Another excellent piece from influential The Economist. Highly recommend it! You may also wish to read Armenia: Blood on the streets (Economist)
Troubling news from the Caucasus
Mar 6th 2008 MOSCOW
From The Economist print edition
Bloodshed in Armenia worries both Russia and the West
THE day after Dmitry Medvedev's presidential victory, Moscow's leading papers turned their attention away from the long-predicted result to the unexpected bloodshed in Armenia. At least eight people were killed in clashes between security forces and opposition supporters protesting against alleged fraud in the country's presidential elections. “An election won with some blood”, ran the headline in Kommersant, a leading business daily.
Small, complicated and with names that are hard to spell, Armenia has long been out of the mainstream of world news. Yet what happens in this country has implications not only for the whole of the Caucasus, a region vital for Europe's energy security, but also for Russia. The story of rigged elections, corrupt officials and dead protesters is particularly unnerving for Russia, a country that prides itself on its stability.
On February 19th Armenia held presidential elections. The incumbent prime minister, Serzh Sarkisian, assisted by a biased media and occasional stuffing of the ballot boxes, won 53% of the vote. If the election had been conducted fairly, there is a good chance he would have faced a second round and a possible defeat. But Mr Sarkisian had the backing of Robert Kocharian, the current president, which swung the result. (Mr Kocharian, it is said, fancies the job of prime minister—not unlike his Russian counterpart.)
International observers did not cover themselves in glory. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe pointed out many shortcomings, yet said in an initial statement that the ballot was “mostly in line with the country's international commitments”.
The opposition, led by Levon Ter-Petrosian, an academic and Armenia's first president, demanded a re-run of the election. His supporters took to the streets. Mr Ter-Petrosian is no democratic angel. In 1996 he is widely believed to have rigged the presidential election in his favour. Still, those who voted for him this time did so largely in protest against the local mafia, corruption and unemployment now associated with Mr Kocharian.
For 11 days the government put up with the peaceful protest. But on March 1st, the police moved in on the pretext that protesters were carrying firearms, which some observers say were planted. Mr Ter-Petrosian was placed under de facto house arrest and the crowd was dispersed. Predictably it regrouped and gathered in front of the French embassy in Yerevan. Mr Kocharian sent in the army, and the area was soon lit up with tracer fire.
Eight people were killed, cars were torched and shops were looted. Many protesters were armed with stones and metal poles. But the responsibility ultimately lies with the government which allowed the situation to deteriorate into chaos. The state of emergency now imposed by Mr Kocharian for 20 days, including a media blackout and the arrest of opposition figures, may temporarily suppress the protests, but it is unlikely to resolve the underlying problems.
These include corruption, low living standards and an economic blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey because of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-populated enclave inside Azerbaijan that was conquered by Armenia in 1994. This conflict has long been frozen. But three days after the violence in Yerevan, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces were involved in their worst firefight in a decade. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan accuse each other of starting the skirmish, which caused a disputed number of deaths on both sides.
Claiming that Kosovo's declaration of independence last month has emboldened Armenian separatists, Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliev, has given warning that he is buying weapons to retake Nagorno-Karabakh by force, if necessary. A renewed war could destabilise the region and jeopardise a strategic oil pipeline to Turkey that runs only 15 kilometres (ten miles) from the ceasefire line.
Nagorno-Karabakh remains an open sore. Mr Ter-Petrosian's downfall in 1998 was mainly caused by his hints of a more flexible approach to a peace settlement with Azerbaijan. Both Mr Kocharian and Mr Sarkisian are from Nagorno-Karabakh and fought in the war, but they have done little to move towards peace. In a recent commentary in the Washington Post, Mr Ter-Petrosian dismissed the notion that only hardliners from Nagorno-Karabakh can solve the conflict. Indeed, he argues that Mr Sarkisian, whose presidency is now marred by bloodshed and incompetence, will be even less able to govern.
Russia and the West have an interest in Armenia's stability, and they need to work to maintain it. This could be Mr Medvedev's first foreign test as president.