Mar 5th 2008
From the Economist Intelligence Unit
Post-election violence has killed eight people in Armenia
Armenia’s police and armed forces have killed at least eight demonstrators, who were part of mass protests alleging vote-fraud in the recent presidential election. The resort to lethal force is surprising in the Armenian context. Although an uneasy calm has been restored, the authorities’ conduct raises questions about the country's political stability, as well as its progress towards democracy.
On March 1st Armenia’s outgoing president, Robert Kocharian, declared a 20-day state of emergency in Armenia, banning mass gatherings and placing the local media under censorship, prohibiting them from reporting all but official briefings. Officials had warned on several occasions that the post-election demonstrations were illegal and, according to the authorities, Mr Kocharian signed the relevant presidential decree when earlier attempts to disperse the demonstrators failed. Although police had succeeded in removing protesters from the city's main square earlier in the day, several thousand subsequently regrouped, barricading themselves into streets in central Yerevan, following what they described as the de facto house arrest of the opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian.
When the demonstrators refused to leave, riot police and security forces moved in. As the clashes intensified, some protesters set fire to police vehicles. Once the state of emergency was declared, armoured personnel carriers were deployed to break up the demonstration. Only when Mr Ter-Petrosian sent a message to the demonstrators to leave the scene did the protesters finally disperse. In the violence, at least eight demonstrators were killed and over a hundred injured. The authorities have since stated that they had information that the protesters were planning to use weapons to seize power. Although reports indicate that some of the demonstrators were indeed armed, the opposition has also credibly claimed that arms caches were planted by the authorities to provide a pretext for the crackdown, and that so-called provocateurs had infiltrated the demonstration to provoke violence.
The crisis follows ten days of continuous demonstrations in Armenia's capital, where opposition protesters had camped out in the city's main square in an attempt to force a rerun of the February 19th presidential election. According to the official results, the establishment candidate, Serzh Sarkisian, won 52.8% of the vote in the first round. Mr Ter-Petrosian (a former president who broke a decade-long political silence to contest the election) received 21.5% based on the official vote count—a result decried by his supporters as fraudulent. In the run-up to the election and on polling day itself there were many accounts of intimidation and violence against opposition activists and journalists, with reports of vote-buying, multiple voting and ballot-box stuffing.
International observers, led by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) had judged the election to be "mostly in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards", while noting the need for “further improvements” to tackle the “remaining challenges.” However, all the opposition candidates rejected the official result and several lodged an appeal with the Constitutional Court, requesting that the court overturn the result and authorise a fresh election.
A population at breaking point?
The scale of the post-election protests took observers and the authorities by surprise, given the opposition's poor record in galvanising support and, in the run-up to the election, a prevailing sense of apathy among the electorate. Previous elections—none of which were judged free and fair by ODIHR observers—passed largely without event, although demonstrations in early 2004 in protest at the previous year's polls were also suppressed by security forces.
Before the election Mr Ter-Petrosian was unable to rally all of the opposition behind him. Many citizens remembered not just his period in office in the 1990s, which coincided with the economic hardships brought about in part by the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh, but also his decision in 1996 to order tanks on to the streets to quell post-election protests. However, he has since become the leader of an anti-government movement that is protesting not just at the February election result, but also at the electoral process as a whole, in which any hope of a rotation of power has long since dwindled.
Compounding disillusionment with the electoral process is the perception that only a small elite have benefited from Armenia's rapid economic growth of recent years. Yerevan is in many ways a changed city from even five years ago, with a gleaming new central residential and commercial district (for which many residents were forcibly evicted and moved to apartments in the city suburbs to make way for the new buildings), rising numbers of visitors--albeit mainly from the diaspora--and a proliferation of shops and cafes.
Yet life is becoming increasingly expensive for many citizens, as the presence of monopoly importers of staple goods such as fuel and some foodstuffs has meant that a strengthening currency has had little impact on prices of staple goods. The stronger dram has also weakened the incomes of those households receiving remittances from family members working overseas. And corruption is still rife, with the public perceiving little official effort to combat it. Parliament is viewed as acting to safeguard the interests of its members rather than those of Armenia's citizens.
Keeping up appearances
The use of force to bring an end to the protest highlights the polarisation of Armenia's political scene, where confrontation has tended to supersede dialogue in resolving political differences. Whether the authorities and the opposition can now embark on negotiations to break the impasse is questionable. The president-elect, Mr Sarkisian, has kept a relatively low profile throughout the recent events, and during the ten-day period of demonstrations had called on the opposition to co-operate, inviting them to participate in coalition talks.
In this he was partially successful, persuading Artur Baghdasarian, leader of the Orinats Yerkir party to join his government. Mr Baghdasarian and his party have switched sides several times in the past few years, first participating in a coalition government with the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA, Mr Sarkisian's party) in 2003-06. Orinats Yerkir then contested the May 2007 election on an opposition platform, coming third. Mr Baghdasarian declined to support Mr Ter-Petrosian in the February 2008 election, and Mr Ter-Petrosian has denounced his decision to switch back to Mr Sarkisian.
In the aftermath of the March 1st events Mr Sarkisian is likely to continue to pursue the tactic of co-option. The OSCE has sent a representative to Yerevan to assist in the negotiations, and Mr Sarkisian has probably judged that international backing for him will be greatest if he is seen to push for talks with the opposition, aimed at bringing them into government in some way. He is nevertheless likely to reject any calls by the opposition for a fresh election.
Despite the opposition's display of relative unity in recent days, this could prove shallow when tested. Moreover, if opposition leaders refuse to enter into talks, they could risk losing international support. Western countries will have little appetite for further upheavals in the South Caucasus, and are unlikely to back prolonged opposition demonstrations if the authorities can demonstrate that they have proffered an olive branch.
The Kocharian question
Should it prove necessary, Mr Sarkisian might attempt to dissociate himself from Mr Kocharian, given that it was the outgoing president who imposed the state of emergency that culminated in Saturday's crackdown. Whether Mr Kocharian has a political future after he relinquishes the presidency—until now, he seemed on course to become prime minister—is questionable.
On the one hand, if he wins the support of hardliners and those members of the Republican Party dissatisfied with Mr Sarkisian--the party chairman--then Mr Kocharian could argue that the events of recent days highlight the need for a strong prime minister. His appointment to the position would be sure to enflame the opposition, with the events of the past few days further eroding his already weak legitimacy. On the other hand, given the enhanced powers that the prime minister's office now has, following constitutional reforms enacted in 2005, Mr Sarkisian might opt to appoint a weaker figure to the post, thereby ensuring that he retains power in the presidency and simultaneously sidelines Mr Kocharian.
With the state of emergency in force at least until March 20th, and Mr Ter-Petrosian urging his supporters to observe the ban on demonstrations, an uneasy calm is likely to prevail in the coming weeks. The next flashpoint is likely to be the presidential inauguration, probably on April 9th, when the risk of renewed violence is high. If the two sides have been unable to resolve the impasse by then, Mr Sarkisian will have an uphill battle to persuade the public of his commitment to democratic process.