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Armenia: Eight Dead, State of Emergency Declared

Some of us knew that this was bound to happen since last October when the former president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, made his political comeback in time for the 19 February 2008 presidential election in Armenia. That is, that there would be post-election clashes and blood would be shed. As it happened, in the following months the language of hate and confrontation was used almost constantly by nearly all candidates contesting the vote, and in the past week it became obvious that it was only a matter of time before our worst fears would be realized.

On Saturday 1 March, the inevitable came true. At least eight people died in clashes between police, soldiers and opposition supporters. Shops were looted, cars set on fire, molotov cocktails were thrown, and in addition to the fatalities known so far, 16 servicemen and 18 protesters were wounded in shooting between the two sides. Each side blames the other and protests their innocence while the majority of residents in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, resigned themselves to the worst case of election-related violence in the country's short history as an independent state.

Burning Police Vehicle

The clashes were sparked by the dispersal of the ten-day unsanctioned occupation of Yerevan's central Liberty Square by supporters of the former president turned radical opposition leader protesting the outcome of the presidential election which international observers declared “mainly democratic,” but which others considered should have gone to a second round. Marilisa Lorusso's blog sets the background for the dream of a pro-democracy movement that soon turned into a nightmare.

In Armenia the day of reckoning came. Anticipated by some politically- flavoured arrests of Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s supporters, the rally in Opera Square of the opposition has been dispersed with force. […] The totally peaceful rally, at the moment of the police intervention – early in the morning –, was not even threatening the traffic, let alone the State security. […].

For sure, from then on, the situation only deteriorated, with increased polarization and radicalization.

New statements, from opposition forces, previously ready to move against the government on legal bases, like the Heritage party, marked a fiery condemnation: […] Unfortunately these words, uttered the 1st, precisely foresaw new violence in the streets, that went far beyond the worse expectations.

Demonstration

To begin with, however, some local bloggers from the Armenian Diaspora hoped that Ter-Petrossian's small support base backed up by others in civil society and the media might bring about new hope for the country. Even so, like many others fearful of violence on the streets, Raffi N at Life in Armenia was uncertain where everything would lead.

The events started at 6:30 a.m. this morning, by 3:00 p.m., we saw the first police press conference aleging that they only attacked after the demonstrators started throwing rocks and yelling out words to overturn the government… They showed footage of guns and sharp objects collected from the surrounding areas of the Opera claiming that they were tipped on he arrival of truckloads of arms and other metal harp objects. […] I am not sure what all this will lead to, but I know that Armenia will not have the same apathetic society it had for the past several years.

I am hopeful that the people will prevail and will build its country to have a more fair and just political and judicial system… or at least it will die trying!

In retrospect, perhaps mention of people dying was unfortunate because by the end of the day many did. Local bloggers, perhaps understandably, became emotional at the sights that confronted them before it erupted into violence and engulfed streets in the center of the capital. Others, such as Notes from Hairenik who had previously dismissed and criticized attempts at provoking a revolution, suddenly became supportive of attempts to come to power on the streets.

[I]f the people want change, if they are willing to sacrifice their lives for that change in the spirit of revolution, and if they think that Ter-Petrossian is the one who lead them towards victory and prosperity, then let them fight, let them reach their goals.

Eventually outnumbered and out gunned, demonstrators never stood a chance against the military, and a state of emergency was declared in the capital. After finally being told to withdraw and return to their homes, about 60 protesters remained and declared Ter-Petrossian a traitor. The Armenian Observer describes the scene of what ended up a battleground.

Riots in Yerevan. Protesters and police hurt. Grigor Lusavorich street blocked by riot forces. People are carrying metal sticks, bottles filled with burning substance – to be used as hand granades. Busses and other means of transportation have been used to create barricades, blocking all entries to the Grigor Lusavorich street.

Walking on Lusavorich street feels like in war – police are firing in the air. Organized groups of rioters are up on the barricades. Some are carrying hemlets and shields obviously taken away from the riot police.

The next day, however, as Yerevan woke up to 20 days of the state of emergency regime, all was quiet although devastated in places. The Armenian Patchwork posts photographs from the morning after a night of rioting while A Fistful of Euros paints the picture of the Armenian capital with soldiers on the streets.

Yesterday morning, the government ran out of patience, declared a “state of emergency”, and sent a wave hundreds of police into the streets, followed by a second wave of soldiers. […]

But that was yesterday. Last night Levon Ter-Petrosian, the losing presidential candidate, issued a statement asking his supporters to stand down. Today…

…well, it’s quiet.

Walking around downtown, most of the shops were closed. There were few cars — much of the center was closed to traffic — and maybe 50% of the normal pedestrian traffic, dropping to more like 10% in the big central squares. But there were people, and while the atmosphere was funny, I didn’t get a sense of imminent violence.

[…]

The general mood of the city is… subdued.

Meanwhile, as the reality of an emergency situation which restricts the media and the dissemination of information kicked in, The Armenian Observer reported that several pro-opposition news sites had been blocked inside the country and posted information on how people could circumvent the restrictions. Pro-Ter-Petrossian supporters outside the country such as Unzipped and Nazarian instead started to take over the role as the main sources of information on the situation via blogs.

The new restrictions also hit Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) in Armenia who are now reportedly prohibited from traveling between Yerevan and sites outside of the capital. One of the PCVs at Kyle's Journey in Armenia posted an entry on how the post-election tension has affected them.

With the country essentially on lock-down, Peace Corps has put us on high alert and is requiring us to stay at our sites until further notice. Outside of Yerevan (and Noyemberyan is no exception), things are functioning as normal, and we have not had any problems with civil unrest here or in our region at all. Schools and businesses are open, and we are going forward with life, albeit with a black cloud looming over the country. […]

[…] We will see in the next couple weeks, but until then life will remain tense and uncomfortable. It can only get a lot better, or a lot worse, from here. Hopefully this State of Emergency will do the former and at least keep people off the streets. It has, of course, disrupted some things in my life (for instance, my friend was supposed to come teach a class here this week, and my skiing trip was canceled) but I am safe and not worried about the situation getting worse here in Noyemberyan.

Outside of the country, bloggers such as jibs at TOL Georgia who recently experienced their own state of emergency in November drew comparisons between the unrest there and in Armenia.

It’s amazing how closely the Armenian case resembles the crisis in Georgia just a few weeks ago. Elections contested, thousands in the streets, threats from all sides, fear in the air.

[…]

That in Georgia similar developments did not take place, is a credit to both authorities and the opposition. One blink or a provocation, and chaos would be unavoidable. And Georgians have bitter memories of civil war just 15 years ago…

Back to Armenia and its Diaspora, however, and the polarization and emotions are running high. It's probably therefore best to end with an entry from Harmick at Blogrel who laments the situation in the country and feels helpless as the standoff continues.

OK, so we see this all the time. We see it in Paris, we see it in Palestine, we see it in Iraq, Georgia, and (often with a quiet shake of the head) we see it in Turkey. Usually, the inbuilt Armenian arrogance kicks in and I shake my head and say to myself ‘whatever Armenia is, this wouldn’t happen there ‘… Now I guess I don’t have that safety net. It does happen there, and it makes me feel utterly sick.

[…]

What I can’t accept is the thought of Armenians fighting each other. It just doesn’t work for me. It hurts, it’s like watching two members of your family hitting each other. It just shouldn’t happen, it makes you want to look away.

It hurts to see soldiers who have worked to protect what we value and boast about so greatly, just attacked by drunks or brainwashed civilians lulled into a false sense of “revolution”.

It hurts to see the city which we have watched grow and develop into a pleasant, safe environment to be left so bruised and tattered.

To the average European watching the news, we are just another backward, ‘revolution’ driven former Soviet republic, that still cannot understand the concept of an election.

It hurts because we always managed to stay away from this, and it hurts even more that I , and many other Armenians around the world, feel helpless to stop it.

Unfortunately, although calm has now descended upon Yerevan with the introduction of the state of emergency it is still uncertain where things will lead. News reports indicate that the opposition continue to threaten more protests while the military says it will use force to prevent such demonstrations. Hopes for mediation between the opposition and government have been dashed and the saga continues.

Protesters

Photos: © Onnik Krikorian

42 comments

  • I’m from a small freedom-loving country in the middle of Europe… We talked with an armenian family who lives exactly in the place where the riots were. She and someone else said, that the people who crashed the shops were not the people who were for 10 days before at the demonstrations. This were just bandits, people who use the chance to steal and came out only at this night. We also talked with two people who were participating at the demonstrations and they said they saw, how army killed a teenagerboy, was beating pregnant women and shoot directly a man straight to death. Someone saw how the army was shooting people in the night and throwing the dead bodies on cars to drive them away. Blooded teenagers were lying in their blood on the ground. The army didnt gave the demonstrators in the morning a chance to leave their tents. The demonstrators were peaceful all the days, why they should suddenly change it in the morning? No – Armenia became a army-ruled, faschistic dictatorship. There will be people in Europe who will try to help to you against this evil, because they know in which kind of hell it is leading to. And Armenia will end its too strong nationalism and realize that Armenians are just humans like all others. But I have biggest respect and love for the people who prooved in their peaceful demonstrations their faith and power. Bless you! And never forget the victims who died for freedom.

  • […] Armenia: Eight Dead, State of Emergency Declared […]

  • HG

    Dear Friends:

    First and foremost, God bless all my sisters and brothers for standing for their right and fighting for democracy.

    I have been working in International Developemnt field for the past 25 years, traveled around the world, worked in the villages and mainly contributed my life to Armenia for the past 6 years building villages (you will never hear about me, as I keep a low profile), I know ARMENIAN people from inside out, I lived in the villages and I know for fact that “Armenian people are hard working, believe in justice and will lay their life for democracy”, I also know ANOTHER SET OF ARMENIAN people who will do anything to portray the ROTTEN APPLE. I talked to eye witnesses from front line (my Diaspora friends who joined the good crowd) who attested that all protestors in Mashdots and Republic square were polite, courteous, no violation, no gun fires, just expressing their anger through chanting, my friend said, and I quote “if this protestors were in Glendale or any other city in U.S., there would have been a blood shed”. On the other hand, a large group of “who knows from where” hired by the government (second hand information)looted all supermarkets and stores in Gomidas.

    Now, think about it… people are out marching for one reason “DEMOCRACY”. Our people are very proud of their country and heritage, they are not looters, they don’t carry guns to shoot others (despite of MFA report on CNN).

    Our sisters lost their husbands, mothers lost their sons, children lost their fathers to free “Karabagh”, what have we gained in return, not a pat in the back, but a TANK in front of innocent people.

    From a professional stand point, I place government of Armenia in the same level of “Nigeria” (the world’s worst corrupted government). From a personal stand point, my passion and compassion resides with people and I could careles about the government and public administration and all government machinery who are a group of cold hearted”blood suckers”, serving their own agenda. It should be noted that only a hand full honest public servers suffering under this regime, my advise to them : TURN IN YOUR RESIGNATION TODAY.

    Armenia is suffering from “dependency” phenomena from Western donors and Diaspora, we never taught Armenia “how to fish to feed self for life”, we have been giving them “fish” for the past 16 years.

    My point being, from an International Development stand point, DO YOUR SHARE to teach the government a valuable lesson and have western aids to pull the plug, until RULE OF LAW and DEMOCRACY are in place, raise your voice and write to the source:

    The White House
    U.S. State Department Secretary of State
    Millenium Challenge Corporation ($236 MILLION dollar given to the government to implement project, contingent to RULE of LAW and DEMOCRACY)
    Millenium Challenge Account in Armenia
    USAID in Armenia
    U.S. Ambassador in Armenia
    ALL WESTERN AMBASSADORS in Yerevan
    THE WORLD BANK
    IMF
    EUROPEAN COUNCIL
    OSCE
    ADB
    JICA

    These are organizations with power to put pressure on the government, while people play a vital role in democracy, donor’s have the influence to change a government (e.g., Georgia, Ukraine, Brazil).

    In closing, DO NOT JUDGE people from miles and miles away in U.K., U.S. or any other country, living a good life, it’s always easy said than done. If you are a DIASPORA, it’s time to move forward, our motherland is not about a lavish life style which is portrayed in Republic Square, Abovyan, Nalbandian, Sayat Nova surrounding, Armenia is about PEOPLE and their fight for FREEDOM and DEMOCRACY.

    Please do me and others a favor, DO NOT PASS ANY JUDGEMENT, you want to judge, buy a ticket and go to the middle of the action, see for yourself, that’s what I will be doing in two weeks.

    We, as diaspora are at great fault, after all, we contributed to a “corrupt” government with over 1.5 billion dollars of contribution and never asked for “transparency”.

    Thank you all for your love and care for Armenia, put your actions to word and start your own revolution to FIGHT CORRUPTION and dedicate yourself to build a village.

    Yours for Armenia

    Comment by Hilda — 3/4/2008 @ 8:21 pm

    Dear Lucy:

    I share your thought, feelings, sadness and concerns. We, as Armenians always worry about the outside world and their reaction. What difference does it make “who thinks what” and do you honestly believe that our reputation is tarnished by “protesting for DEMOCRACY”, I can assure you it is not.

    I have discussed Armenia events with higher ranking American and other western individuals who have a vast knowledge about Armenia, they applaude people for their action, but not the GoA for killing innocent people, after all killing two children with “ELECTRIC SHOCK” doesn’t go into Human Rights history book.

    Dear Lucy; People are taking action, enough of words, they are fed up, have you ever travelled through rural villages to witness poverty, unemployment, despair, depression, I have, it’s not a pleaseant scene, I witnessed young Armenian girls walking the streets in DUBAI to earn a living…..put them all together, this is “21st century genocide”.

    In your prayers, please ask GOD to grant a vision to our DIASPORA community members to understand the importance of PEOPLE in rebuilding Armenia. Millions of dollars are collected every year to do what? rebuild dysfunctional roads and spend over 2.0 million dollars to renovate a public park, across from Presidential Estate.

    Armenia is as small or as big as STATE OF MARYLAND, it doesn’t take millions and billions to rebuild the motherland, it takes UNITY and thorough understanding of INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT to set priorities and work with PEOPLE to rebuild the motherland.

    Be proud of our people and pray for them to win this battle, our sisters and brothers have only ONE AMMUNITION, THEIR VOICE and they will prevail.

    May God continue to bless Armenia and people

    Comment by Hilda — 3/4/2008 @ 8:56 pm

    Dear Lucy:

    I share your thought, feelings, sadness and concerns. We, as Armenians always worry about the outside world and their reaction. What difference does it make “who thinks what” and do you honestly believe that our reputation is tarnished by “protesting for DEMOCRACY”, I can assure you it is not.

    I have discussed Armenia events with higher ranking American and other western individuals who have a vast knowledge about Armenia, they applaude people for their action, but not the GoA for killing innocent people, after all killing two children with “ELECTRIC SHOCK” doesn’t go into Human Rights history book.

    Dear Lucy; People are taking action, enough of words, they are fed up, have you ever travelled through rural villages to witness poverty, unemployment, despair, depression, I have, it’s not a pleaseant scene, I witnessed young Armenian girls walking the streets in DUBAI to earn a living…..put them all together, this is “21st century genocide”.

    In your prayers, please ask GOD to grant a vision to our DIASPORA community members to understand the importance of PEOPLE in rebuilding Armenia. Millions of dollars are collected every year to do what? rebuild dysfunctional roads and spend over 2.0 million dollars to renovate a public park, across from Presidential Estate.

    Armenia is as small or as big as STATE OF MARYLAND, it doesn’t take millions and billions to rebuild the motherland, it takes UNITY and thorough understanding of INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT to set priorities and work with PEOPLE to rebuild the motherland.

    Be proud of our people and pray for them to win this battle, our sisters and brothers have only ONE AMMUNITION, THEIR VOICE and they will prevail.

    May God continue to bless Armenia and people

    Comment by Hilda — 3/4/2008 @ 8:56 pm

    It’s not about Armenians fighting Armenians, it’s all about corruption and injustice. You should be living in this country to know that you should not judge the people of this country from 2000 miles away. And F.Y.I. I happened to be amongst the crowd that night when they burnt the cars and NOT a single person was drunk and they are definately NOT brainwashed, all they ask for is Unity and Justice. F.Y.I. again, we were around those markets that were published the following day in the news media as having been looted and vandalized and take it from me that none of that happened that night, at least not until 2am while we were there.

    Human Rights

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