Friday, March 07, 2008

Soviet Armenia

TRANSITIONS ONLINE: Our Take: Soviet Armenia
7 March 2008

By muzzling the press and dissenters, the regime in Yerevan fails another test of democracy.

It’s a familiar refrain. The government-run media lavish attention on the heir-apparent and ignore opposition candidates. Public employees are given not-so-subtle reminders before election day of who butters their bread. The political elite dismiss outside criticism. And to no one’s surprise, the anointed successor walks away with the presidency.

It sounds like Russia, which held its sham presidential election on Sunday. But it also describes Armenia, a former Soviet republic that still has close ties to Moscow. The difference is that the aftermath of yet another faulty Armenian election was marked by a deadly crackdown on demonstrators and an assault on human rights.

Armenians are all too familiar with tragedy and dictatorship. The feisty nation endured invasions, genocide and 70 years of communism imposed on it by outsiders. But the years since independence in 1991 have been marked chiefly by problems of Armenia’s own making. The country is still paying the price for its costly turf war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. Its belligerent relationship with Turkey damages its economic potential. And despite huge investments from its well-connected diaspora and do-good aid programs, it is still a nation sabotaged by corrupt, clannish, and sometimes violent politics.

Robert Kocharian
It all starts at the top, where President Robert Kocharian is about to hand power to his longtime ally, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. In the 19 February presidential contest, the prime minister defeated his main challenger, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, by a 30-point margin. Ter-Petrosian’s supporters immediately declared the election a fraud and took to the streets.

International election monitors reported that hopes for a clean contest were marred by bias in the government media, evidence that public employees were compelled to vote for the ruling Republican Party, and incidents of violence. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported several attacks on campaign workers and the offices of Ter-Petrosian just days before the election. The OSCE said the attacks contributed to “the increasingly tense pre-election environment.”


It was an ominous warning of things to come. After days of demonstrations, security forces attacked protesters in central Yerevan last weekend. In the ensuing chaos, as many as eight people were killed and dozens of others – including police officers – were wounded. Human Rights Watch, along with other monitors, called on the government to investigate what several eyewitnesses said was excessive use of force. A glance at the websites of media and bloggers intrepid enough to report the incidents, such as the Armenian investigative journalism site HETQ Online, ArmeniaNow, and TOL’s Armenian Patchwork blog, shows menacing security forces, badly beaten victims, the hulks of burned-out police vehicles, and streets littered with debris.

Kocharian declared a 20-day state of emergency on 1 March, banning the right of assembly and muzzling all but “official information.” In a speech to the nation that harkened back to Soviet crackdowns on dissent, he accused protesters of “illegal activities” and challenging “stability” and “constitutional order.” This week, the Sarkisian-controlled parliament waived immunity from prosecution for four opposition lawmakers accused of fomenting unrest.

The government has a duty to maintain order, and in a country like Armenia that is too often given to Wild West politics, it is no easy task. But people in democracies have a right to be informed, to express themselves, to assemble, to complain about their government, and to demonstrate against their public servants. Strong democracies can withstand criticism and dissent, but strong democracies are not built from the top down.


Armenia’s constitution – which vests inordinate power at the top – is partly to blame for the country’s current crisis. Its political culture is another. Stephan H. Astourian, who heads the Armenian studies program at the University of California at Berkeley, has described the party system in Armenia as one of “a limited geographic scope, ideological fuzziness, and weak institutionalization. These are essentially personalistic organizations, instruments for the ambitions of a more or less well-known individual and his clientele.”

Serzh Sarkisian
Donors also contribute to the crisis. They tend to chart Armenia’s economic gains as a sign of overall progress without demanding more accountability. A 2005 report from the U.S. Agency for International Development suggests there isn’t much to show for the millions of dollars Washington pumps into democracy-building and anti-corruption programs each year:

“Although Armenia has been independent for almost fifteen years, autocratic mentalities and practices remain embedded. The government is dominated by the executive branch and is without meaningful checks and balances. The judiciary is not independent, and rulings are politically biased. A symbiotic relationship between political and business elites has bred endemic corruption and severely hampers the ability of opposition parties to raise funds or access the electronic media.”

The opposition, such as it is, has offered little as an alternative. Ter-Petrosian himself was accused of cronyism during the economic privatizations in the early years of the republic, and of rigging his 1996 re-election as president. Two years later he was forced to cede power to his prime minister, Kocharian, but returned from political obscurity a decade later determined to reclaim his old office. He denies inciting his supporters, but he was back in court this week challenging the official results rather than seeking an end to the crisis.

The president’s job would not be easy for any leader in an isolated, bitterly divided society where too much blood has been spilled already. If he is to succeed where Kocharian and Ter-Petrosian both failed, Sarkisian will have to make peace with neighboring nations, heal the domestic wounds, create a public-service ethic, and decentralize his own authority.

The president-elect should start by demanding that Kocharian lift the emergency decree and remove the shackles from the media. Times of crisis are when people most need information, not government-imposed silence.

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