Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenian President Cracks Down

Dozens are hurt or arrested in the centre of Yerevan as the Armenian opposition calls for the resignation of President Kocharian.
By Rita Karapetian

Armenian president Robert Kocharian moved to suppress a campaign to remove him from office this week by ordering the brutal break-up of an opposition demonstration.

Several people were wounded and many more were hurt in the early hours of April 13 when police dispersed the demonstrators in the centre of Yerevan with water cannons, batons and stun grenades.

President Kocharian, who has been fighting a concerted opposition campaign against him for the last three months, inspired by Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” made it clear that he intends to hit back hard at his opponents. “The authorities have the resources to restrain political extremism in a legal way,” he said on television after the demonstration was broken up.

The opposition, many of whose leaders briefly went into hiding, say they will continue protesting and have called another rally for the evening of April 16.

Several international figures, including US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher and Walter Schwimmer, general secretary of the Council of Europe, have expressed concern at the crackdown.

The opposition leaders, who failed to unseat Kocharian in disputed presidential elections last year, have been employing other tactics since the start of this year. They failed to get a draft law through parliament that would have made possible a referendum vote of no confidence in the president. In February, they began boycotting parliamentary sessions altogether.

On April 9, the first anniversary of Kocharian’s inauguration for a second term, they convened a demonstration, attended – by various estimates – by between 10 and 25,000 people. The speakers and demonstrators all called for Kocharian to step down.

At the same time, two secretaries of two opposition groups in parliament, Viktor Dallakian of Justice and Aleksan Karapetian of National Unity, held talks with parliamentary speaker Artur Bagdasarian, demanding that the assembly debate a new draft law allowing for a no confidence referendum in the president. They set a deadline of April 12, when a three-day parliament session was due to begin, for the proposal to be accepted.

The governing coalition rejected the proposal as unconstitutional but issued a statement saying that it was ready “to sit down at the negotiating table to discuss any issues concerning the domestic political situation, including the issue of the legality of the proposal being put forward”. The opposition said it would boycott the new parliamentary session.

The opposition went ahead with a demonstration on Freedom Square on the evening of April 12, in the face of a stern warning from the police that the event was unsanctioned and that they would “defend law and order, the rights and security of citizens”.

Thousands of demonstrators began to march towards the presidential offices, but their way was blocked by heavy police units and barbed wire. Water cannon stood at the ready. The march was halted in Marshal Bagramian Avenue in front of the parliament building. The demonstrators stopped where they were and continued their protest, shouting the slogan “Kocharian, resign!”

Around 2AM, the police struck with force. More than two dozen people were injured, many ending up in hospital. Amongst those hurt were several Armenian and Russian journalists. Haik Gevorkian, a photographer with the opposition newspaper Haikakan Zhamanak, said the police began to beat him when he took pictures of them dispersing the crowd. Gevorkian’s camera was smashed and he was hospitalised for his injuries.

The police said 115 people were arrested, of whom two thirds were released very quickly. The opposition said the number of those detained exceeded 250. No reliable figures are available on how many people are still in detention. Four opposition parliamentary deputies – Arshak Sadoyan, Aleksan Karapetian, Shavarsh Kocharian and Vardan Mkrtchian – were detained but later set free. The police also raided and searched the offices of the three main opposition parties.

A police statement said that officers themselves had been attacked first by demonstrators with Molotov cocktails and that they had had to use force to “ward off danger to the lives and health of policemen and other citizens”. President Kocharian warned the opposition that “responsibility for what has happened lies in the first instance with forces that preach political extremism”.

“Today the opposition has a chance to return to normal work,” Kocharian said. “If this does not happen and the opposition takes a different path, then the authorities have the legal resources to ensure the safety of the people and to prevent any new outbreak of disorder.”

The opposition, however, said it would continue its struggle. Stepan Demirchian, who lost the 2003 presidential election to Kocharian, called the police action “a plot by the authorities against its own people”. Another veteran opposition leader Vazgen Manukian told IWPR, “Robert Kocharian is doomed. We will continue the fight to establish law in the country and we take responsibility for our all our actions.”

Former prime minister Aram Sarkisian said, “We will continue our rallies and marches. As for the authorities, they have no tactics except using force and if they weaken in their use of force then the pyramid of power will collapse.

“Even if all the leaders of the opposition are arrested, then the April 16 rally will still go ahead. Our only demand at the rally is the resignation of Robert Kocharian.”

Demirchian said that dialogue with the Kocharian administration was possible only if those responsible for the violence of April 12-13 were punished.

Leaders of the pro-presidential coalition in parliament said they were ready for dialogue with the opposition, but rejected the latter’s claims to legitimacy.

“The people of Armenia are not interested in an imminent change of power,” said Vahan Ovanesian of the Dashnak Party who is deputy speaker of parliament. “The people have not put this question on the agenda. Just a few thousand people, maybe more than 10,000 have taken part in rallies and events over these past few days. And that means that the people do not share the concerns of the opposition.”

Many in Yerevan also point out that, in contrast to Georgia, the Armenian opposition has not picked up the kind of support that its Georgian counterparts used to carry out last November’s “Rose Revolution”.

“A ‘Rose Revolution’ is impossible in Armenia because we don’t have such a weak governing regime and such a kind police force,” said Harutiun Khachatrian, a political analyst with the Noyan Tapan news agency.

Khachatrian said that the economic situation was better in Armenia than in Georgia, which also reduced the number of people ready to confront the government, “Many people are unhappy with Kocharian’s policy but not many of them are ready to join the ranks of the demonstrators.”

“A situation has developed in Armenia, when both the authorities and opposition are weak,” commented political analyst Alexander Iskandarian of the Caucasus Media Institute. He said that the Kocharian administration was both nervous and aggressive and the opposition poorly organised and divided. That lessened the chance of Kocharian being removed from office.

Rita Karapetian is a journalist with Noyan Tapan news agency in Yerevan.