This article touches upon some of the most significant political and social events that impacted Armenia in 2008.
After the dawn of a new year, Armenian citizens prepared to cast their ballot for president. Although the elections were not held until Feb. 19, there was already widespread belief in the press and amongst the general public that Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian would undoubtedly win. Others staunchly opposed to the ruling regime pined for the return of Armenian Pan-National Movement co-founder Levon Ter-Petrosian, looking to him as the restorer of hope, who would put to an end the reign of the “Karabagh Clan.” Using his oratory skills he was able to attract tens of thousands of supporters to his cause. Many who did not necessary expect significant changes in the rule of law and the upholding of justice under a possible Ter-Petrosian administration nevertheless hoped for a change from the status quo. The Republican Party, on the other hand, was confident that their candidate and high-ranking party member, Sarkisian, would win by a landslide victory.
Their confidence was justified. Sarkisian won with 53 percent of the vote, followed by Ter-Petrosian with 21 percent, and Orinats Yerkir leader Artur Baghdasarian with 17 percent. ARF candidate Vahan Hovannisian, despite a proactive, glossy campaign, earned only 6 percent of the vote. He promptly resigned from his position as vice-speaker of the National Assembly but held on to his parliamentary seat. The opposition immediately cried foul, with reports accumulating of ballot buying, miscounted ballots, and proxies being beaten at polling stations. Some proxies supporting Ter-Petrosian were even arrested and convicted. Ter-Petrosian nevertheless celebrated victory anyway on Feb. 20 at the first of several rallies that would last for days on end.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) initially reported favorable settings at election polls with few harrowing irregularities in the voting process. However, weeks later, after all collected data nationwide was carefully examined, the organization determined that considerable election fraud had indeed taken place. Commensurate with steady criticism voiced by the West, President George Bush refrained from congratulating President-Elect Sarkisian on his victory.
The Ter-Petrosian camp, refusing to accept its categorical defeat, began a sit-in protest at Liberty Square, which partially wraps around the Opera House. The leadership refused to leave the area, attracting sympathizers and critics round the clock. When Armenian pop songs were not blaring from speakers, various opposition figures, including Ter-Petrosian himself who slept in his own Lincoln Town Car, made uplifting speeches to rally the crowds. The protests continued for 11 days unfettered before mayhem was finally unleashed.
Post Election Chaos
Early morning, just before dawn on March 1, approximately 2,000 sit-in protesters camped in Liberty Square were violently uprooted by police forces. Countless numbers received blows to the head and body. Many of those injured were refused treatment at hospital. The police claimed that firearms and grenades were found amongst the protesters, yet opposition supporters insisted that the weapons were planted. By mid-morning, the entire perimeter of the block on which the Opera House is situated was secured by riot police, batons and shields in hand.
As a result of the melee, tens of thousands converged upon Miasnikyan Square, a strategic crossroads intersection where City Hall and the Italian and French embassies are located. At 2 p.m., protesters clashed with police forces, which withdrew after realizing that they could not control the crowds. Protesters barricaded themselves within the square with hijacked buses and trolleys. The crowd was mainly comprised of the middle-aged people. During the course of the afternoon, others arrived there, many of them youth, collecting various metal rods and sticks in anticipation of another clash with the police. Although opposition leaders Aram Sargsyan and Stepan Demirchian appeared on the scene to soothe the crowd, many refused to leave the area where they remained peacefully. Shortly after 8 p.m., a wall of riot police descended Italy Street from Republic Square. For nearly one hour, the firing of tracer bullets was noticeably audible in downtown Yerevan. A riot subsequently ensued with the destruction of several stores and vehicles along Mashdots Avenue. According to eyewitness accounts, the looting and vandalism was conducted by petty criminals who had no obvious affiliation with the opposition or its cause. In the aftermath of the chaos, 10 people were dead including two police officers, and countless others were wounded. By midnight, President Robert Kocharian ordered a 20-day state of emergency, thereby silencing the opposition and its supporters.
Opposition figures Nikol Pashinian, the editor of Haykakan Zhamanak daily newspaper, and business tycoon Khatchig (a.k.a., Grzo) Sukiasyan went underground. Levon Ter-Petrosian remained under a self-imposed “house arrest,” forbidden to enjoy the protection of the state secret service in public.
Despite the heavy military presence in the city capital and checkpoints along all major routes entering the city, it was business as usual with no interruption in provided services.
The press, however, endured severe censorship. Several online news services including A1 Plus and ArmeniaLiberty.org were not accessible within Armenia. As a provision of the state of emergency, news outlets were not allowed to broadcast any news other than official announcements made by the government. Newspapers and other publications were likewise limited in the information that could print, and thus some suspended operations altogether.
International organizations such as the Council of Europe, United Nations, Human Rights Watch and others were quick to condemn the government crackdown and called for immediate investigations into the cause and nature of the attacks. The U.S. State Department in particular conveyed dissatisfaction in a statement by spokesman Sean McCormack. “The U.S. deeply regrets today’s unrest in Yerevan, and calls on all sides to avoid further violence, act fully within the law, exercise maximum restraint, and resume political dialogue,” he said just hours after the melee. President Kocharian was dealt strong criticism for the day’s tragic events.
Return of the Opposition
On April 19, nearly a month after the state of emergency was lifted, opposition rallies resumed with thousands of people showing their support despite a ban on mass public gatherings. The rally was conducted by the wives of jailed oppositionists. They demanded the release of their husbands. Sporadic rallies were held in subsequent months led by Levon Ter-Petrosian in front of the Matenadaran, as Liberty Square was designated off limits by authorities. Access to the square was closed off by riot police at every staged rally.
Dozens of oppositionists and those related by association who were arrested after March 1 remain in jail, although several have been released. Among the prisoners was former prime minister and Ter-Petrosian loyalist Alexander Arzoumanyan. A leader of Aram Sargsyan’s Republic party, Suren Sureniants, who was actually arrested in late February, was released in mid-April mainly due to health problems related to a hunger strike. Another prominent oppositionist, Armenian Pan-National Movement chairman Ararat Zurabian, was released on July 29, also after suffering from ill health. Of the 100 plus people who were apprehended, over 70 remain jailed while other arrests continued. Some have been formally convicted—most recently Smbat Ayvazian, another Republic party member and former government official, who was charged with resisting arrest and was sentenced to two years in prison on Nov. 19.
Authorities deny that any of the jailed oppositionists are political prisoners.
In mid-October at a rally held before a more modest crowd of supporters compared with previous months, Ter-Petrosian, having failed to introduce a modus operandi for enacting the change he preached in Armenian society, announced a break in activities. The opposition leader cited the perceived imminent signing of a peace deal over Nagorno-Karabagh as the reason for ceasing anti-government protests.
A New Era
Serge Sarkisian was sworn in as president on April 9, during a solemn ceremony held at the Opera House. A military parade was held in his honor on Liberty Square. The area, with a buffer zone spanning several blocks, was completely inaccessible to the public.
The new president buckled down to work rather quickly. He appointed the chairman of the Central Bank, Tigran Sarkisian, as Prime Minister. Sarkisian, who has no party affiliation, was thus viewed as a neutral political figure with no baggage to weigh him down in the public eye. Former opposition presidential candidate Artur Baghdasarian was rewarded the post of National Security Council Secretary, having thrown his support to his main rival. Baghdasarian was perceived as being a traitor by some of his own supporters and oppositionists alike for switching sides.
During his campaign and even his inauguration speech President Sarkisian made several pledges to work towards eradicating government-level corruption. The words were taken at face value until it is revealed that the head of the police-operated passport control agency (OVIR), the notoriously corrupt Alvina Zakarian, was fired in July.
The head of the State Customs Committee, Armen Avetisian, was also tossed out, but was replaced by his underling Gagik Khachatrian. He was considered to be an even worse offender in the agency and was publically accused of corruption by two businessmen owning the coffee importing company Royal Armenia who were eventually sentenced to prison for tax evasion, then released by a court order on the grounds that the initial charges were baseless, before being jailed again. News sources form a consensus that with the new appointments the president was aiming to distance himself from the negative stigma of his predecessor Robert Kocharian by replacing the heads of powerful governmental agencies with his own loyalists.
The police department also was affected by Sarkisian’s sweeping personal changes. Lieutenant-General Ararat Mahtesian, who was connected to the March 1 events, was sacked in June. His removal came nearly a week after the national head of the police, Hayk Harutiunian, was fired. They were replaced by police chief Armen Yeritsian and former policeman turned regional governor Alik Sargsian, respectively.
Perhaps the most controversial power seat switch was the placement of Hovik Abrahamyan as Speaker of the National Assembly. Tigran Torosyan, a founding member of the Republican party, was under strong pressure to step down despite his tireless refusal, but he finally gave in and subsequently resigned from his own party. Abrahamyan, a high-ranking Republican, is also known by his nickname “Moog,” and has both economic and social control of most of the Syunik region. He is yet another in a long list of men who are widely suspected of owning multimillion dollar businesses and who use their wealth, not to mention stronghold tactics, to obtain seats in government, a fact that is resented by many citizens. Government officials and members of parliament continue to enjoy immunity from prosecution, with carte blanche to engage in any kind of perceived corrupt or opaque business activities.
The ARF kept its three allocated government seats but replaced its ministers after they resigned. Arsen Hambartsumian became the new Labor and Social Affairs Minister, with Spartak Seyranian as the Education Minister and Aramayis Grigorian as the Minister of Agriculture. The three previous ministers, Aghvan Vartanian, Levon Mkrtchian, and David Lokian, were elected to the ARF Bureau.
Free Speech Under Attack
On the evening of Nov. 17 prominent investigative journalist Edik Baghdasaryan, the editor of Hetq Online, was attacked while walking to his car as he left work. Although he was able to defend himself against his two attackers, a third landed a blow to the back of his head with an unidentified object. Baghdasaryan was subsequently hospitalized. Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian, who visited the journalist in the hospital, told the press that steps had been underway to apprehend the perpetrators of the violence. The case marked the seventh time that a journalist was beaten in 2008 alone, with no headway made in any of the investigations.
In September, a prominent radio and TV journalist named Artur Sahakian fled his own café just before two of his friends were severely beaten by several assailants. The perpetrators were believed to be the bodyguards of Republican parliamentarian Levon Sargsian and were apparently after Sahakian. One of the victims later died in hospital. Sargsian, who apparently had a personal vendetta against the journalist and is widely believed to be linked to criminal activities, was not charged, but the assailants were arrested.
The head of RFE/RL’s Yerevan bureau, Hrach Melkumian, was beaten in an unprovoked attack on Aug. 18 and sustained minor injuries. President Sarkisian ordered that an investigative probe get underway to solve the crime.
In the same month a reporter for Haykakan Zhamanak named Lusine Barseghian was assaulted by several men after a series of articles were printed exposing the business activities of some government officials. The same journalist was purportedly attacked on the presidential election day at a voting precinct.
New Steps Towards Peace
In June, President Serge Sarkisian met for the first time with his Azerbaijani counterpart, President Ilham Aliev. Their meeting took place in St. Petersburg on the sidelines of a summit of former Soviet republics, with the participation of Minsk Group mediators as well as the foreign ministers from both countries. They pledged their willingness to continue forward in peace negotiations to end the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict based on what are known as the Madrid proposals, a framework which was devised in November 2007 by the mediators.
A landmark opportunity towards normalizing diplomatic relations with Turkey was taken in September, on the occasion of a World Cup qualifying soccer game between Armenia and its historic foe. Turkish President Abdullah Gul visited Yerevan at the invitation of President Sarkisian, amidst criticism by the opposition and the ARF, which launched a protest offensive. It was the first time that a high-level Turkish official visited the republic since its independence, and the initiative was highly praised by the European Union as well as the U.S.
The meeting fueled expectations of a potential restoration of an existing railway link between Kars and Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city and historic regional commerce center. The railway would facilitate an alternative trade route to the Black Sea. Such a link would thereby lower trade transportation costs as Armenia’s dependence on Georgia’s ports would be decreased, a welcome transition considering the Georgian-Russian war that transpired in August which crippled food and fuel imports for several weeks. A few days later, Gul flew to Baku where he discussed the outcome of the meeting with Aliev. Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of Turkey and Armenia, Ali Babacan and Edward Nalbandian respectively, continued periodic discussions. A follow-up meeting was held between them on Nov. 24 in Istanbul.
In October, during his inauguration speech, Azerbaijan’s newly reelected President Aliev renewed his rhetoric that Nagorno-Karabagh’s cessation from Azerbaijan would never be recognized. But he stopped short of threatening military aggression to win back the territory, instead suggesting that the region would be suppressed economically.
Despite his confidence, the Azerbaijani leader agreed to meet with President Sarkisian again in Moscow at the invitation of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Nov. 2. The three signed a document confirming their willingness to continue peace negotiations based on the Madrid proposals under the auspices of the Minsk Group, which Russia co-chairs along with the US and France. The declaration encouraged expectations that a peace agreement would be signed by the end of the year with the active diligence of the Minsk Group, which had been proactive since January to find a solution.
Later in the month, the Minsk Group co-chairs, Matthew Bryza, Yuri Merzlyako, and Bernard Fassier of the U.S., Russia, and France respectively, toured the region, making diplomatic visits to both Baku and Yerevan. They admitted at a press conference on Nov. 17 in Yerevan that the two sides were “not there yet” regarding a peace deal, and that the resolution to the conflict would unlikely be reached by the end of the year. Bryza especially was very confident of an eventual breakthrough acceptable to both sides.
In a separate setting, President Sarkisian told the press that Armenia must share a land border with Nagorno-Karabagh and that Baku must recognize the self-determination of its people. Stepanakert remained excluded from all peace talks, despite President Bako Sahakian’s adamant insistence that Nagorno-Karabagh authorities participate.
Although the details of the proposals for peace were not made public, they generally called for a phased solution, with the demilitarization and return of the seven Armenian-controlled territories to Azerbaijan, an ambiguous status for Nagorno-Karabagh that would nevertheless be protected by strong international guarantees for maintaining peace, and a land corridor connecting Armenia to the region, presumably the one that already exists in Berdzor.
Supposedly, Yerevan had already agreed to many of the proposals but such sentiments remain unconfirmed. The opposition, with the resounding no-confidence call from Ter-Petrosian, remained firmly against the negotiations. Simultaneously, the ARF threatened to quit the governing coalition if a stipulation for the return of any of territories would be included in a final peace proposal.
On Nov. 20, President Sarkisian hosted a closed-door summit between various political party leaders to discuss possible avenues for enabling peace. Representatives from smaller parties critical of both the former and current administrations also attended, including Anahit Bakhshian of the Heritage party, the National Self-Determination Union’s Paruyr Hayrikian, and former prime minister Vazken Manukian. Members of the Armenian National Congress, a confederation of various opposition parties favoring Ter-Petrosian, did not attend. Although the meeting was perceived as constructive, it remained unclear as to what was actually accomplished there. President Sarkisian promised that a favorable peace proposal would be presented to the Armenian people.
The historic meeting between the Turkish and Armenian leaders bore fruit sooner than anticipated. On Nov. 24, the Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Armen Movsisian revealed that Armenia would sell electricity to Turkey, most likely as early as March 2009. Initially, 1.5 billion kilowatts per hour of electricity will be supplied for the first year with possible increases in subsequent years.
Economy Continues to Boom
On Oct. 31, the National Statistical Service revealed that construction was indeed the most influential factor on the growth of the Armenian economy. From January through September, an estimated $2 billion was spent on building costs, or about 23 percent of the gross domestic product. Real estate prices have skyrocketed since 2007, although prices were said to begin to decline in recent months. The going price for a three-room apartment in central Yerevan is about $230,000. Luxury European clothing boutiques and expensive automobiles abound in the capital.
Due to stepped-up collection efforts, tax revenues increased 33 percent for the first nine months of 2008 compared with the same period last year, with over $1.2 billion collected, according to the Finance Ministry.
Despite the global economic crisis that was ravaging across the United States, Europe, and Asia, Prime Minister Sarkisian claimed that the Armenian banking system was stable and secure. However, in mid-November the prime minister voiced concerns related to potential decreased investment in the country for 2009.
A large part of the economy continued to be fueled by money being pumped in from abroad. Remittances for the first half of 2008 were approximately $668.6 million, a 57 percent increase from the same period last year. There were already fears of a slowdown due to the economic crisis in Russia especially, where an estimate 2 million Armenians live and work.
Environmental Concerns Rise
With a thriving economy comes the devastation of Armenia’s pristine natural habitats. The Armenian Copper Program in cooperation with the Vallex Company took steps to begin copper exploration excavations in Teghut, an area of northern Lori, where hundreds of acres of forest thrive. Since the beginning of the year approximately 22 hectares of forest was cut, but 350 hectares are expected to be cleared by the time the excavations are complete in the coming years. Although the overall worldwide demand for copper has slowed due to the global economic crisis, it has yet to be seen whether the copper mining efforts will be negatively affected. The area has been fraught with other environmental problems related to factories continuing to dump waste in the Debed River.
In Southern Armenia, uranium mining efforts have been renewed in Syunik where about 30,000 tons are believed to exist. The initiative was approved by the Ministry of Nature Protection last February.
The Armenian Weekly
Dec. 27, 2008