Armenia’s Opposition Has a Bloody Baptism

The Moscow Times
Thursday, Apr. 15, 2004. Page 7

Armenia’s Opposition Has a Bloody Baptism

By Kim Iskyan

Until a few weeks ago, Armenia was a bedrock of stability compared to its
neighbors Georgia and Azerbaijan. But now Armenia is trying to join Georgia
in throwing off a corrupt and repressive regime.

A bit more than a year ago, Armenian President Robert Kocharyan followed up
a fraudulent presidential election victory with a correspondingly
counterfeit parliamentary poll a few weeks later. Subsequent opposition
protests sputtered, but a call by the country’s otherwise pro-presidential
Constitutional Court for a “referendum of confidence” within a year provided
a shred of hope.

Twelve months later, with no referendum in sight, and naively inspired by
last autumn’s “Rose Revolution” in Georgia, the Armenian opposition dusted
off its placards and focused on forcing Kocharyan and Co. to move forward
with the referendum or else just quit.

But Armenia isn’t Georgia. Demonstrations in Yerevan were initially
postponed in part due to a chill in the air. Many of the 15,000 people
ostensibly attending an opposition rally last week were more intent on
chomping on sunflower seeds in the sunshine than on change. Subsequent
protests intimated a deep revolutionary spirit in a hardened core, but the
sentiment was not widespread.

Part of the problem is that Armenia’s opposition hasn’t convinced the
cynical electorate that it is more interested in bringing about real change
than in having a turn at the feeding trough. And for all his government’s
incompetence and corruption, Kocharyan has kept most Armenians supplied with
heat, electricity and water most of the time.

Kocharyan, though, took no chances. Vehicles trying to enter Yerevan over
the past few days have been forced to turn around for fear that their
occupants were potential protesters. In the brutally bloody climax to recent
protests, government troops blasted a few thousand demonstrators with water
cannons and stun grenades at 2 a.m. in front of the country’s parliamentary
building. The next day, opposition offices were seized by police, and
opposition leaders went into hiding to avoid arrest. Now that constitutional
and peaceful means of bringing about change have been met with barbed wire
and a kick in the head, watch for the opposition to explore other means.

Meanwhile, much of the head-in-the-sand Armenian diaspora theorizes aloud
that foreign governments must be behind the unrest, since things really
aren’t that bad in the homeland — the 50 percent poverty rate
notwithstanding. So don’t look to them to argue with Kocharyan’s message of
power through fear, as Armenia slides down the slippery former-Soviet slope
toward dictatorship, and not even a benign one at that.

Kim Iskyan, a freelance journalist and consultant in Yerevan, contributed
this comment to The Moscow Times.

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