ARMENIA: A Month of Unrest Intensifies Showdown Between President and Opposition
Vladimir Beron «View Bio

April 29, 2004

Year-long tensions between the administration of President Robert Kocharian and leading opposition groups boiled over in April, unleashing a series of street protests that were met at times with violence by the authorities, which triggered international condemnation. At the core of the conflict are demands by opposition leaders for a referendum of confidence in Kocharian, accused of winning re-election last March by using fraud and intimidation.  The referendum idea was initially proposed by the Constitutional Court in April 2003 in an effort to ease the tensions caused by the allegations of ballot manipulation that seemed to be confirmed by European institutions and the U.S. The Kocharian administration turned down the idea as unconstitutional, and the parliament rejected it in February, 2004. 

The main opposition groups, the Artarutiun Alliance and the National Unity Party, announced on April 5 that they are joining forces for a wave of street protests in response to mass arrests the previous day of anti-government activists. Among the dozens of activists arrested in Yerevan was also Suren Sureniants, the leader of the Hanrapetutiun Party, which is a member of Artarutiun. Meanwhile, outside of the capital, unidentified assailants staged attacks on opposition leaders, including on former parliamentarian and People"s Party of Armenia leader Aramayis Barseghian, who was beaten in front of his home in Artashat. The police failed to intervene in any of these incidents, and justified the arrests of opposition leaders with concerns for a violent overthrow of the government.

Police in Yerevan also stood idly by when thugs, later identified by opposition leaders as members of security outfits for several prominent businessmen with strong links to the Kocharian administration, smashed video equipment belonging to journalists trying to film protests on April 5. The assailants also pelted with eggs opposition activists and threw firecrackers in the crowds of protestors. Police officials said that the disturbances are seen merely as political disagreements. On April 8, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) released a statement, criticizing the authorities for their failure to prevent attacks on journalists, and called for a criminal probe into the incidents. 

The opposition, nonetheless, continued with protest actions, ignoring warnings by Kocharian and other senior government officials that the authorities will not hesitate to employ force to restore order. And indeed they did so. On April 13, the police brutally dispersed demonstrators in the capital, injuring many and arresting scores of people. The same day, the U.S. State Department expressed concern over the violence, as well as over police raids on opposition offices, and the mass arrests of government opponents.  Ambassadors of EU countries also expressed concern and offered to mediate the crisis.  The Council of Europe criticized the violence on April 14, as did the speaker of the Armenian parliament, Artur Baghdasarian, who offered to broker talks to settle the crisis.

The ruling three-party coalition proposed on April 15 negotiations on constitutional reform and amending the electoral law, but the opposition rejected the offer and vowed to continue with protest actions until those responsible for the violent breakup of the April 13 demonstrations are held criminally liable. Large demonstrations took place in Yerevan on April 16, and again on April 21. Energy Minister Armen Movsisian warned on April 21 that the opposition"s demands for Kocharian"s resignation were threatening the implementation of a vital pipeline project for importing gas from Iran, as well as a $140 million loan from Japan for the construction of a thermal power station near Yerevan.  The minister stressed that the unrest is diminishing Armenia"s international reputation.

While tensions showed no sign of easing, leaders of the ruling coalition and the opposition did convene a gathering in parliament on April 26. Talks, however, broke off shortly thereafter, and opposition supporters staged on April 27 more rallies in Yerevan.  Meanwhile, Kocharian, who at the time was holding talks over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the Polish capital Warsaw with the Azeri president, branded the latest protest actions by the opposition as acts of treason and political crimes, since they were held while he was trying to negotiate a settlement of the long-standing territorial dispute over the Armenian dominated province in Azerbaijan. Undeterred, the opposition announced plans for staging what it calls a final march on the presidential seat in Yerevan on May 5.

Given the rapidly deteriorating political crisis and the unapologetic use of force by the Kocharian regime in its efforts to suppress the current wave of public discontent, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) issued a formal resolution on April 28, condemning the violence against opposition activists. The resolution called on the government to lift all restrictions on peaceful protests, release imprisoned opposition supporters, investigate any human rights abuses, and report its findings to PACE. It also said the regime should submit a written report by June for the progress on its compliance with the PACE demands, or face suspension of Armenian representatives" accreditations.

April"s tumultuous events clearly indicate that the opposition"s leadership is not prepared to wait until the next election round in 2006-2007, and is steadfastly determined to unseat Kocharian by all means available. Their tactics are reminiscent of those employed in the so-called revolution of roses that brought down the regime of Edward Shevardnadze in neighboring Georgia last Fall. Unlike Shevardnadze, however, Kocharian has shown no hesitation in using force to preserve his office, therefore, the coming weeks could prove even more volatile. Another difference is that despite the vocal criticism from PACE and some EU member states, the U.S. and Russia, arguably the two foreign powers with most influence over Kocharian, have thus far made only tacit calls for normalization of the situation, and there is no evidence that either is prepared to exert pressure on the regime.                                
Armenia is strategically positioned in the midst of the South Caucasus region, which is gaining increasing importance as a transit route for Caspian oil, so neither of the world powers is seeking to encourage a regime change by use of force or in a popular uprising.  The prevailing concern is that the snowballing effect will give impetus to government opponents in oil-rich Azerbaijan, where the opposition is still simmering from last year"s presidential elections that were widely assessed as fraudulent. There is a fair chance that the current wave of public unrest will wither away, as it did last year after the Kocharian re-election, but the opposition appears more united now, so instability is likely to persist.

Vladimir Beron is Senior Risk Analyst with the international risk management group Sentigence.