Armenia's leadership and opposition are gearing up for a potentially violent confrontation. An opposition coalition is planning to hold massive anti-government protests in early April. Some opposition leaders have publicly called for the resignation of President Robert Kocharian and have advocated civil disobedience to achieve that end. Authorities have responded by threatening to crack down on opposition leaders for attempting to "seize state power with violence."
The confrontation began building in late March when the country's two main opposition groups joined forces in an apparent bid to encourage popular protests along the lines of the "Rose Revolution" in neighboring Georgia. Those protests ended up forcing former Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze to step down, and paved the way for President Mikheil Saakashvili's rise to power. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Artarutiun (Justice) alliance led by Stepan Demirchian and the National Unity Party of Artashes Geghamian have set an April 12 deadline for the launch of a civil disobedience campaign against what they say is Kocharian's "illegitimate" administration. Opposition leaders insist that Kocharian rigged last year's presidential and parliamentary elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The opposition says it has been forced to adopt a protest strategy because of the Kocharian administration's refusal to organize a nationwide no-confidence referendum on the government's performance. A ruling by Armenia's Constitutional Court on April 16, 2003, had recommended the holding of a no-confidence referendum within a year's time. The ruling did not strictly order the government to organize a referendum, however.
Demirchian and Geghamian were Kocharian's main challengers in the disputed 2003 presidential ballot. Authorities are taking their threats seriously, with Kocharian indicating his readiness to use force against crowds that are expected to march towards his official residence in the center of Yerevan. A March 26 statement by the three pro-presidential parties represented in his government warned that the law-enforcement bodies have a legitimate right to counter "attempts to violate the country's constitutional law" with tough action.
The office of Armenia's Prosecutor General issued a statement March 31 in which it announced the opening of a criminal investigation into the Justice bloc's protests over the past month. The prosecutor's office suggested the protests had "publicly insulted representatives of government."
Demirchian and other Justice bloc leaders were quick to denounce the investigation, issuing a statement that characterized the prosecutors' actions as "an unprecedented attempt at political persecution. ... The decision shows that authorities, who are in their death throes, have lost the ability to think rationally."
The opposition may have got a taste of things to come when nine of its activists were arrested March 28 during and after a Justice bloc rally in Armenia's second largest city of Gyumri. During the rally, opposition supporters scuffled with a group of government loyalists and plainclothes police in what the rally organizers portrayed as a government "provocation." "Today's provocation shows that Robert Kocharian's days in power are numbered," one of the rally organizers, Victor Dallakian, told the angry crowd.
According to Dallakian and other Justice bloc leaders, the opposition plan is to surround the presidential palace and the nearby parliament compound in the Armenian capital with tens of thousands of people who will stand there "day and night" until Kocharian steps down. The chances that the rallies would take place as planned were boosted with the signing on March 24 of an agreement between Demirchian and Geghamian to engage in joint action. Geghamian had previously refused to attend Justice bloc rallies, saying that they were counterproductive.
A key question is precisely how many people will take to the streets. Demirchian and Geghamian hope to pull in large crowds from the regions outside Yerevan, and have been separately campaigning across Armenia for over a month. The Gyumri demonstration was part of that effort. "The regime's fate is predetermined," Demirchian told its participants, assuring them that his deal with Geghamian will lead to "the restoration of constitutional order."
"We will act in a united front for regime change and popular salvation from this deplorable situation," Geghamian said, campaigning in the central Aragatsotn province on March 26.
The authorities, meanwhile, are expected to tighten security around the two government buildings. Marshal Baghramian Avenue, one of Yerevan's main thoroughfares leading to them, was repeatedly blocked with hundreds of riot police and interior troops armed with rubber truncheons, tear gas grenades and water cannon during the 2003 election protests. The show of force contrasted sharply with a thin row of riot police outside the parliament building in Tbilisi that was easily overrun by scores of opposition supporters during the November Rose Revolution.
This contrast highlighted Armenia's important difference from Georgia: the existence of a powerful and well-organized security apparatus feared by the population. It might explain why the Armenian opposition did not try to storm government buildings in the wake of the presidential ballot controversially won by Kocharian. Yet, opposition leaders were clearly buoyed by the success of the Georgian revolt and, as local observers believe, might not be as restrained this time around. "The outcome of the confrontation is unpredictable because it is impossible to predict the behavior of security structures and various government factions in a crisis situation," commented the Yerevan newspaper "Iravunk."
Those structures underwent sweeping personnel changes earlier in March. Kocharian replaced Armenia's prosecutor-general, Aram Tamazian, with one of his most loyal law-enforcement officials, Aghvan Hovsepian. The president also sacked most of the district prosecutors in Yerevan, and made over a dozen new appointments in the leadership of the Armenian police. The official motive for the reshuffle was to improve the law-enforcement bodies' ability to fight against corruption and protect the rule of law. However, political observers believe the reshuffle is linked to the brewing political battle.
To counter recent opposition maneuvering, Kocharian's administration undertook its own public relations campaign, with ministers dispatched to economically depressed rural areas of the country to hear local residents' myriad complaints, and "present" government policies to them. The government accuses the opposition of exploiting the economic hardship endured by many Armenians for political purposes. Some Armenian observers say the government's charm offensive did little to shore up its popular support. The reception given to high-level officials in most regions was at best lukewarm.
Popular discontent over the lack of economic opportunity, coupled with the continuing fallout from the troubled elections, has the potential to fuel instability. "My vote was stolen and I still feel offended," said Hovannes Mejlumian, an opposition supporter in Gyumri. "The authorities' track record shows that there is nothing good they can do."
Garegin Jambazian, a retired army officer, sounded more bullish: "I am in a state of full combat readiness. I am ready to fight against them to death."
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.