Armenian Authorities Carry Out Preemtive Roundup of Opposition Activists
In an apparent effort to preempt an opposition campaign to force "the departure of the illegitimate regime," Armenian authorities have conducted a roundup of opposition activists in recent days. Opposition leaders vow to continue with plans to stage massive protests designed to force the resignation of President Robert Kocharian. Meanwhile, the building threat of political violence has prompted a member of Armenia's governing coalition to issue a call for dialogue between the opposing political forces.
According to representatives of the opposition alliance, which comprises the Justice bloc and the National Unity Party, at least 200 supporters have been arrested across Armenia since April 1. The government has rebuffed efforts by opposition leaders to obtain an explanation for the mass detentions. The opposition maintains the government has no probable cause to make the arrests.
On March 31, the Armenian Prosecutor-General's Office announced that it was launching a criminal investigation into the opposition's protest plans. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Officials have denounced the opposition for striving to foment unrest in Armenia. According to a report by the Armenpress news agency, approximately 40 opposition members are facing criminal charges for "making public calls for a change in the constitutional order" of Armenia.
On April 5, the two main opposition leaders the Justice bloc's Stepan Demirchian and the National Unity Party's Artashes Geghamian held a rare joint news conference, during which they confirmed their intention to use mass protests as a means to unseat Kocharian. Both opposition leaders insist the Kocharian administration stole the presidential and parliamentary elections held in 2003. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The first mass rally is scheduled to be held April 9. Opposition leaders remain tight-lipped about details concerning the protest in hopes of keeping the government off balance.
At the news conference, Demirchian characterized Kocharian's administration as a "junta" that sought to "frighten the opposition" into abandoning its protest strategy, the Noyan Tapan news agency reported. A joint opposition statement assailed Kocharian for ignoring a Constitutional Court recommendation, issued in the aftermath of the contentious presidential vote, that urged a nationwide referendum of confidence in the administration by April 16. "The [Kocharian] regime ... rejected the well-known decision of the Constitutional Court on the conduct of a referendum on a vote of confidence," the statement said. "There is only one way out, i.e. the regime that has usurped power must go."
If what occurred at a National Unity Party rally on April 5 is any indication, Kocharian's government appears prepared to use force to confront any opposition protest action. At the rally, Geghamian as he urged the crowd to join "the quest to overthrow Armenia's unconstitutional authorities," the Arminfo news agency reported. As he spoke, the opposition party leader was repeatedly pelted with eggs hurled by people believed to be Kocharian partisans.
The rally was also marred by brawls, initiated by what local reports described as thugs "with shaven heads." Witnesses reported that a sizeable riot police contingent was present, but did nothing to intervene when goon squads clashed with opposition activists. The apparently pro-government young toughs also went after journalists, in particular photographers, smashing equipment and physically assaulting many media representatives.
The Kocharian administration's hard-line stance towards the opposition is evidently sowing dissension in the ranks of the government coalition in parliament. On April 5, the Dashnaktsutiun Party (Armenian Revolutionary Federation), which is one of the three coalition partners, issued a statement that expressed alarm that the "internal political situation in the country is reaching a critical point of open confrontation."
The Dashnaktsutiun statement placed the bulk of the blame for the rising tension on the "intolerant radical behavior of the opposition." But it also suggested that the Kocharian administration's efforts to exclude the opposition from the political process had contributed to the creation of a confrontational atmosphere. The statement went on to call on Kocharian to engage the opposition in a substantive dialogue.
"There should be no winners and losers in this dialogue," the statement said. "Either we all win and ensure the rapid and stable development of the country, or we all lose and face devastating consequences."
"It is necessary to effectively use this period [before the opposition protests begin] for voluntary compromises," the statement continued. "Otherwise the entire responsibility for the confrontation will fall upon those who will lose the opportunity to reach an agreement."