Armenia braces for political upheaval

EurasiaNet Organization
April 1 2004

Emil Danielyan: 4/01/04

Armenia’s leadership and opposition are gearing up for a potentially
violent confrontation. An opposition coalition is planning to hold
massive anti-government protests in early April. Some opposition
leaders have publicly called for the resignation of President Robert
Kocharian and have advocated civil disobedience to achieve that end.
Authorities have responded by threatening to crack down on opposition
leaders for attempting to “seize state power with violence.”

The confrontation began building in late March when the country’s two
main opposition groups joined forces in an apparent bid to encourage
popular protests along the lines of the “Rose Revolution” in
neighboring Georgia. Those protests ended up forcing former Georgian
leader Eduard Shevardnadze to step down, and paved the way for
President Mikheil Saakashvili’s rise to power. [For background see
the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Artarutiun (Justice) alliance led
by Stepan Demirchian and the National Unity Party of Artashes
Geghamian have set an April 12 deadline for the launch of a civil
disobedience campaign against what they say is Kocharian’s
“illegitimate” administration. Opposition leaders insist that
Kocharian rigged last year’s presidential and parliamentary
elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The opposition says it has been forced to adopt a protest strategy
because of the Kocharian administration’s refusal to organize a
nationwide no-confidence referendum on the government’s performance.
A ruling by Armenia’s Constitutional Court on April 16, 2003, had
recommended the holding of a no-confidence referendum within a year’s
time. The ruling did not strictly order the government to organize a
referendum, however.

Demirchian and Geghamian were Kocharian’s main challengers in the
disputed 2003 presidential ballot. Authorities are taking their
threats seriously, with Kocharian indicating his readiness to use
force against crowds that are expected to march towards his official
residence in the center of Yerevan. A March 26 statement by the three
pro-presidential parties represented in his government warned that
the law-enforcement bodies have a legitimate right to counter
“attempts to violate the country’s constitutional law” with tough

The office of Armenia’s Prosecutor General issued a statement March
31 in which it announced the opening of a criminal investigation into
the Justice bloc’s protests over the past month. The prosecutor’s
office suggested the protests had “publicly insulted representatives
of government.”

Demirchian and other Justice bloc leaders were quick to denounce the
investigation, issuing a statement that characterized the
prosecutors’ actions as “an unprecedented attempt at political
persecution. … The decision shows that authorities, who are in
their death throes, have lost the ability to think rationally.”

The opposition may have got a taste of things to come when nine of
its activists were arrested March 28 during and after a Justice bloc
rally in Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri. During the rally,
opposition supporters scuffled with a group of government loyalists
and plainclothes police in what the rally organizers portrayed as a
government “provocation.” “Today’s provocation shows that Robert
Kocharian’s days in power are numbered,” one of the rally organizers,
Victor Dallakian, told the angry crowd.

According to Dallakian and other Justice bloc leaders, the opposition
plan is to surround the presidential palace and the nearby parliament
compound in the Armenian capital with tens of thousands of people who
will stand there “day and night” until Kocharian steps down. The
chances that the rallies would take place as planned were boosted
with the signing on March 24 of an agreement between Demirchian and
Geghamian to engage in joint action. Geghamian had previously refused
to attend Justice bloc rallies, saying that they were

A key question is precisely how many people will take to the streets.
Demirchian and Geghamian hope to pull in large crowds from the
regions outside Yerevan, and have been separately campaigning across
Armenia for over a month. The Gyumri demonstration was part of that
effort. “The regime’s fate is predetermined,” Demirchian told its
participants, assuring them that his deal with Geghamian will lead to
“the restoration of constitutional order.”

“We will act in a united front for regime change and popular
salvation from this deplorable situation,” Geghamian said,
campaigning in the central Aragatsotn province on March 26.

The authorities, meanwhile, are expected to tighten security around
the two government buildings. Marshal Baghramian Avenue, one of
Yerevan’s main thoroughfares leading to them, was repeatedly blocked
with hundreds of riot police and interior troops armed with rubber
truncheons, tear gas grenades and water cannon during the 2003
election protests. The show of force contrasted sharply with a thin
row of riot police outside the parliament building in Tbilisi that
was easily overrun by scores of opposition supporters during the
November Rose Revolution.

This contrast highlighted Armenia’s important difference from
Georgia: the existence of a powerful and well-organized security
apparatus feared by the population. It might explain why the Armenian
opposition did not try to storm government buildings in the wake of
the presidential ballot controversially won by Kocharian. Yet,
opposition leaders were clearly buoyed by the success of the Georgian
revolt and, as local observers believe, might not be as restrained
this time around. “The outcome of the confrontation is unpredictable
because it is impossible to predict the behavior of security
structures and various government factions in a crisis situation,”
commented the Yerevan newspaper “Iravunk.”

Those structures underwent sweeping personnel changes earlier in
March. Kocharian replaced Armenia’s prosecutor-general, Aram
Tamazian, with one of his most loyal law-enforcement officials,
Aghvan Hovsepian. The president also sacked most of the district
prosecutors in Yerevan, and made over a dozen new appointments in the
leadership of the Armenian police. The official motive for the
reshuffle was to improve the law-enforcement bodies’ ability to fight
against corruption and protect the rule of law. However, political
observers believe the reshuffle is linked to the brewing political

To counter recent opposition maneuvering, Kocharian’s administration
undertook its own public relations campaign, with ministers
dispatched to economically depressed rural areas of the country to
hear local residents’ myriad complaints, and “present” government
policies to them. The government accuses the opposition of exploiting
the economic hardship endured by many Armenians for political
purposes. Some Armenian observers say the government’s charm
offensive did little to shore up its popular support. The reception
given to high-level officials in most regions was at best lukewarm.

Popular discontent over the lack of economic opportunity, coupled
with the continuing fallout from the troubled elections, has the
potential to fuel instability. “My vote was stolen and I still feel
offended,” said Hovannes Mejlumian, an opposition supporter in
Gyumri. “The authorities’ track record shows that there is nothing
good they can do.”

Garegin Jambazian, a retired army officer, sounded more bullish: “I
am in a state of full combat readiness. I am ready to fight against
them to death.”

Editor’s Note: Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and
political analyst.