Armenian president in control as opposition protests fizzle out

Emil Danielyan: 6/09/04

EurasiaNet Organization
June 9 2004

Armenia’s President Robert Kocharian appears to have warded off a
challenge to his authority, surviving a two-month opposition protest
campaign that aimed to force his resignation. Even though the protests
failed to attract large numbers of Armenians, some political analysts
in Yerevan say the opposition campaign inflicted considerable political
damage on Kocharian.

Since April, opposition leaders had promised “decisive action”
against Kocharian. At the most recent street protest June 4 in
central Yerevan, however, the opposition acknowledged that it lacked
sufficient backing to fulfill its aim, and abandoned plans to march on
Kocharian’s residence. “We believe that we are not yet ready to carry
out actions needed for achieving our final victory,” a leading member
of the opposition Justice bloc, Albert Bazeyan, told a thinning crowd.

The unrest stemmed from the February-March 2003 presidential election
in which Kocharian secured a second term amid allegations of vote
rigging. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. His
opponents still refuse to recognize the legitimacy of his reelection
and were unsuccessful in a 2003 attempt to have the voting results
invalidated. Kocharian critics later decided to embrace protest
tactics, striving to imitate the success of Georgian President
Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power amid the “Rose Revolution”
in Tbilisi. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The opposition unveiled the protest strategy in early April. The
most critical moment occurred early on in the protest campaign, as
riot police, during the early hours of April 13, dispersed opposition
protesters as they marched towards Kocharian’s official residence in
Yerevan. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The leaders of Armenia’s two main opposition groups, the Justice
bloc and the National Unity Party (AMK), have since continued the
unsanctioned rallies in the city center. The protests have flagged
in recent weeks as many opposition supporters grew increasingly
frustrated over the lack of “decisive action.”

Bazeyan and other opposition leaders said they will continue to rally
supporters in the capital to keep up pressure on the authorities.
“There will be no stability in the country as long as Kocharian remains
in power because stability and Kocharian are incompatible things,”
the most radical of them, Aram Sarkisian, said.

But few observers believe that demonstrations attended by several
thousand people will pose a serious threat to the ruling regime.
Given the effective end of the protest campaign, political analysts
are examining the question of why the Armenian opposition failed
to mobilize what one of its leaders described as a “critical mass”
of demonstrators.

In the view of Aghasi Yenokian, director of the independent Armenian
Center for Political and International Studies, Justice and the
AMK never had a clear action plan. He said the opposition also lost
popular trust due to its inability to successfully press its appeal
over the presidential election tally. “The opposition has shown on
several occasions that it can let the people down at any moment,”
Yenokian said.

Still, some local political experts believe that the protests,
which provoked the worst-ever government crackdown on the Armenian
opposition, dealt a blow to Kocharian’s legitimacy at home and
abroad. That, they say, could open new cracks in the country’s shaky
governing coalition, rendering the medium- to long-term political
situation in the country unpredictable.

“Armenia is entering a period of political apathy where there is no
effective government and [no] effective opposition,” said a recent
commentary in the pro-opposition daily Haykakan Zhamanak.

Authorities have maintained throughout that the opposition protest
campaign was unconstitutional. On June 8, one of Kocharian’s top allies
declared victory in the political struggle. “The opposition has failed
to achieve its goals,” Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said.

Throughout the crisis, Kocharian stressed that Armenia’s strong
security apparatus ensured that a repetition of the “Georgian scenario”
would not occur in Yerevan. At the same time, Kocharian has sought
to placate building popular frustration.

Kocharian has long tried to cast himself as the custodian of a
fast-growing economy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight
archive]. The benefits of economic growth, though, are not evenly
distributed in Armenia, as many in the country continue to grapple
with poverty. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight
archive]. In recent weeks, Kocharian has expressed renewed interest in
improving living conditions. His schedule in early June, for example,
was full of meetings, heavily publicized by state-controlled television
channels, with officials at all levels of government to examine issues
ranging from suspected corruption in high school graduation exams to
patchy supplies of drinking water.

In addition to the high-profile effort to address popular concerns,
authorities have cracked down on the opposition, arresting hundreds of
government critics. The crackdown continued even after strong criticism
voiced by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in late
April. Since then, a 24-year-old man has been sentenced to an 18-month
jail term for hurling a plastic bottle at a riot police officer during
the April 12-13 events. Four other opposition activists received up
to 15-month prison sentences stemming from their participation in
another protest.

Although Kocharian is the winner of the latest round, experts
believe the political bout will continue. Yenokian, for one, viewed
the deepening intra-governmental infighting as a source of political
turmoil down the road. “The processes should not be considered over,”
the analyst said. “They may well have a continuation.”

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

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS