police and protestors that left at least one policeman and seven civilians dead. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Late in the afternoon of March 21, thousands of participants walked in complete silence along a route used for earlier protests while armed police stood mutely to one side. By early evening, the protest had started to break up. No clashes between police and protestors were seen.
Many Armenians had earlier worried that the demonstration could spark a harsh reaction from security forces. During the 20-day state of emergency, parliament banned actions that could to lead to a "forcible overthrow of the constitutional order" or that could spread religious or ethnic hatred, encourage violence or violate "others' constitutional rights and freedoms." Under the law, "reliable information" from the police or National Security Service would be sufficient to trigger the ban.
But officials, no doubt eager for a return to calm, made no move to stop the protest.
At a March 20 press conference, outgoing President Robert Kocharian took pains to emphasize that the situation in Armenia has stabilized since his March 1 state of emergency order. "Immediately after it was introduced, the situation calmed down, an opportunity was created for consolidating that stabilization process with concrete actions," Kocharian told reporters in his office. The Armenian leader added that no violations of the order had been recorded and that the police and military "showed restraint" in their work. "[A]n overwhelming majority of the population took these measures in their stride," he added.
Nevertheless, many Yerevan residents maintain that tensions about the March 1 violence are still running strong.
"In reality, a tense situation has been created when we felt our lack of power," commented Anna Israelian, a senior reporter for the daily newspaper Aravot. "We were not secure. Anger, powerlessness, indignation that was all we felt as we did not have an opportunity to respond to what was happening and had to publish only official information."
Under Kocharian's original order, media could only publish or broadcast government-issued reports. The restrictions were later lifted, but, many independent newspapers kept their operations shut down. Access to certain news sites was blocked within the country.
Not surprisingly, politicians allied with presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian, leader of the election protests, also see no sign of calm. "The situation has clearly not subsided," senior Heritage Party parliamentarian Stepan Safarian told EurasiaNet. "The crisis has deepened and a tinderbox situation has been created. And it is very difficult to say in this situation what will be the agenda or the next steps will be."
Ter-Petrosian himself, however, has asserted that his movement does, in fact, have a plan. "We will not retreat, we will struggle till the end, until this hated, criminal, gangster-state regime falls. We are not afraid of jails, house arrests and threats. They are very little men to frighten us," Ter-Petrosian fumed at a March 11 press conference at his home in Yerevan. The former Armenian president asserts that he has effectively been kept under house arrest since the protest crackdown.
Some analysts, however, believe that, under the circumstances, Ter-Petrosian's assurances are less than definite. Almost all leaders of the previous opposition rallies have been detained. Based on official figures, more than 800 individuals were taken in by police following the March 1 clash, and some 106 remain in detention.
Nonetheless, one pro-opposition political analyst says the opposition will somehow struggle on. "We have a precedent when the leaders of the Karabakh committee were detained, but new ones emerged," said Aghasi Yenokian in reference to the group, of which Ter-Petrosian was a member, that led the campaign for Armenia's independence from the Soviet Union. "This time, I also think there will be such solutions."
To reporters, Ter-Petrosian echoed that view, affirming that "[Mikhail] Gorbachev did not dare frighten us. We achieved what we wanted."
Not all Yerevan residents agree, however.
Pensioner Anahit Tadevosian blames the ex-president's protest campaign for the March 1 violence. "I don't understand why people supported Levon Ter-Petrosian. It is he who is to blame for all that happened on March 1," she said. "Don't they remember what poor lives they had at that time?" Tadevosian added in reference to Ter-Petrosian's 1991-1998 tenure in power, during which time Armenia experienced economic turmoil amid an armed conflict with Azerbaijan.
One middle-aged Yerevan taxi driver disagrees, however, saying that most of his customers now oppose the authorities. "An overwhelming majority are furious about these latest events," commented Ashot Mkrtchian. "I don't know how this hatred and hot atmosphere will turn out."
According to ruling Republican Party of Armenia spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov, "everything will proceed normally."
"Their [opposition] goal was not to win in elections, but to commit a coup d'etat," Sharmazanov asserted. "What is important now is the consolidation of the nation. As for our victory [at the polls
Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter for the ArmeniaNow weekly in Yerevan.