Armenian Government, Opposition Declare Shaky Truce


Emil Danielyan: 5/10/04

Armenia’s leadership and its political opponents have begun talks to resolve
their bitter confrontation over the rule of President Robert Kocharian. The
move has brought a temporary lull to the month-long political crisis sparked
by the opposition’s attempt to remove Kocharian from office.

The negotiations are taking place amidst a 10-day moratorium imposed by the
country’s two main opposition groups on the anti-government rallies which
have been held in the capital, Yerevan, since the beginning of April. [For
background see the EurasiaNet Insight archive]. The alliance and the
National Unity Party (AMK) state that the protests were suspended to give
the government time to stop its crackdown on protest participants and
opposition supporters. The moratorium will expire on May 14.

Talks between leaders of Justice and the AMK and the three pro-Kocharian
parties making up Armenia’s coalition government began on May 6 and will
continue this week. The participants have issued a brief statement saying
that they agree on “the need to create a new situation in the country” and
have approved a long list of issues to be discussed during the dialogue.

But so far, few local analysts expect the dialogue to yield an agreement to
compromise. The opposition and government remain far apart on the key issue
driving their dispute — the legitimacy of Robert Kocharian’s presidency.
The opposition maintains that Kocharian rigged last year’s presidential
election to win a second term in office and is therefore “illegitimate.” His
loyalists deny the charges, saying that widespread fraud reported by
international observers was not serious enough to affect the election

The long-standing opposition demand for a “referendum of confidence” in
Kocharian — one of the main issues to be discussed in the talks —
illustrates this divide.

This idea was first floated by Armenia’s Constitutional Court in the wake of
the February-March 2003 presidential ballot and has since been heavily
exploited by the opposition. Kocharian and his loyalists have categorically
rejected it as unconstitutional. In parliament earlier this year, they
refused all discussion of the issue. Kocharian’s supporters now say they are
ready to discuss the measure’s “legality,” while indicating they will not
agree to hold the proposed referendum. “If the opposition continues to
insist on the referendum, no dialogue will be possible,” a leader of the
governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Armen Rustamian, said this past

The opposition, on the other hand, says a regime change “without upheavals”
must be the basis of the crisis talks. “Our view remains the same: Robert
Kocharian must either resign or be dismissed or we will hold a kind of
referendum of confidence together with you,” Justice’s Albert Bazeyan told
thousands of supporters as they rallied in Yerevan on May 4.

Both sides are keen to show that they are following the recommendations made
by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). In a
resolution on the political situation in Armenia adopted on April 28, the
PACE urged the government and opposition to embark on a “dialogue without
preconditions.” As the Yerevan daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” commented, neither
Armenian authorities nor their foes want to appear the recalcitrant party in
the eyes of the Strasbourg-based, pan-European organization.

Each of the parties has interpreted the PACE resolution as vindicating its
own position in the standoff. The presidential camp argues that the document
did not endorse the referendum of confidence and made clear that the 2003
election irregularities “did not decisively change the outcome of the
elections nor invalidate their final results.”

The opposition, for its part, points to the PACE’s threat to impose
sanctions on Armenia if it fails to lift “unjustified restrictions” on
peaceful demonstrations, release individuals detained for their
participation in the anti-Kocharian rallies and investigate the “human
rights abuses alleged against the Kocharian government. The resolution
mandates that Armenian authorities report back to the European parliament by
June about the status of their investigations and prosecutions of those
found responsible for violation of citizens’ rights.

Since the campaign of street protests began on April 7, hundreds of
opposition activists and their supporters nationwide have reportedly been
harassed, detained and jailed. The crackdown was strongly condemned by Human
Rights Watch last week. “The Armenian government is repeating the same sorts
of abuses that called into question the legitimacy of last year’s election
and sparked the protests in the first place,” Rachel Denber, acting
executive director of HRW’s New Europe and Central Asia division, said in a
May 4 statement. “The cycle of repression must end.”

In a separate 21-page report, the New York-based watchdog group provided a
detailed account of the “mass arrest and police violence against opposition
supporters.” It singled out the brutal break-up of an opposition rally on
Yerevan’s Marshal Baghramian Avenue leading to Kocharian’s residence on the
night from April 12-13. Riot police used water cannons, stun grenades and,
according to some witnesses, electric-shock equipment to disperse the crowd
of between 2,000 and 3,000 protesters. The police arrested and seriously
injured at least 115 people and ransacked the offices of the three main
opposition parties, the report states.

Despite the PACE and HRW criticisms, the authorities last week continued to
arrest dozens of participants in unsanctioned protests and to sentence some
of them to up to 15 days in prison under Armenia’s Soviet-era Code of
Administrative Offenses. They also restricted provincial residents’ access
to Yerevan ahead of a May 4 opposition rally, effectively ignoring the PACE
demand to “guarantee freedom of movement inside Armenia.”

The Justice and AMK leaders have given Kocharian until May 14 to end the
crackdown and release all “political prisoners.” What they will do if those
demands are not met, though, is not yet clear. Another march towards the
presidential palace remains a possibility, even though opposition members
have twice delayed it. The postponement of the march has prompted some
commentators to conclude that their bid to emulate the Georgian experience
has already failed.

“We never intended to repeat the Georgian scenario here,” opposition leader
and former Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian, told EurasiaNet on May 4 while he
and his allies led about 10,000 people in a march towards the Armenian
police headquarters. “First of all, because Robert Kocharian is very far
from being a [deposed Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze in terms of
his commitment to democracy and popularity; secondly, today’s rally showed
that we are gaining momentum, not losing it.”

Even if no “decisive action” results from this week’s talks, Sarkisan said,
the opposition will press on with its protests. “What else can the people do
apart from gathering, expressing their views and holding marches?”

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