Revolution in Georgia: What Next for Armenia?

Revolution in Georgia: What Next for Armenia?
Posted on Wednesday, June 02 2004
By Onnik Krikorian

Great Reporter
June 2 2004

The activists behind Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” made history by
ousting President Eduard Shevarnadze – now their neighbours are
eyeing a similar bid for democracy.

When the newly-elected president of the Republic of Georgia, Mikhail
Saakashvili, forced his way into parliament last November and sealed
the fate of his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, there were few
analysts that didn’t examine what impact the “Rose Revolution” might
have on neighbouring Republics.

Since Azerbaijan showed no sign of any increased political activity,
all attention turned to Armenia where last month, the opposition took
to the streets in an attempt to replicate events in Georgia.
Throughout April, thousands rallied to call for the resignation of
the Armenian President, Robert Kocharyan, re-elected for a second
term in flawed elections held last year.

At first, however, there were more immediate concerns. Land-locked
and blockaded by Turkey and Azerbaijan, approximately 90 per cent of
all Armenian trade goes through its northern neighbour. Had
trade-routes been affected, it would have spelt disaster for the
poverty-stricken Republic. Although there has been economic growth in
recent years, it has mainly benefited the corrupt and connected.

Half the population lives below the national poverty line and over
one million Armenians have left the country to find work and a better
life abroad.

Inspired by the November events in Georgia, therefore, the first
demonstration held by an opposition party in the Armenian capital,
Yerevan, eventually took place on 5 April, almost a year after
President Robert Kocharian’s controversial inauguration. But whereas
President Eduard Shevardnadze was reluctant to use force to suppress
the protests in Georgia, the Armenian president was not.

More than a dozen shaven-head thugs, believed to be the bodyguards of
oligarchs close to the authorities, threw eggs at opposition figures
and attacked journalists, smashing the cameras of photographers and
film crews. However, the worst was yet to come. In the early hours of
13 April, after 15,000 opposition supporters marched on the
Presidential Palace only to be halted in their tracks by razor wire
blocking the road, a core group of 2-3,000 camped overnight on
Yerevan’s central Marshal Baghramian Avenue.

At 2am, water cannon and stun grenades were used to disperse peaceful
demonstrators who were then ambushed by groups of riot police waiting
on street corners as they fled the scene. According to eye witness
accounts, the Deputy Head of the Armenian Police, Hovannes Varyan, is
alleged to have personally beaten one photographer, Hayk Gevorkian,
from the pro-opposition Haykakan Zhamanak newspaper. Other
journalists including a Russian TV cameraman were also attacked.

Hundreds of opposition activists, including two opposition MPs, were
detained and others beaten and allegedly tortured in custody. As was
the case during and immediately after the 2003 Presidential
Elections, freedom of movement in the republic was restricted and
roads into the capital were blocked in order to prevent supporters
from the regions attending this and later rallies.

As a result, Human Rights Watch and the Council of Europe issued a
stern warning to the Armenian Government that any repeat of such an
incident would be unacceptable. They also demanded the immediate
release of more than a dozen leading activists whom human rights
activists consider political prisoners. The request, however, fell on
deaf ears.

But despite the perseverance of the opposition, many analysts
conclude that attempts to remove Kocharyan from power were doomed
from the outset. Despite his unpopularity in Georgia, Shevardnadze
was nonetheless more democratic than his Armenian counterpart who
many consider autocratic and ruthless in comparison.

But the reasons for the failure of the opposition to achieve regime
change in Armenia, however, go far deeper than that. One other factor
has been the lack of a figure on any side of the political divide
with the charisma and credibility of Mikhail Saakashvili, the new
president of Georgia. In last year’s presidential elections, for
example, Kocharyan’s main opponent was the son of the former
communist-era boss of Armenia, Karen Demirchyan.

Although Stepan Demirchyan has the support of some part of the
population at least, he lacks the oratory skills and experience of
other less popular but more dynamic figures in the opposition such as
Artashes Geghamian of the National Unity Party and Aram Z Sargsyan of
the Republic Party. Even today, Demirchyan remains in the background
at opposition rallies, allowing others to take center stage.

And whereas Shevardnadze was reliant on the United States to maintain
power, Moscow rules the roost in Armenia. Last year, the Americans
might have pulled the rug out from underneath the Georgian
President’s feet but there are so far no signs that Russian President
Vladimir Putin will do the same to Kocharyan. Armenia remains
Moscow’s last outpost in the Southern Caucasus.

However, while attempts to unseat the Armenian President will prove
an uphill struggle, street demonstrations continue. Moreover, as the
situation remains unpredictable, it is not impossible that regime
change could happen in Armenia. At the very least, recent events in
Georgia have contributed to the emergence of an active opposition for
the first time since 1996 and civil rights activists are finding a
new lease of life.

Moreover, in a few years, Armenia will find itself in the exact same
situation that gave birth to the Georgian “Rose Revolution” with
parliamentary elections scheduled for 2007 determining the outcome of
presidential elections to be held the following year. Although it is
not unthinkable that President Kocharian might attempt to run for a
third term in office in 2008, he is prohibited from doing so under
the Armenian constitution.

And if the Georgian experiment with democracy is seen to be
successful, many in Armenia might eventually conclude that the only
way to break free from the vicious cycle of stagnation and regression
in place is to completely overthrow the system. Until then, leading
international bodies such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House
have warned that democracy, human rights and media freedom are
already in decline as a direct result of the president’s attempts to
cling on to power.

In the meantime, current events in Armenia can perhaps be viewed in
the context of both the government and opposition preparing for an
inevitable change of power that will have to occur by 2008 at the
very latest and quite possibly, depending on other domestic and
external factors, even earlier than that.

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