Armenia’s “rose revolution” fails to put down roots

Agence France Presse
April 21, 2004 Wednesday 8:06 AM Eastern Time

Armenia’s “rose revolution” fails to put down roots

by MARIAM HARUTUNIAN

YEREVAN

As opposition supporters in Armenia’s capital prepared late last week
for a rally calling for the resignation of President Robert
Kocharian, staff in a computer salesroom on the city’s Abovian Street
were too busy smoking cigarettes to pay much attention.

They said they had no intention of joining the protests. “They’ll
just get hit on the head by police and go home,” said Samvel, the
store manager, while he watched an opposition leader on the
television set in his office. “So what?”

This indifference from Armenia’s middle classes is one of the
reasons, analysts say, why Armenia is highly unlikely to emulate the
“rose revolution” in its neighbour Georgia which swept that country’s
unpopular rulers from power last year.

On the face of it, Armenia, a former Soviet republic of three million
people in the Caucasus mountains, has all the makings of a
Georgian-style revolution.

Like in Georgia, Armenia’s economy is still reeling from the collapse
of the Soviet Union. According to World Bank figures, 49 percent of
the population lives below the poverty line.

Like its neighbour, Armenia has a massive gulf between the rich and
poor — something many people blame on official corruption.

And as in Georgia, the government stands accused of rigging elections
to preserve its power. A presidential election last year which gave
Kocharian a second term in office was flawed, according to
international observers.

When a coalition of opposition parties began a campaign of mass
demonstrations this month, comparisons were quickly drawn with
Georgia’s revolution.

Some protesters even carried chrysanthemums, mimicking their Georgian
counterparts who demonstrated with rose stems in their hands.

Yet Armenia’s opposition campaign has failed to capture the popular
imagination. At the latest rally in the capital, Yerevan, last
Friday, the core of opposition support — mostly low-income,
middle-aged people with a preponderance of women — was out in force.

But the students and well-heeled members of the middle class who gave
Georgia’s revolution its unstoppable momentum stayed at home.

“I do not think that all these demonstrations can lead to a change in
power,” said analyst Gevorg Pogossian. “A large part of the
population … is continuing to behave like distant observers and not
active participants.”

Analysts point to several factors. The first is that unlike his
ousted Georgian counterpart, 50-year-old Kocharian has a tight grip
on the state machinery.

This means that though pensions and state sector wages are miserly,
they are at least paid on time. It also gives Kocharian the
confidence to use the police against protesters, as he did earlier
this month when water cannon and truncheons were used to disperse an
opposition rally.

Another factor, say analysts, is that Armenia’s opposition lacks a
charismatic figure like Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili, who led that
country’s protests and went on to become president.

“Our opposition is very weak and not very convincing,” said Rolan
Minassian, a 59-year-old scientist.

The opposition does not have the advantage its Georgian counterparts
had of regular access to the television airwaves. All of Armenia’s
television stations are loyal to the president.

Finally, though many Armenians grumble about low living standards
they blame not Kocharian, but a crippling economic blockade imposed
on the country by two of its neighbours, Turkey and Azerbaijan.

The blockade is linked to a row about pogroms against ethnic
Armenians in Ottoman Turkey at the start of the last century, and a
still-unresolved war with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of
Nagorno-Karabakh.

For now at least, most ordinary people are fully behind Kocharian in
opposing any concessions which could see the blockade lifted.

“After upheavals like these, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the
Karabakh war, the blockade, no president could have put the country
and the people back on its feet,” said Sergei Arutyunian, a
74-year-old pensioner.

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