Dim Prospects for Sarkissian after Armenia`s Post-election Violence
The violent suppression of the opposition rally on 1-2 March has opened up a gaping schism in the Armenian body politic. Following the deaths of several dozen protesters, the Kocharyan-Sarkissian duo is bound to lose some supporters, while some neutral voters may chose to join the opposition. The battle for power may be drawn out, and its conclusion is far from certain but, so far, it is evident that the foundations of the ruling regime have been profoundly shaken.
BACKGROUND: The 19 February 2008 presidential election in Armenia was expected to see a smooth transfer of power from the current president, Robert Kocharyan, to his long-time ally and current prime minister, Serzh Sarkissian. But Armenia`s first president turned opposition leader after a long absence from the political scene, Levon Ter-Petrossian, turned it into a bitter contest, drawing his supporters to the streets in record numbers, a sight unseen in Yerevan since the 1990s. According to official results, Serzh Sarkissian won the election in the first round, securing 52.8 per cent of the votes cast, while Ter-Petrossian trailed behind with 21.5 per cent.
The opposition alleges that mass fraud had taken place. Although independent information is hard to come by, Human Rights Watch documented the bullying and intimidation of opposition observers. On election day, numerous violent incidents and irregularities were reported such as vote buying, `carousel` voting (where the same people vote repeatedly), irregularities in the military`s voting and, crucially, in vote counting.
Nevertheless, according to the preliminary findings of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights election observation mission, the election `was administered mostly in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards.` Despite this finding, opposition parties heavily criticized the conduct of the elections.
The opposition contested the results and hit the streets for 11 days of non-stop protests. Many other opposition leaders rallied behind Ter-Petrossian. At the same time, a number of opposition politicians were detained and some senior foreign ministry officials and prosecutors, who publicly backed the opposition, were dismissed.
As the government felt increasingly insecure, it offered to set up a coalition government and managed to co-opt one of the most influential figures – former National Assembly Speaker and Chair of the `Orinats Yerkir` party, 40 year-old Arthur Baghdasarian. Following this success, in the early hours of 1 March, the police dispersed a rally at Yerevan`s Liberty Square and Ter-Petrossian was placed under de facto house arrest.
Notwithstanding the events earlier in the morning, later in the day protesters gathered in Miasniakian square, in the vicinity of the City Administration Hall and the embassies of France, Italy and Russia. During the day, there were possibly several hundred thousand people waiting for Ter-Petrossian, but also a strong police, interior forces and army presence.
By the evening, the atmosphere had become extremely tense and a violent standoff was widely expected. At the same time, the opposition leaders that had organized the rally disavowed and condemned incidents of violence, blaming them on government provocateurs. Small-scale violent incidents started to take place, and the looting of shops in downtown Yerevan also began. In the evening, about 10,000 protesters were still present at the square, burning cars and engaged in running battles with the security forces.
Security forces advanced towards the protesters and, according to official information, a violent standoff occurred which left at least eight people dead and about two hundred injured. Unofficial sources estimate as many as 20 dead.
Late on 1 March, outgoing President Kocharyan introduced a state of emergency for 20 days, which was upheld by the parliament. Media freedoms, freedom of assembly and political activity remain suspended.
Subsequent international reactions criticized the government for use of excessive force and violence to disperse demonstrators.
IMPLICATIONS: Ter-Petrossian`s success in running a popular campaign has shaken the governing Kocharyan-Sarkissian duo which, after ten years in power, seems to have grossly underestimated the extent of public dissatisfaction with the regime. The authorities clearly did not expect Ter-Petrossian to be capable of mustering a wave of popular protests, particularly given that he remains unpopular amongst many Armenians who remember the economic hardships that plagued his presidency in 1990s, while many disapprove of his position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, not only did he manage to attract people to the streets, but he has also managed to coalesce the fractious opposition political forces around him and, moreover, against the ruling regime. All of this occurred without Ter-Petrossian offering any specific program of change apart from a change of regime from the Kocharyan-Sarkissian `kleptocracy`. Especially worrying for Kocharyan and Sarkissian, who both come from Nagorno-Karabakh, were the signs of defections from the Yerevan elite in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the prosecutor`s office.
The electoral success, even if contested by the opposition, could have given Sarkissian a chance to re-assert control by playing on the opposition`s lack of internal coherence and a united program. Co-opting Arthur Baghdasarian was an important step in this regard. On the other hand, it is not clear how much power Baghdasarian now commands. Ter-Petrossian has been claiming for some time now that Baghdasarian`s supporters are joining him and Baghdasarian`s u-turn is unlikely to fare well with his voters.
On the other hand, the external situation played in the regime`s hands. The lack of foreign media attention to Armenia, the largely benevolent and superficial reports of international observers, and the keen interest of all neighbors and major powers to prevent any new hotspot from emerging made it easier for the government to quell the opposition tide. However, the death of protesters is a watershed which has made Armenia`s political future all too uncertain.
CONCLUSIONS: It is too early to tell how the political situation in Armenia will develop. However, several observations can be offered. To begin with, the options of the incumbent regime seem to be very limited. It is likely to try to run things `as usual`, put the blame for post-electoral violence on the opposition led by Ter-Petrossian and, step-by-step, isolate him. Co-opting Baghdasarian was one of the first steps in this direction. It remains to be seen whether Baghdasarian will be able to recover his credibility with his electorate and whether he will emerge as a serious contender for high-level political posts in the future.
But even if Sarkissian succeeds in calming the situation down, and keeps himself in power, his credibility has been severely undermined. Even many of his current supporters are likely to blame him for the events of 1-2 March for years to come. It is possible that the whole institution of the presidency could be weakened as a result, and that power will increasingly gravitate to the National Assembly.
The outgoing president, Robert Kocharyan, has not announced his future plans, but it is widely believed that he will implement the `Russian scenario` and replace Sarkissian as prime minister. By doing so, he will be able to contribute to the consolidation of his and Sarkissian`s power.
As for Ter-Petrossian, it remains to be seen whether his supporters will be able to sustain a protracted public protest when the state of emergency lifts. Should he be unsuccessful, he may have lost possibly his last chance to re-enter Armenian politics. So far, many of his supporters have been imprisoned, and some charged with attempting a coup d’état. Many went into hiding, fearing reprisals from the authorities.
In the short term, Armenia is likely to remain volatile, and the possibility of renewed violence is present. In the mid-term, two scenarios can be envisaged: stabilization with a broad coalition government with simmering discontent and pressures to `re-open` the political and media space; or increasingly hard authoritarianism, essentially military rule, keeping the opposition in jail.
AUTHOR`S BIO: Dr. Blanka Hancilova is analyst of international relations with a focus on the CIS and the co-founder of Apreco Consulting Group.This article first appeared in the March 5 edition of the CACI Analyst (http://www.cacianalyst.org/).