When the newly-elected president of the Republic of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, forced his way into parliament last November and sealed the fate of his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, there were few analysts that didn’t examine what impact the "Rose Revolution" might have on neighbouring Republics.
The activists behind Georgia’s "Rose Revolution" made history by ousting President Eduard Shevarnadze – now their neighbours are eyeing a similar bid for democracy.
Since Azerbaijan showed no sign of any increased political activity, all attention turned to Armenia where last month, the opposition took to the streets in an attempt to replicate events in Georgia. Throughout April, thousands rallied to call for the resignation of the Armenian President, Robert Kocharyan, re-elected for a second term in flawed elections held last year.
At first, however, there were more immediate concerns. Land-locked and blockaded by Turkey and Azerbaijan, approximately 90 per cent of all Armenian trade goes through its northern neighbour. Had trade-routes been affected, it would have spelt disaster for the poverty-stricken Republic. Although there has been economic growth in recent years, it has mainly benefited the corrupt and connected.
Half the population lives below the national poverty line and over one million Armenians have left the country to find work and a better life abroad.
Inspired by the November events in Georgia, therefore, the first demonstration held by an opposition party in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, eventually took place on 5 April, almost a year after President Robert Kocharian’s controversial inauguration. But whereas President Eduard Shevardnadze was reluctant to use force to suppress the protests in Georgia, the Armenian president was not.
More than a dozen shaven-head thugs, believed to be the bodyguards of oligarchs close to the authorities, threw eggs at opposition figures and attacked journalists, smashing the cameras of photographers and film crews. However, the worst was yet to come. In the early hours of 13 April, after 15,000 opposition supporters marched on the Presidential Palace only to be halted in their tracks by razor wire blocking the road, a core group of 2-3,000 camped overnight on Yerevan’s central Marshal Baghramian Avenue.
At 2am, water cannon and stun grenades were used to disperse peaceful demonstrators who were then ambushed by groups of riot police waiting on street corners as they fled the scene. According to eye witness accounts, the Deputy Head of the Armenian Police, Hovannes Varyan, is alleged to have personally beaten one photographer, Hayk Gevorkian, from the pro-opposition Haykakan Zhamanak newspaper. Other journalists including a Russian TV cameraman were also attacked.
Hundreds of opposition activists, including two opposition MPs, were detained and others beaten and allegedly tortured in custody. As was the case during and immediately after the 2003 Presidential Elections, freedom of movement in the republic was restricted and roads into the capital were blocked in order to prevent supporters from the regions attending this and later rallies.
As a result, Human Rights Watch and the Council of Europe issued a stern warning to the Armenian Government that any repeat of such an incident would be unacceptable. They also demanded the immediate release of more than a dozen leading activists whom human rights activists consider political prisoners. The request, however, 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. Despite his unpopularity in Georgia, Shevardnadze was nonetheless more democratic than his Armenian counterpart who many consider autocratic and ruthless in comparison.
But the reasons for the failure of the opposition to achieve regime change in Armenia, however, go far deeper than that. One other factor has been the lack of a figure on any side of the political divide with the charisma and credibility of Mikhail Saakashvili, the new president of Georgia. In last year’s presidential elections, for example, Kocharyan’s main opponent was the son of the former communist-era boss of Armenia, Karen Demirchyan.
Although Stepan Demirchyan has the support of some part of the population at least, he lacks the oratory skills and experience of other less popular but more dynamic figures in the opposition such as Artashes Geghamian of the National Unity Party and Aram Z Sargsyan of the Republic Party. Even today, Demirchyan remains in the background at opposition rallies, allowing others to take center stage.
And whereas Shevardnadze was reliant on the United States to maintain power, 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.
However, while attempts to unseat the Armenian President will prove an uphill struggle, street demonstrations continue. Moreover, as the situation remains unpredictable, 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 opposition for the first time since 1996 and civil rights activists are finding a new lease of life.
Moreover, in a few years, Armenia will find itself in the exact same situation that gave birth to the Georgian "Rose Revolution" with parliamentary elections scheduled for 2007 determining the outcome of presidential elections to be held the following year. Although it is not unthinkable that President Kocharian might attempt to run for a third term in office in 2008, he is prohibited from doing so under the Armenian constitution.
And if the Georgian experiment with democracy is seen to be successful, many in Armenia might eventually conclude that the only way to break free from the vicious cycle of stagnation and regression in place is to completely overthrow the system. Until then, leading international bodies such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House have warned that democracy, human rights and media freedom are already in decline as a direct result of the president’s attempts to cling on to power.
In the meantime, current events in Armenia can perhaps be viewed in the context of both the government and opposition preparing for an inevitable change of power that will have to occur by 2008 at the very latest and quite possibly, depending on other domestic and external factors, even earlier than that.