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Armenia: Does Amnesty Pave Way for Political Dialogue?

Armenia’s parliament on May 26 approved a presidential amnesty that will set free four individuals who are portrayed by government critics as political prisoners. It remains unclear whether the amnesty means that Armenian opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian and top officials in Yerevan will now sit down to engage in a much-touted “open dialogue.”

Authorities declared that their actions aren’t motivated by the opposition’s demand for an amnesty of political prisoners, who were jailed for allegedly stoking post-presidential election violence in 2008. In May 20 remarks to parliament, President Serzh Sargsyan linked the amnesty to the 20th anniversary of Armenia’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.

Overall, 397 prisoners are slated to be released from prison on May 28 under the amnesty. An earlier amnesty in 2009 set free most of those considered to be political prisoners by the opposition.

“I realize that some people will try to link the amnesty with the March 1 [2008] events only, but the amnesty is a far more comprehensive act aimed at solving global issues,” Justice Minister Hrair Tovmasian told journalists.

The Armenian National Congress, the country’s largest opposition coalition, is giving no public sign of celebration, or offering praise for the government’s action. However, ANC representatives earlier asserted that two of the soon-to-be-released prisoners – Haykakan Zhamanak daily newspaper editor-in-chief Nikol Pashinian and activist Sasun Mikaelian – would take part in the coalition’s next rally, planned for May 31 in Yerevan.

Pashinian, a vibrant speaker and a driving force of the pre-2008-election rallies, has been behind bars since July 2009 when he surrendered to police after spending more than a year underground; social network discussions often tag him as a potentially key player in Armenia’s 2012 parliamentary elections.

Mikael Danielian, chairman of the Helsinki Association in Yerevan, attributed the amnesty mainly to international pressure on Sargsyan’s administration. At the same time, he noted: “If it had not been for domestic pressure, there would be no international pressure.”

In recent weeks, Armenia faced strong criticism about its democratization performance from the US government and the Council of Europe. US Ambassador to Armenia Marie L. Yovanovitch declared April 22 that Armenia would not be eligible to apply for new Millennium Challenge Account funds again until it meets program standards. And on May 9, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, criticized the government’s handling of the 2008 events.

The amnesty removes a major stumbling block to the opening of a political dialogue between the opposition and government. But both sides appeared reluctant to offer information about future plans. “We will have our say when our people are free; for now, we just want them to be free,” said ANC press secretary Arman Musinian.

Some analysts suggest the second half of 2011 could get “hot” in Armenia. Alexander Iskandarian, the director of the Caucasus Institute, suggested that the recent developments might embolden the ANC as the country gears up for parliamentary elections next year.

Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.

Armenia: Does Amnesty Pave Way for Political Dialogue?

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