When Mikhail Saakashvili, the newly elected President of the Republic of Georgia, forced his way into Parliament last November, there were few analysts who didn’t examine what impact Georgia’s ‘Rose Revolution’ might have on neighbouring Republics.
Since then the opposition in Azerbaijan has shown few signs of increased activity, so all attention has turned to Armenia, where last month the opposition took to the streets in an attempt to replicate events in Georgia. Thousands rallied throughout April, calling for the resignation of the Armenian President, Robert Kocharyan. He had been re-elected for a second term in deeply flawed elections held last year.
Inspired by the November events in Georgia, the first demonstration held by an opposition party in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, took place on 5 April, almost a year after Kocharyan’s controversial inauguration. Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze had shown reluctance to use force against protesters. Kocharyan showed no such qualms.
In the early hours of 13 April, 15,000 opposition supporters marched on the Presidential Palace but were halted in their tracks by razor wire blocking the road. Then a core group of 2,000-3,000 camped overnight on Yerevan’s central Marshal Baghramian Avenue. At 2.00am, water cannon and stun grenades were used to disperse these peaceful demonstrators. As they fled, they were ambushed by groups of riot police waiting on street corners.
Human Rights Watch and the Council of Europe issued a stern warning to the Armenian Government that a repeat of such an incident could not be tolerated and demanded the immediate release of more than a dozen leading activists whom human rights activists consider political prisoners. The request fell on deaf ears.
But despite the perseverance of the opposition, many analysts conclude that attempts to remove Kocharyan from power were doomed from the outset. The Armenian opposition lacks any figure with the charisma and credibility of Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili. Shevardnadze was reliant on the United States to maintain power but Moscow rules the roost in Armenia. Last year the Americans might have pulled the rug out from underneath the Georgian President’s feet but there are so far no signs that Russian President Vladimir Putin will do the same to Kocharyan. Armenia remains Moscow’s last outpost in the southern Caucasus.
While attempts to unseat the Armenian President will prove an uphill struggle, street demonstrations continue. The situation remains unpredictable, and it is not impossible that regime change could happen in Armenia. At the very least, recent events in Georgia have contributed to the emergence of an active Armenian opposition for the first time since 1996 and civil rights activists have a new lease of life.
If the Georgian experiment with democracy is seen to be successful, there will be few in Armenia able to challenge the notion that the only way to break free from the stagnated system is completely to overthrow it. But until then, as international organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House continue to warn, democracy, human rights and media freedoms in Armenia will remain under siege.Onnik Krikorian