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

Fear of Police Curbs Armenian Dissent

Opposition say they are subjected to police persecution and their business supporters are intimidated.
By Gegham Vardanian
Armenia’s political opposition, which was strong enough to dominate the streets of the capital just last year, has withered away, the result, its activists say, of heavy-handed police repression.



During mass protests against the results of 2008 presidential elections, in which official results recorded opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian as losing heavily, clashes between activists and police resulted in ten deaths.



Dozens of activists from the Armenian National Congress, ANC, which backed Ter-Petrosian, were arrested. Most have now been released, but Armin Musinian, Ter-Petrosian’s spokesman, said 16 were still behind bars.



“In Armenia, being in the opposition means working in conditions of complete terror. The special services are monitoring your actions; the police are following you; your comrades are imprisoned and beaten up; small, medium and large businessmen supporting you are faced with economic terror; and television is practically closed to you,” he said.



The ANC is considered the more radical wing of the country’s opposition, while two opposition parties – Heritage and Dashnaktsutiun – both have seats in parliament. They all say they face police persecution, although Dashnaktsutiun left the ruling coalition only this year in protest against a peace deal with Turkey.



Ter-Petrosian’s spokesman said crime in the country had risen by 40-50 per cent in the last year as a direct result of the surveillance.



“Instead of doing their jobs, the police are only taking action against political nonconformists. Naturally, thieves, pickpockets and fraudsters are taking to this like fish to water,” Musinian said.



“The police have fully become a political instrument. Under the current regime the concepts of the state and the government have become the same.”



The opposition, he said, was frustrated by this constant attention. He said that in 2008 the ANC had 94 times asked for permission from the Yerevan administration to hold a demonstration, and been refused every single time. It is a serious accusation, but not one taken seriously by President Serzh Sargsian’s allies.



“At these protests they always repeat the same words about the bright future of the nation and the country. They say that as soon as they come to power, everything will be set right. But people do not believe these protests and actions,” said Galust Sahakian, who heads the parliamentary deputies of the president’s Republican Party, with heavy sarcasm.



“The government also does not pay too much attention to these protests and actions. These are repetitive, boring and ineffective acts. Therefore control by the authorities is unnecessary.”



At the Yerevan municipal elections this summer, the ANC received a solid 17.4 per cent of the vote, ahead of Dashnaktsutiun, which polled just 4.5 per cent, but far behind the Republican Party, which won 47.3 per cent, and Prosperous Armenia, the other pro-government party, with 22.7 per cent.



The authorities this year began to allow the ANC to hold occasional protests, although these have become rarer in recent months. Analysts say the movement, which is made up of 17 small parties, has given up hoping for Sargsian’s resignation and was preserving its strength for parliamentary elections in 2012.



The ANC’s leading position in opposition has been taken by Dashnaktsutiun, which was so angered by the signing of a “road map” towards peace with Turkey in April that it left the ruling coalition. The party is particularly strong in the Armenian diaspora, and its supporters see the deal as a betrayal of the demand that Turkey recognise as genocide the mass killings of Armenians at the end of the Ottoman period.



However, analysts say it is not an effective opposition force.



“This party for ten years was in power and was connected in different ways to the government, so it cannot go into deep opposition,” Yervand Bozoian, a political analyst, said.



Armen Badalian, another analyst, said, “People see that when there are ANC protests all the roads into Yerevan are closed so people from the regions cannot get to the demonstrations. When there are Dashnaktsutiun protests, this has not happened. Everyone sees that no one interferes with Dashnaktsutiun in holding its protests. This might be normal in a civilised country, but we have other ideas here.”



Dashnaktsutiun is currently pushing for the resignation of Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian, who spearheaded the peace negotiations with Turkey and signed the protocols that should lead to diplomatic relations being established. Vahan Hovhannisian, head of Dashnaktsutiun’s parliamentary group, dismissed any suggestion that it was less sincere in its opposition than the ANC.



“The opposition is divided into those who want regime change, because they themselves want to be head of the state, and those who just want to change the course of the current authorities. We are the latter,” he told IWPR.



He said that the opposition’s freedom of action was severely restricted, especially when it came to getting their points across to a television audience.



“There is censorship, and bans on the broadcast of certain opinions and themes by certain people. This affects, in particular, the six weeks of so-called discussion of the Armenia-Turkey protocols,” he said, adding that only Erkir Media, the party’s own television station, had broadcast his party’s point of view.



Badalian, the political analyst, said that, while Dashnaktsutiun had its television channel, ANC had access to the printed media, and several newspapers supported its position.



“This gives a certain amount of power, which ANC has used well. But in Armenia the press has little weight,” he said, adding that the most widely-read opposition paper, The Armenian Times, has a circulation of just 7,000, and that does not amount to much in a country with three million people.



“The printed media is more party-political. However, it is also freer. The audience is small, which is why the authorities have left it in peace,” said Stepan Safarian, head of the parliamentary group of the opposition Heritage party.



His party has seven deputies, which, along with the 16 from Dashnaktsutiun make up a small opposition corner in the 131-member chamber.



“Formally speaking, a political group calling itself the opposition can work well in parliament. However, parliament itself does not play a large role in social and political life,” he said.



Levon Zurabian, a representative of the ANC, cast doubt on the motives of Dashnaktsutyun, suggesting it was still allied with the government, but raised hopes that the whole opposition could unite behind one figure to challenge Sargsian in the future.



“Many people in that party are definitely against [the government’s] course, and it is possible that the party could move from these theatrical actions to more serious activities with an aim to restore legitimate government in the country,” he said, suggesting that the ANC could cooperate with its opposition rivals.



But Bozoian, the analyst, doubted any union between the opposition groups could succeed. He said Armenia lacked the strong institutions it requires to tolerate a strong opposition.



“In Armenia there is a strong executive branch with broad powers, which does not let the state develop politically and economically,” he said.



Gegham Vardanian is a journalist from Internews Armenia.