Armenia: A Gathering Storm?

Transitions Online, Week in Review
23 – 29 March 2004


As the opposition prepares to challenge the president, Kocharian and his
government play the good cop/bad cop routine.

YEREVAN, Armenia–An increasingly defiant, more unified opposition, a
government out on the road meeting the people, and a president changing
senior figures in law-enforcement agencies: these three recent developments
are being taken as signs that, a year after deeply flawed presidential
elections, Armenia may be on the cusp of a fresh, large-scale political

The battle will become a little clearer on 31 March, when the opposition is
expected to announce that it will hold a rally in mid-April with the aim of
forcing President Robert Kocharian to step down.

This will be days after a demonstration on 2 April to mark the second
anniversary of Armenia’s leading independent TV channel A1 Plus. Despite its
popularity and international calls for greater media plurality, A1 Plus has
repeatedly been refused a TV license, with the government-appointed
commission usually opting to give licenses instead to new or inexperienced
producers. A1 Plus has said it may hold rolling demonstrations unless the
government meets its demands for the license tenders to be re-opened, with
civil-society members on the selection commission.

The demonstrations represent a gamble by the opposition. It has a record of
disunity and question marks hang over the size of the crowds that it will
draw. While the A1 Plus issue has angered many and while the station was
very popular, demonstrations two years ago garnered between 5,000 and
10,000. Crowds of up to 40,000 protesters gathered after the presidential
elections in 2003.

The opposition, however, is showing more unity than in the past. The joint
organizers of the mid-April demonstration, Artarutyun and National Unity,
have in the past accused each other of working with the government and were
widely seen as rivals. Both parties are big players on the political scene:
the rally will bring together the supporters of the man who came second in
the presidential elections, Artarutyun’s Stepan Demirchian, and the man who
came third, National Unity’s Artashes Geghamian.

Moreover, since the presidential elections in 2003, there has been a potent
demonstration of street power in Georgia in the form of the “rose
revolution,” which toppled the country’s long-time president, Eduard
Shevardnadze. In the immediate aftermath of Georgia’s revolution, there was
speculation about whether Armenia might follow Georgia’s lead, but there
were no major demonstrations. That may largely have been due to the wintry
weather, which is a factor in the timing of the new wave of protests.
National Unity had initially been thinking of holding off on demonstrations
until the arrival of warm weather in May.


The opposition also are taking hope from the actions of the government and
the president.

In recent weeks, senior ministers have been going out into the provinces and
countryside in a move interpreted as a bid to bolster public support for the
government. It also may be a direct response to ongoing nationwide tours by
members of the opposition.

There also has been some signs of a slightly milder tone by some members of
the governing coalition. In a joint statement on 26 March, representatives
of the three coalition parties–the Republican Party of Armenia, Orinats
Erkir (Country of Law), and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation
(Dashnaktsutyun)–poured some ash on their heads by acknowledging the
existence of many problems (though mainly social) and indicated that 2004
would be a crucial year for the government to deliver on its promises.

The appointment to senior posts of relatives of members of the coalition
might also suggest a rebalancing of power within the coalition.

However, Kocharian himself has struck a harsher tone, attacking the
opposition for having “a tramp’s mentality.” He also has showed a strong
hand. In a move that seems designed to show the opposition that he is firmly
in command of the security services, he fired four district prosecutors on
22 March. The clear-out affected seven of Yerevan’s 11 districts.

On 17 March, he had dismissed Armenia’s prosecutor-general, and sacked or
moved over a dozen senior police officials.

The country’s new prosecutor-general, Aghvan Hovsepian, is a Kocharian

Moreover, the government is not relenting to criticism about its policies
toward the opposition. During the week, the government also presented a
revised draft law to parliament that would in some instances enable the
police to arrest the organizers of mass rallies and would limit the right to
hold demonstrations. The government says the bill matches Council of Europe
standards. However, according to a 26 March report in the opposition daily,
an Armenian delegate to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
(PACE), which Armenia joined in 2001, says that the bill falls short of
European standards.

Armenia has a poor record on political tolerance. After unsanctioned
opposition demonstrations over alleged electoral fraud in 2003, according to
RFE figures, police rounded about 400 supporters of the Artarutyun leader,
Stepan Demirchian. Many were sentenced to 15 days in prison, and reports
suggest that many were denied access to lawyers and their trials were held
behind closed doors.

Armenia’s current criminal code allows the security forces to jail people
briefly without a particular reason.

Fears that similar measures could be taken after the A1 Plus and opposition
demonstrations were heightened on 25 March when a leading member of the
opposition, Victor Dallakian, claimed to have been attacked on 23 March by
three men.

The police have already called the planned 2 April rally illegal.


Kocharian also has demonstrated that he is unconcerned about allegations
regarding the violent nature of some of his appointees, choosing as governor
of the southern Syunik region a man who is accused of being the head of a
criminal gang.

Two nephews of Surik Khachatrian, a leading veteran of the war in
Nagorno-Karabakh, are currently being investigated for murder. RFE reported
that Khachatrian denied any role in the killing, though he did not deny the
guilt of his nephews.

Khachatrian’s appointment is just one of several recent examples of a
violent undercurrent in Armenian politics and among its political elite.

That was shown most explosively on 12 March. Kocharian and his Georgian
counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili, were having dinner together when a
gunfight erupted in the next-door café. Five men were taken to the hospital.
Among them was the son of the minister for urban development, Ara Aramian.
The minister confirmed that his son had been involved.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that the son of the minister for local
government, Hovik Abrahamian, also was involved.

–by Anna Hakobyan
From: Baghdasarian