That there would be mass demonstrations immediately after the presidential election held last week in Armenia was known long ago. Many observers also figured on yet another attempt by the radical opposition to stage a colored revolution of the type seen in Georgia and Ukraine. However, few expected it to succeed, but a week after the 19 February vote, the situation is now gearing up for what might be serious confrontation between opposition supporters and the authorities.
At the heart of the post-election dispute lies the issue of succession to the incumbent and outgoing president, Robert Kocharian, who is unable to run for a third term in office under the constitution. Indeed, the 19 February presidential election was seen by most critics of the government as merely a formality for Kocharian to pass on power to his trusted lieutenant, prime minister Serge Sargsyan.
The radical opposition put its hopes on the return of Armenia's first president, Levon Ter-Petrossian.
However, with many such as The Armenian Observer believing that Sargsyan would be unable to pass the 50 percent + 1 threshold to win outright on election day, a second round was expected by most independent observers. Analysts and journalists alike were all convinced of that eventuality.
I still see Serzh Sargsyan as the front runner – he might have close to 35% of voter sympathy. […] I have a feeling, that excellent PR and aggressive campaigning finally did it – and Levon Ter-Petrossian now has perhaps 20% of vote. […]
But while most polling stations were reported as calm, albeit with international observers reporting “bad” or “very bad” problems with the vote and count in 16 percent of polling stations, civil society received many complaints of violence, intimidation and ballot box stuffing on polling day. Working in the newsroom of Internews, The Armenian Observer received many such complaints himself.
[…] Complaints and information on various violations kept pouring in. The situation was apparently several times worse in the Regions. Our journalists visited several sites of violations and noted the boldness with which those were being carried out: ballots stuff, voters intimidated, journalists hindered from their work. Reports […] give me enough background to state, that the authorities most coldheartedly raped the concept of free and fair elections and might as well get away with it.
It wasn't long before videos of ballot box stuffing and other disturbances soon found their way on the Internet. Faced with a generally positive verdict on the conduct and outcome of the election by international observers, however, it was no wonder that the final results did not change much by the time they were confirmed at the weekend.
Of course, the final results — 53 percent to Sargsyan and 21 percent to Ter-Petrossian — didn't surprise most election observers. Even on the day of voting, The Armenia Blog wasn't expecting the presidential election to be fair.
Ah yes, today is the day where corruption, blind nationalism, and fraud all come together in the form of Armenia's Presidential Election! Who will win? Who will lose? One thing's for certain, this is not going to be a demonstration of democracy and whoever is elected will first and foremost get himself rich, then those near him, and whatever is left will be spread among the lower individuals in power.
The blog later commented on the post-election mass protests.
It seems tens of thousands of people unhappy with the results of the election have decided to take to the streets in protest. It appears that this minority isn't happy with the fact that Serge Sarkisian received the majority of the votes in a landslide election or that Russia and the OSCE have approved of the election and its results. […]
All of which didn't really concern the radical opposition much. Since the day after the 19 February presidential election, protests were being staged daily in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and pulled large crowds averaging about 30,000 in terms of attendance. On 21 February, Ter-Petrossian's supporters announced round the clock demonstrations which included occupying Yerevan's Liberty Square. The Armenian Observer spent a night with demonstrators.
…and all that time I couldn’t help feeling guilty and responsible for everything that’s happening now. We all are responsible, aren’t we? But some are brave enough to stand up and fight, some, like me – look for excuses in not liking Levon or supporting Vahan – and some openly admit they are being raped by Serzh, and they even like it.
[…] Anyways – I’m not here for Levon. I’m here, because I deeply sympathize with these people. I always feel emotionally attached to people who sincerely believe in their cause. And I feel guilty for not supporting Levon – but, I just can’t! I dislike him. I don’t think he has ever done anything right! […]
Now I just really want to sleep. What was I doing out there all night anyway?
Such demonstrations are not new to Armenia. However, what has made the past week's turn of events somewhat different is the consistency by which that part of the opposition led by Ter-Petrossian has managed to gather tens of thousands of people on a daily basis in Yerevan's Liberty Square.
Unzipped reports that several officials and diplomats, albeit those mainly linked to the former president, either joined protesters or resigned their positions in a show of solidarity.
Four senior Armenian diplomats […] have resigned in protest of the conduct of presidential election and in support of opposition movement led by the first president of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan. This information has just been confirmed by Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Ruben Shugaryan was Armenia's first president Levon Ter-Petrosyan's press-secretary in 1992-1993, before (1991-1992) he was Ter-Petrosyan's aide.
Regardless of conflicting news of support by some high-rank officials in government, judiciary, military etc (some of them confirmed, others – not), it is clear that Levon Ter-Petrosyan has loyal group of supporters in governmental structures, who even after 10 years of him not being in power, retained their loyalty [and] joined the protest movement which is evolving to become a movement for democracy.
Moreover, to date there has been no attempt by the authorities to violently disperse protesters and that's even though they have simultaneously held marches through the city center which have disrupted traffic and have not been sanctioned by the municipality. More significantly perhaps, faced with a lack of coverage by the mainly government-controlled broadcast media, the marches were a powerful tool in conveying a message on the streets.
[…] one foreign correspondent at yesterday’s march by a few thousand female supporters of former president Levon Ter-Petrossian remarked that the move was a smart one. It was perfect for foreign news, he said. Another Western journalist agreed, specifically pointing out that riot police are less prone to violent suppression of such rallies when there are young women present.
Ostensibly, the march was to protest the lack of coverage of Ter-Petrossian’s protest rallies by Armenian Public Radio and Television, but to be honest, the reason wasn’t important. What was is that Ter-Petrossian’s team managed to score a publicity coup by giving both local and foreign media exactly what they needed. It was also a way to highlight to society that his movement, regardless of its real size, has diverse support.
Ter-Petrossian, an academic who rose to power riding high on dissent within Soviet Armenia at the end of the 1980s, is also a skilled orator and considered a master at exploiting such situations. If anyone possesses the ability to destabilize the situation in even the most authoritarian of environments, it's him.
[…] Just watching him gesticulate and promise everything to the crowd is quite different than being present at a speech by the prime minister and president-elect, Serge Sargsyan. When people say that Ter-Petrossian has the ability to mobilize and retain the interest of his supporters with his presence, it’s true.
The rallies, such as one staged today, have encouraged many of Ter-Petrossian's supporters, and especially those now living outside of the country. Even though more and more key allies of the former president are being rounded up in swoops staged by masked National Security Service (NSS) agents, their mood is optimistic. One of them is Artmika at Unzipped.
Never before (in a decade or so) Yerevan saw such a big rally and such a huge protest against falsified elections, in support of their right to vote and the chance for democracy in Armenia. […] Ongoing arrests and detentions of a number of opposition supporters did not manage to intimidate people. Quite the contrary. […]
Whether current ruling regime will eventually manage to break down these protests, remains to be seen. They can only do it by imposing Stalinist methods (they already started – arrests, Bolshevik style propaganda…).
The fact that they lost already is out of question.
Archuk's Blog is a little more reserved and and says that reliable information is scarce.
Last few days I've been trying to figure things out before writing anything, because the information coming from Armenia is so contradicting, it's impossible to say what's true and what is not. My own friends in Armenia have divided in two camps, each one of them saying that are definitely going to come out victorious.
In a sense, The Armenian Observer agrees, but says that if Ter-Petrossian's demonstrations turn into a genuine pro-democracy movement, events can hardly be criticized. As a result, the blogger concludes, perhaps its now time for every Armenian citizen to take sides.
There is a lot of confusion in Armenia today. Information and misinformation flows follow each other – it is becoming harder to distinguish truth from lies. Protests continue in Yerevan’s Freedom Square, where opposition candidate, First President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrossian’s supporters demand recognition of their candidate’s victory, although there was no objective indication throughout the electoral process, that Ter-Petrossian’s claims are true.
A very large part of voters, who are fed up with the incumbent authorities […] are still not ready to support Ter-Petrossian either, but would otherwise support anything that is an expression of opposition to the current regime and condemnation of election fraud. […] In this respect, I guess it would have been a wiser move, if Ter-Petrossian stopped claiming his dubious victory, and instead demanded justice and new elections – I mean – who can be against justice, even if calls to restore it come from a controversial figure like Ter-Petrossian?
Everything indicates, that as the opposition protests continue, undecided people are faced with the challenge to make a choice, and join one of the two opposing sides. It is becoming exceedingly hard to stay indifferent. In fact, it can no longer be justified.
A week after the 19 February presidential election in Armenia, that appears to be the situation with Ter-Petrossian hoping to attract the greater part of society, fed up as it is with high levels of corruption despite record economic growth, to his rallies. Meanwhile, as both the opposition and government apply pressure on officials to side with them, the scenario of post-election revolution in Armenia looks closer than its ever been.
However, when and how this will end is still not yet known. For now, the advantage appears to lie with Ter-Petrossian even though the international community and media does not appear to support his attempt at post-election regime change. On the other hand, bloggers such as The Armenian Observer still fear that it might all end in violence with a state of emergency being declared in the country.
Even so, the blog casts doubts on the ability of the authorities to control the situation later.
People have awakened, and Serzh Sargsyan, even if he manages to tackle this somehow, will never be a president with real power, authority and legitimacy. Even if Ter-Petrossian doesn’t become president (and I still see his chances as rather vague), he has already won.
Marilisa Lorusso's Blog calmly assesses the situation and says that how post-election events play out is not yet certain.
[…] It’s hard to say that in the last 10 years Ter-Petrosyan made the general public regret too much that he was no longer the President, and that a overwhelming majority of population is ready to follow him in his “struggle till the end”. […] Those who backed his run stand by him, but it’s hard to foresee, with international recognition of acceptably free and fair elections, if such a strategy can lead to a stroke, as he seems to expect.
But, as the first president and radical opposition leader appeals to the Constitutional Court, and as the authorities show signs of resorting to more draconian methods to stop opposition protests, some observers expect this week to shed light on what the eventual outcome might be. Interestingly, unlike past elections in Armenia, that will undoubtedly be first discussed on the Internet.
Photos: © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 2007-8