As Protests Flag, Armenia’s President Seems to Prevail

Los Angeles Times
April 22 2004

As Protests Flag, Armenia’s President Seems to Prevail

Foes accuse Robert Kocharyan of vote fraud and rights abuses, but he
cites economic growth.
By David Holley, Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW – Armenian President Robert Kocharyan’s government appears to
have won at least a tactical victory in deflating recent protests and
defending his hold on office after an election last year that his
opponents claim was rigged.

A string of demonstrations seeking Kocharyan’s ouster began early
this month, and thousands of protesters gathered again in Yerevan,
the capital, Wednesday evening to press their demands, Russian news
agency Interfax reported.

But what organizers had billed in advance as a “decisive” protest
early last week ended with a predawn crackdown, as baton-swinging
police backed by water cannons cleared a crowd from the avenue
leading to the presidential palace. About 30 people were reported
injured, and the opposition was incensed. But subsequent rallies had
less steam rather than more.

Opposition leaders remained defiant and were trying to turn the
president’s tough tactics against him.

“We want the world to know that the opposition is very far from being
subdued and broken,” Stepan Demirchyan, who lost to Kocharyan in last
year’s election and is a leader of the protests, said late last week
in a telephone interview from Yerevan. “We are not flat on our back,
and we are ready to keep on fighting. And we will make sure we see
this struggle of ours through to a victorious end.”

Still, things have not been going according to plan for those in
Armenia who hoped to imitate the success of the opposition in
neighboring Georgia, where a nonviolent revolution forced President
Eduard A. Shevardnadze from office in November.

That uprising has variously been dubbed a “velvet revolution,” after
Czechoslovakia’s peaceful overthrow of communism, or the “rose
revolution,” after the single long-stemmed rose that a key protest
leader – now President Mikheil Saakashvili – carried as demonstrators
took over Georgia’s parliament.

Kocharyan himself has drawn the comparison and emphasized his
confidence that the scenario will not be repeated.

“The Armenian opposition, encouraged by the Georgian ‘velvet
revolution,’ has clearly decided that the situation in the country
will enable them to achieve the same outcome,” Kocharyan told Russian
state television. “But the situation cannot be compared.”

Kocharyan cited strong economic growth in recent years as one reason
he cannot be pushed out, and said another is that his administration
is far stronger than was Shevardnadze’s.

He also downplayed the controversy over the April 13 police crackdown
on protesters.

“The country has carried on in the past and will continue to do so,”
he said.

The opposition’s drive against Kocharyan is rooted in complaints he
failed to win a legitimate victory in the March presidential election
last year, despite official results showing him taking 67% to
Demirchyan’s 33%. Last April, Armenia’s Constitutional Court
confirmed the vote but suggested a referendum within a year to gauge
confidence in the nation’s leaders.

Kocharyan’s government rejected the idea. The recent protests have
been timed to the expiration of the one-year period.

Immediately after last year’s election, Peter Eicher, head of the
observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe, said there were “serious problems and irregularities” in the
vote, but he declined to say whether they were enough to change the
result. He said there was intimidation, widespread ballot-box
stuffing and discrepancies at a large number of polling stations.

David Petrosyan, a commentator with independent news agency Noyan
Tapan, said there was sufficient anger at the president and his
policies that Kocharyan had good reason to fear holding a referendum.

But Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for
Strategic and International Studies, a Tbilisi think tank, said there
did not appear to be “a revolutionary situation” in Armenia.

“Mr. Kocharyan has more control of his state than Mr. Shevardnadze
did,” Rondeli said. “Mr. Shevardnadze was already aging, he was
losing control.”

Another factor is Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan over the
disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, Rondeli said. “Armenia is at
war, in reality, and many people there are afraid if political
destabilization happens it will be disastrous for Armenia,” he said.

But Kocharyan’s tough stance on the protests has failed to solve any
real problems, said Petrosyan, the commentator.

“Armenia resembles a powder keg today, and whether or when it
explodes will depend solely on who decides to hold a lighted match to
it first,” he said. “Something is bound to happen one way or another.
For now, everything is up in the air. Everyone is waiting and getting
ready for the final showdown.”

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this