Discontent drives Armenia’s campaign to oust Kocharian

Discontent drives Armenia’s campaign to oust Kocharian


April 15, 2004

Samvel Gasparian is a 56-year-old grandfather who used to support his
family by farming a smallholding in the Ashtarak region, north of
Armenia’s capital.

But his fields are lying fallow because, he says, he cannot afford to
pay for the water to irrigate his land.

“If my relatives who are living in Russia did not help me out we would
not be able to survive,” he said, choking back tears. “Some people
cannot even afford to buy a loaf of bread.”

Gasparian’s story is typical of many of the three million people in
this poverty-stricken former Soviet republic in the Caucasus

Anger over the country’s low living standards — and the widespread
feeling that the government is indifferent — has been helping drive
an opposition campaign calling for the resignation of President Robert

Comparisons have been drawn between Armenia’s opposition movement and
last year’s “rose revolution” in neighbouring Georgia, when that
country’s former president Eduard Shevardnadze was ousted in a popular

Thousands of Armenians have rallied in the capital, Yerevan, this
month to push their demand for Kocharian’s resignation.

A sit-in protest by opposition activists early Tuesday morning outside
Kocharian’s residence was broken up by riot police using water cannon
and truncheons. Dozens of people were hurt and several opposition
leaders were arrested.

But the opposition is not giving up. It has announced plans for
another mass protest in the capital this Friday.

“The people want this,” Stepan Demirchian, head of the opposition
Justice bloc and a leader of the protests, told AFP. “They have not
been broken. If before they did not like this president, now they like
him even less.”

On some measures, Kocharian has done a decent job of handling the
economy in Armenia, which was the world’s first state to adopt

Economic growth has been in double digits for the past few years, in
spite of a crippling economic blockade by two of Armenia’s neighbours,
Turkey and Azerbaijan.

The blockade is linked to pogroms against Armenians by Ottoman Turks
in the early 20th century, and an Armenian-Azeri conflict over the
separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

But that growth is translating only slowly into a better life for
ordinary people.

The average monthly wage is less than 50 dollars (40 euros) and
unemployment is sky high. As much as a third of the population has
left to seek work abroad, mostly to Russia. Whole villages now stand

For many Armenians, Kocharian is to blame. They believe a cabal of
wealthy businessmen close to the president is being allowed to enrich
itself at the expense of the poor.

Kocharian’s opponents had hoped to oust him in a presidential
election, but they were left frustrated in March last year when he won
after a second round run-off against Demirchian.

Election observers said the vote “fell short of international
standards for democratic elections.” Kocharian’s opponents said he
stole the election.

Kocharian, a 50-year-old former factory worker and veteran of
Armenia’s war with Azerbaijan over Karabakh, has stood firm in the
face of the recent opposition protests.

He has the support of the army and police, and large sections of the
population, who fear the opposition is dragging the country into
political turmoil.

But Gasparian said he would be in Yerevan on Friday afternoon for the
planned demonstration.

“I will be there, even if it costs me my life,” he said. “People do
not believe in their rulers any more because they have been deceived
so many times.”