Economist: Troubled Armenia: Protests Continued

TROUBLED ARMENIA: PROTESTS CONTINUED

Economist
d/europe/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10925842
March 27 2008
UK

Armenia is still teetering, and war clouds are gathering

IN HIS Easter service Karekin II, spiritual leader of Armenian
Christians, exhorted his congregation to be "one flock, with one
shepherd". For diplomats present the prelate’s words were laced
with meaning. Might he be urging Armenians to rally behind the
president-elect, Serzh Sarkisian?

Over a month after Mr Sarkisian, the prime minister, declared victory
in the February 19th presidential election, his future is uncertain.

Trouble began when thousands of protesters led by his rival, Levon
Ter-Petrosian, took to the streets, claiming that Mr Sarkisian stole
the vote. The protests turned bloody when eight people were killed
on March 1st. Emergency rule was imposed, although it was lifted as
promised on March 21st. But later that day hundreds of riot police
intervened when a largely female crowd tried to hold a vigil in memory
of the dead.

Opposition supporters are being arrested in droves. One activist
alleged that his car was torched because he backed a pro-opposition
news channel, Gala. A hastily crafted law to bar political gatherings
has been approved by parliament. Such tactics are calculated to stifle
opposition for good. But can they?

Some Western diplomats fret that Armenia’s strife might tempt a
bellicose Azerbaijan to try and regain control of the disputed enclave
of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azeris are said to be spooked by Kosovo’s
successful campaign for independence and fear that Nagorno-Karabakh
might win international recognition. Ominously, Azerbaijan threatened
to pull out of international peace talks after America, Russia and
France voted against a UN resolution calling for the withdrawal of
Armenian forces from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding region. This
follows some of the deadliest border skirmishes between Azeri and
Armenian forces in years.

Mr Sarkisian is due to be sworn in on April 9th. He "needs to win
the confidence of the Armenian people, so that we may unite before
this threat [from Azerbaijan]," says one official. The surest way
to do that would be to order an independent investigation of the
March 1st events, declare an amnesty for recent political detainees,
and form a cabinet untainted by graft, suggests Anahit Bakshian,
an opposition member of parliament.

The Americans are threatening to freeze millions of dollars in aid.

Armenia should "pull itself together and get back on a democratic
path," says Dan Fried, of the State Department. Or Armenia "may go the
Belarus way," says Mrs Bakshian. Yet few believe that this is what Mr
Sarkisian would choose. Although a nationalist and no liberal, he has
presided over record growth and a sharp reduction in poverty. A chess
player and veteran of the Karabakh war in the 1990s, Mr Sarkisian
has kept close ties with Russia even as he has courted the West.

Mikhail Baghdassarov, a businessman and ally of Mr Sarkisian, believes
he will usher in young Western-trained technocrats and make the
market-friendly governor of the central bank, Tigran Sarkisian, prime
minister. Mr Ter-Petrosian vows to keep his supporters on the streets
until the election is overturned. There is a whiff of revenge about
his campaign, but his fiery talk of justice and freedom has inspired
Armenians. "Until this election I wasn’t interested in politics. Levon
gave us the feeling that we can shape our own destiny," says a young
Armenian painter. "No amount of repression can take that feeling away."

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