Mar 27th 2008 YEREVAN
From The Economist print edition
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.”