Post-election political tensions are simmering in Armenia with the arrest of several political figures and government officials who have declared their support for former President Levon Ter-Petrosian. The government has presented the arrests as part of an attempt to crack down on an armed uprising. Final election results released by the Central Electoral Commission on February 24 gave the presidency to Prime Minister Serzh Sarksian with 52.8 percent of the vote. Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian trailed in a distant second place with 21.5 percent.The announcement, however, has so far done little to deter thousands of opposition supporters from joining the round-the-clock protests led by Ter-Petrosian in downtown Yerevan. Police have called on the campaign to disband, but, so far, no force has been used to take down tents set up in front of the Opera House or to block daily marches past the prime minister's office.
A pro-Sarkisian public rally is planned to take place on Tuesday in Republic Square at the same time as Ter-Petrosian's protest a few hundred meters away. Public television has broadcast reports from the regions showing voters who "want to defend their [pro-Sarkisian] votes." The prospect has raised worries about possible clashes between supporters of the two sides. Those worries have been fed by a string of arrests following Deputy Prosecutor General Gagik Jhangirian's February 22 announcement that he had joined the protest movement. [For details, see the Armenia: Vote 2008 news archive].Hours after shaking hands with Ter-Petrosian and addressing demonstrators, Jhangirian, his brother, Vardan, and two other individuals, according to police, were arrested under suspicion of being illegally armed and intending to "destabiliz[e] the situation in the capital city." On February 23, Jhangirian was removed from his post for publicizing his political preferences, a move banned by law, officials say.Under a similar scenario, Hanrapetutiun (Republic) Party political council member, and former Minister of State Revenues Smbat Aivazian was arrested on February 24. New Times Party leader Aram Karapetian, who voiced his support for Ter-Petrosian days before the election, was also arrested under suspicion of making false accusations against Prime Minister Sarkisian and President Robert Kocharian, a criminal offense under Armenian law. On February 24, bodyguards working for Ter-Petrosian supporter Khachatur Sukiasian, a prominent businessman and parliamentarian, were arrested after politce allegedly found guns, a bullet-proof jacket, knife and wireless device, among other equipment, in three cars belonging to Sukiasian. The arrests continued on February 25, with the Special Investigative Service's detention of Petros Makeian, head of the Democratic Homeland Party, a miniscule opposition party that also backs Ter-Petrosian. The Prosecutor-General's Office states that Makeian is "suspected of obstructing the work of the [election] commission at polling station 34/06," in Gyumri, where Makeian worked as a proxy for Ter-Petrosian. The detentions roughly coincided with a February 23 meeting between President Robert Kocharian and senior army and police officials. "I will never allow anyone ever to jeopardize [our] domestic political stability. I am determined to take all measures to keep law and order in the country," Kocharian stated in comments broadcast by television stations.
"These are measures by which they're trying to put pressure on people," Hanrapetutiun Party political council member Suren Sureniants commented to EurasiaNet. The party has since indicated that Sureniants has been detained by police, according to the pro-opposition A1 Plus website, although no further details have been released. Police were not available for comment.
An attempt was reportedly also made to disarm Ter-Petrosian's bodyguards at the protest rally in front of the Opera on Monday night, and to summon rally organizer and journalist Nikol Pashinian to the police, Ter-Petrosian spokesperson Arman Musinian said. Police could not be reached to verify these claims.
But while the opposition has cast the arrests as the start of a political witch hunt, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia maintains that the measures are intended to maintain law and order."There can be no discussion about political revenge or an atmosphere of fear here," commented Republican Party spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov. "All this relates to the legal field. These are legal issues that will be solved within the framework of the law. And as a rule-of-law country we will encourage any such action. There were elections that passed very well and any encroachment on our people is condemnable."
Meanwhile, some diplomats have taken a counter-tact to the government's position. On February 23, Deputy Foreign Minister Armen Baiburdian, Armenia's ambassador to Italy, Spain and Portugal Ruben Shugarian, the ambassador to Kazakhstan Levon Khachatrian, and the ambassador to Ukraine and Moldova Razmik Khumarian announced their support for Ter-Petrosian.In a statement, the group called on "representatives of all structures in charge of preserving peace and public order in the country, to resist the temptation of solving problems with the use of force."Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian, pointing out that law does not allow diplomats to hold political allegiances, said that he signed the orders to relieve the envoys and deputy foreign minister from their posts without penalty. He added that the five were either relatives of former senior officials under Ter-Petrosian or had held positions under the ex-president.Independent political analyst Yervand Bozoian, however, notes that the recent defections to the Ter-Petrosian movement suggest that divisions exist within the government about the election results."It is difficult to predict what consequences this will have. However, the cracks may become broader because of such switchovers and lead to big problems," Bozoian saidTer-Petrosian has also claimed to have the support of two deputy defense ministers, though the two have yet to second his claim in public.The ruling Republican Party, though, rejects Bozoian's prognosis. Such pledges of allegiance "can be controlled," noted party spokesperson Sharmazanov.But, he asserted, "[t]he river Arax [in Armenia, Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan] will sooner change its bed than cracks will appear inside the government."
Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter for the ArmeniaNow.com weekly in Yerevan.