Armenia in Turmoil
Armenia in Turmoil


by John Hughes

Inauguration Day came to Armenia April 9 with skies full of brilliance and spectacle over the capital, Yerevan.

Like something from a fairy tale for most here who had never witnessed such a thing, 18 hot air balloons carrying waving passengers in straw baskets floated their way across the city as if the sky had opened into a bag of giant M&Ms.

Old and young stopped their morning rituals to run to windows and gather on balconies, aiming cell phones into the air to capture photos. The city center's normally gnarled traffic was stalled even more than usual as drivers twisted their necks to see the wonder above them.

Rising from Republic Square and guided by professional pilots, the bright bulbous aircraft barely cleared rooftops, where kids and grannies pointed in awe and called to make sure neighbors didn't miss the display.

By the time the balloons landed in the Ajapniak district about two hours later, colorless reality returned, as the uplifted residents of the city center, who went into the streets, were met by stern policemen directing them off sidewalks as if to underscore Armenia's present truth that looking up may not mean looking ahead.

In an impressive display of will and resources, law enforcement shut down a two-block-wide area of the capital surrounding the Opera House, where Serge Azat Sargsyan would take a vow to lead his people with the help of Almighty God.

Might belonged to the president-elect on this day and he had reason to use it. For nearly two months, his capital had been living in tension that had flared often before erupting in the deaths of at least 10 and injury of hundreds when March 1, the first day of spring here, ripped a city and crippled a nation.

And so when Prime Minister Serge Sargsyan had become President Serge Sargsyan shortly after 2 p.m., he left the Opera House hall and, where cheering supporters should have been, he faced only a military review inside the cordon of security with a state television camera crew as the new president's congregation.

By official count, 52.8 percent of Armenia's voters had demanded by constitutional authority on February 19 that Sargsyan lead them. But on a day that should have been a national embrace, not even his supporters were allowed near him.

He is a war hero who defended his nation against enemy Azerbaijan, but on this day President Sargsyan needed defense from his own. So the president stood demonstrably alone on the red-carpeted Opera House steps, saluted his troops, and then walked back inside where carefully chosen dignitaries gave him a royal reception.

Beyond the security bubble, common citizens were not allowed to even stand on the sidewalks of streets down which motorcades ferried VIPs and envoys representing the good wishes of 58 countries.

When Pope John Paul II visited Yerevan in 2001, he enjoyed a public parade. So did French President Jacques Chirac in 2006—and he even stepped away from his security detail to shake hands with folks at French Square.

But, on Inauguration Day, tension was too great and the risk too real to allow the President of Armenia a moment with his people.

In the evening, dramatic fireworks burst in the same skies where the morning's balloons had gently tickled a community in need of smiles.

But on the first full day of Serge Sargsyan's term, his solitary figure inside a wall of protection held more memory than the Disney-esque magic of the morning or evening.

Inauguration Day came to Armenia on "karasunk," the day of mourning that marked 40 days since eight Armenians were killed by other Armenians because of hatred over who should have been standing on those Opera House steps.

Bloody Saturday

At seven o'clock in the evening of March 1, Grigor Gevorgian called his wife, Varduhi, and told her to warm up dinner, for he was coming home and was very hungry.

"I said, 'Grigor, my darling, I have cooked your favorite dinner, with lentils. I'm putting it on the stove right now,'" Grigor's 27-year-old wife recalls.

Grigor Gevorgian, 28, breadwinner for a six-member family, went out of his one-room home in Yerevan's Kond district shortly after 5 p.m. on March 1. The next day, his wife and two little sons received his dead body, with a bullet hole in his forehead.

"He worked at a gas station. They called and told him to come to get his wages. We were watching TV. Grigor said people were holding a peaceful protest and, 'I'll go and fetch my money.' What could happen?"

Varduhi remembers how she ironed her husband's clothes and made coffee for him. Grigor hugged eight-year-old Hovik and four-year-old Rubik, kissed them good-bye and told his wife: "I'll go quickly and come back. At least we'll have some money today."

On his way home from the gas station where he worked, Grigor encountered acres of angry protesters who were in a standoff with riot police near the Yerevan Municipality building. He found himself entangled in a mob that he did not wish to be a part of, but could not escape.

"At 8 p.m. Grigor phoned, saying he was on Leo Street. He said it was an ugly situation. He'd found himself in a blocked area and police did not let him get out. Pointing a gun at him, they were telling him to back off, or else they would kill him," Varduhi says. "I began to shout, telling him I was coming to him. He said, 'No, don't leave home.' At about 9 p.m. he no longer answered phone calls. Then his mobile was switched off altogether and we didn't have any news."

Several hours later, Grigor's relatives began a search.

"We learned in the corridor of the mortuary that Grigor was gone. They said he was shot by a sniper. His brain was exploded," says Varduhi, wringing her hands. "Acute disorder of vitally important functions of the brain; a bullet wound of the skull," says the death certificate.

Grigor Gevorgian did not support either of the forces that fought the battle that killed him.

"If I knew that my husband was politically active, fought and became a victim for his ideas, my heart would be at rest. But he did not even go to the polls. I was telling him to go and vote for whoever he wanted, just go. But he said he didn't care who won."

Others cared, and they paid. Others answered duty, and they paid: Zakar Hovhannisian, Gor Kloian, David Petrosian, Tigran Khachatrian, Hovhannes Hovhannisian, Armen Farmanian, (police officer) Hamlet Tadevosian. On April 11, 19-year-old conscript Tigran Abgarian died of gunshot wounds from March 1. Two days later, the death of 29-year-old Samvel Harutiunian, the 10th victim, was announced. He died from head wounds and left behind a six-month-old daughter and a 20-year-old widow.

Days after she was among protesters on Paronian Street, 57-year-old Grizelda Ghazarian had trouble remembering all the events that left her with eight stitches and a bandaged head.

"I thought that the disgrace had ended at Opera Square (after protesters were disbursed in the morning) but when I saw how many troops were taken to the area adjacent to the Myasnikian monument and that people were preparing for self-defense, I understood that we would be killed. I was ready to be killed."

Grizelda was in the ranks of the protesters, together with her 24-year-old daughter Gayane and the wife of the former deputy defense minister Vahan Shirkhanian. At about 8:30 p.m., they left the area near the Mayor's Office and the Myasnikian monument and went on foot up towards 18 Paronian Street, where the Shirkhanian family lived.

"My daughter felt sick and we decided to go to the Shirkhanians for a cup of tea. When we reached the passage on Mashtots Avenue, we saw how many soldiers had filled that area. The soldiers pushed us to the intersection of Paronian and Leo streets. Near the corner building, 14 Paronian, the soldiers stopped and a group of helmeted soldiers entered their ranks," Grizelda says.

She says that among the military she saw one familiar officer whom she often saw at Liberty Square where she had participated in the nine days of oppositionist protests. She approached him and said: "What are you doing, what kind of war is this?"

Then shots were heard. Grizelda says: "I thought that was the end, we would all be killed there and was thinking at that moment where my son might be in the crowd and perhaps he was being fired on at that moment. We all began to shout as the shots were fired. Before that, people were coming and leaving on the sidewalks, but the military blocked the sidewalks too."

Grizelda says that again she approached the same familiar officer and said that when all the uproar was over, she would tear his stripes off. In reply, the officer hit her in the belly with a truncheon. The officer was taken away from the women, but continued to curse them.

Under the torrent of shots, Grizelda says her daughter Gayane began to shout: "Turks, what are you doing? They have something to lose, but what do you have to lose? Whose interests are you defending? The country belongs to us, the citizens."

Grizelda says that Gayane was still shouting when soldiers attacked her.

"I saw one of the entrance doors to the building and tried to get there. But when I tried to enter, I felt a heavy blow on my head. I heard people shouting behind me: 'Catch that whore, bring that whore here.' They were saying that about my daughter. I saw them drag Gayane by the hood of her sweater to the middle of the street and begin to hit my daughter with truncheons. From the place where I fell, I saw four or five people kicking my daughter. I heard the voice of Vahan Shirkhanian's wife: 'Don't hit the wife of (Karabakh Committee member) Rafael Ghazarian, don't kill his daughter.'"

Grizelda says that suddenly someone in military uniform stood above her. Then he dragged her daughter to her. Gayane was not able to walk.

"I was shouting—scoundrel, brute, Turk—and heard an answer in Russian in a very calm tone: 'I have saved your and your daughter's lives,'" Grizelda says. "Then he pulled us to that entrance, along with Shirkhanian's wife, and shut the door."

There were heroes and troublemakers on both sides of police lines on March 1.

"Our soldiers and policemen, I swear, were not prepared for such an assault by the armed, drunk and uncontrollable mob. Of course, we were ordered to resist, but the troops were not prepared like the rabble, which, in fact, acted separate from the people," said Armen, an assistant commander of one of the military units of Armenia, who, like other soldiers and policemen, asked not to publicize his name.

Armen says that the morning events in Liberty Square might have been bad for the people, but the situation was even tougher for the military in the area close to the Yerevan municipality on March 1. He insists over and again that demonstrators initiated the attack by instigating a battle that turned into all-permissiveness.

"If the soldiers knew they were fighting against the Turks, they would beat them, but how could they shoot at their own people? Those poor soldiers didn't know what to do. They even retreated for a while; some ran away as if they had landed in the hands of Turks," Armen continued.

He also said that—contrary to other characterizations—police had acted with restraint while disbursing demonstrators camped in Liberty Square on that Saturday morning.

"True, it was decided to disperse the demonstrators at dawn, but not because the people would be asleep then and would be easily beaten," Armen said. The assistant commander says that police had checked beforehand to assure that women or children were not on the premises of the square.

(The assistant commander's account of a planned dispersing of protesters contradicted that of the state police, who said law enforcement only went to Liberty Square to conduct a search for weapons.)

Whether unwillingly or by consent, the soldiers and the policemen who took part in the March 1 civil disturbances and beatings say they were caught between the imposed interests of the state and the safety of their own people.

Hayk, a policeman in his mid-30s, said his anger reached its peak when the crowd began calling him a Turk and an enemy.

"My relatives are among the people and we might well shoot them without knowing it. Can you understand that we are just defending ourselves, trying to prevent it all?" Hayk was shouting. "Do you think I want to go against my own people? But that's my job."

"The police really did warn the people several times to disperse, but they stayed there and attacked the policemen. I don't say police are fully innocent and did not counter attack. But they were forced to, because they had no choice," Armen said. "The people shouldn't think that we are happy with the incumbent authorities; we criticize them as well, we don't accept them either. But the things Levon Ter-Petrosian did (encouraging discontent and maligning the authorities) were simply a disgrace and we were forced to prevent it from continuing."

Collision of Hate and Hope

If February 19 and March 1 are to be seen as reasons for the mood that soured Inauguration Day and cast doubts over whether Armenia will ever learn how a democracy should behave, then a review should also include October 26, 2007.

Under drizzly autumn skies, Armenia's opposition, silenced in 2003 by a show of political might, and in 2004 by physical force, once again found its voice with the return to politics of the country's first elected president, Levon Ter-Petrosian.

On that October day, a crowd of 10,000 or more filled Liberty Square to hear the ex-president's first public address since he resigned his presidency in February 1998. For the crowd that would grow consistently over the next four months, the return of "LTP" signaled hope for a release from the yoke of oppression that many felt ever tighten over the 10 years of President Robert Kocharian's regime. Many too seemed willing to gamble that Ter-Petrosian would not resume old habits of oppression seen during his presidency years.

Crowds that grew from that day until even after Ter-Petrosian had lost the vote to Serge Sargsyan placed their hopes in Ter-Petrosian's single-minded ambition to unseat the Kocharian regime, which Ter-Petrosian dubbed a "gang-ocracy."

The Ter-Petrosian campaign delivered hope on the rhetoric of hate, spending day after day of mass appeal on a message that was less about his intentions than on allegations that his opponent was a scoundrel. He implicated the Kocharian government in the deaths of eight statesmen during the terrorist attack on Parliament in October 1999. He said the current administration had no intention of settling the Karabakh issue, because a stalemate served their personal goals.

And when he was called upon to apologize for the failures of his own six-and-a-half-year administration, independent Armenia's first president would only say that he was sorry for having brought Kocharian and Sargsyan from Karabakh and placing them in power.

While failing to convincingly outline his plan for the next five years, the former president relied instead on emotional rhetoric, such as calling the current administration a regime that had caused "the moral deterioration of Armenia." He described the existing government as a Kocharian-topped pyramid of evil.

And when the February 19 election revealed widespread vote-rigging, intimidation of electorate and faulty recording of ballots, Ter-Petrosian was bolstered in his claim that Serge Sargsyan was little more than a gangster with too much clout. Caught up in the belief of his own popularity, Ter-Petrosian bragged that he had won the presidential election and that 65 percent of voters had chosen him—a claim even less believable than the disputable 52.8 percent attributed to Sargsyan.

The Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) couldn't have served up a better target for Ter-Petrosian's accusations of disregard for electoral law.

Across Armenia in the days leading up to the election, RPA representatives bribed voters, buying their promised votes for from $16 to $100, according to anecdotal reports.

Heghine, a 26-year-old hairdresser in Vanadzor, says that a few days prior to February 19, she was visited by RPA campaigners who offered her 5,000 drams (about $16) to vote for Serge Sargsyan. (For understandable reasons, the woman would speak only on agreement to not use her real name.)

"They came to our place from the RPA district headquarters, wrote down our names, gave money, we signed and said good-bye," Heghine says. The next day, she and others received a call from the headquarters, reminding them to get ready for a vehicle which would take them to vote.

"If they (RPA) come, knock on our door, what shall we do? Shall we say we don't want it?" Heghine asks.

Heghine is relatively well paid by Armenian standards. Still, 5,000 drams equals what she makes on a "good day."

But $16 is a more tempting sum to 50-year-old Siranush. She does occasional house cleaning, but mostly lives off money from a relative in Russia.

"I know I have done a bad thing, but if they come to my place on their own and say they'll give money, why shouldn't I take it?" Siranush says.

One of the workers at the Belissimo bar-sauna belonging to the mayor of Vanadzor Samvel Darbinian and a member of Sargsyan's nearby headquarters approached her and her neighbors, wrote down their names and gave directions concerning where and when to vote on Election Day.

A minibus with yellow license plates identifying it as a public transport vehicle arrived to take them to the polling station. A woman working in Belissimo distributed the money, folding it and placing it inside Siranush's passport.

Lusine, 25, took the 5,000 drams and voted for the prime minister. It was her first time to vote, and she says her civic right was sold purely "due to lack of money."

She is the single mother of a three-year-old daughter, and lives off a monthly salary of 15,000 drams ($48) she earns as a service worker. "The money was like a ray of light in the darkness."

Lusine says she wishes there were more elections so she could get money again. She added these 5,000 drams to another 5,000 drams she had saved and decided to buy firewood.

On Election Day, RPA faced charges more sinister than bribery, including beatings, kidnapping and threats of rape. At one polling station, a "maintenance crew" was called to replace a light bulb. Three men showed up. One stood on a table and tended to the bulb, while the other two stuffed ballots—believed to be marked for Sargsyan—into the nearby ballot box.

In the days that followed, international monitoring bodies would report that 16 percent of Armenia's 1,923 polling station produced results that were "bad" or "very bad."

Some also found it troubling that such high voter turnout was recorded, especially considering that, typically, high turnout favors the opposition.

About 2.3 million Armenians are registered to vote. That number includes perhaps as many as 500,000 (according to various estimates) who now live abroad, and, for the first time with this presidential election, were not allowed to vote. That brings the number down to about 1.8 million. According to the CEC, nearly 1.7 million went to polls—about 94 percent (if the absentees are considered).

Even Ministry of Foreign Affairs diplomats were among those not allowed to vote in this election, unless they came back to Armenia to cast their ballots. Those approximately half-million potential votes, representing citizens who may or may not be in-country on Election Day, are liable to tampering, experts conclude.

But any claims of wrongdoing came too late to benefit oppositionists, and followed initial reports that the election was an improvement over others in Armenia, including the 2007 parliamentary vote.

Just as staunchly as Ter-Petrosian's denial, Sargsyan was emboldened by the CEC endorsement of the vote. Furthermore, international bodies appeared to back the outcome. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and others signed off on the flawed election, to the bewilderment of even their own monitors. By March 2 it became apparent the internationals had regretted their endorsements.

Coached by a prestigious international public relations firm, at a cost of $65,000 per month plus expenses, Sargsyan wasted no time capitalizing on early (and incomplete) reports by observers, using comments such as "mostly in line with international standards" as a resume of his authority to fulfill his party's motto: "Forward Armenia!".

March 1, though, took Armenia in a direction that neither the president-elect nor the former president-turned-oppositionist might have wanted or could have predicted.

How Did All This Happen?

Daily protests by a surprisingly energized opposition followed the February 19th election, climaxing on February 26 when Ter-Petrosian supporters clearly outnumbered what Sargsyan and his backers could muster, though Ter-Petrosian's CEC official vote tally was less than half (21.5 percent). These were not crowds driven into the streets only to rally for Ter-Petrosian; rather, the numbers included just as many who were disenchanted at having their ballots reduced to meaningless bundles wrapped in Sargsyan votes.

The messages of their thunderous chants revealed a shifting makeup of those who wanted institutional change more than a change of personality; mixed into the calls of "Lev-on, Lev-on," passionate calls of "Azatutyun" (Freedom) came in telling frequency.

Among those in the crowds and among the ones beaten by police on March 1 was Aramazd Manukian, a former staff member at the local United Nations office. Manukian, 33, received six stitches after being struck by a police baton. He, his two brothers and their father were all at Liberty Square when police broke up protesters around 7 a.m.

Manukian and his family, highly educated and members of the civic community, bristle at characterizations painting the oppositionist crowd as naïve, ill informed and generally unsophisticated.

"These are not people who are marginalized," Manukian says. "There is a qualitative majority who are now against the authorities. This is important. Levon Ter-Petrosian, as an individual, is not the axis of this fight; rather, it is about freedom and justice."

The Manukians, in fact, voted for candidate Vazgen Manukian (no relation), but joined the Ter-Petrosian-led demonstrations as a protest against the election that they, like thousands of others, believe was fraudulent.

It is reasonable to conclude that the "fight," too, was rooted in discontent that existed long before March 1, before February 19, before October 26 . . .

It is discontent that reaches back, at least, to last May when parliamentary elections were a preview of the systematic disregard for fair public participation that was demonstrated in securing the highest post on February 19.

Farther back, Armenian voters have not seen an uncontested election at any level since its first, in 1991. Twelve years (since the first controversial contest) build a lot of animosity that needs neither political party nor personality to encourage it. Simply: For all these years, voters here have faced having to decide whether to sell their votes, or to risk having them stolen.

It is true and commendable that the past administration has led Armenia to economic growth and to a standard of living for many that could not have been guaranteed based only on whether the voting process was fair. In spite of problems, Armenia thrives, if measured by the standards of most indicators.

But missing from current conditions is any link between hard work, high education and civic responsibility—the equation of success in ideal free society; in place of this equation is a clan culture that rewards a minority of democracy-dismissing oligarchs to the exclusion of Armenia's law-abiding majority.

When the Republican Party of Armenia swept the 2007 parliamentary elections, it promised to demonstrate its allegiance to the people by passing legislation that would, among other provisions, raise pensions for the elderly and socially disadvantaged.

Indeed, pensions for the elderly grew by 60 percent with more increases promised.

However, while social benefits rose, so did the cost of living—especially for those who rely on foreign remittances in the form of dollars, which took a 20 percent hit in relation to the local currency.

While Armenians try to decipher truth from political rhetoric, the fact that being here requires more money than it used to (especially in the capital) is as clear as a calculator. Necessities cost more: Butter that cost about $1.10 a year ago now costs $2. Indulgences cost more: A bottle of beer that cost about 90 cents a year ago now costs about $1.30.

A public, which, yes, is happy now to be able to afford its family Lada, cannot help but wonder why those perceived to have less legitimacy enjoy the SUV level of lifestyle and profit most from this Armenia.

Now What?

Calls for reconciliation, mediation, and an end to political arrests (more than 100 were jailed on charges of insurrection) have come from the West, while to the north Russia congratulated Robert Kocharian and Serge Sargsyan for shutting down protests that threatened the state.

Showing no sign of relenting on his imperative to establish order, President Sargsyan nonetheless showed a modicum of political flexibility when he appointed Central Bank of Armenia chairman Tigran Sarkisian (no relation) as Prime Minister.

As he claims no political party affiliation, Tigran Sarkisian's appointment was welcomed by those who see the 48-year-old PM as a harbinger of non-partisan administration (although the new prime minister has been closely affiliated with the outgoing leadership).

He leads a government that has seen the replacement of veteran statesman Vartan Oskanian with former Ambassador to France Eduard Nalbandian as foreign minister.

And in the republic's other top post, another native of Karabakh (as is Serge Sargsyan), Seyran Ohanian has become Minister of Defense.

Internal shuffling of political personalities provides grist for analysts and challenges for international negotiators acclimating to new allies or adversaries.

It is on a far less ideological level, though, that Armenia 2008 is judged by those whose relationship to the country might do her considerable good or harm.

While state-sponsored news services have reported that Armenia's tourism season is not likely to be damaged by this dark spring, commercial enterprises tell a different tale.

"We have had a great number of annulled tickets by tourist groups who were scheduled to visit Armenia but have canceled their trips," says Anahit Papazian, director of Levon Travel Yerevan office.  "People do not want to visit a country where authorities shoot at their own people, where a state of emergency was imposed and where there are political prisoners."

Armen Tour agency manager Lusine Ghahramanian said five or six groups had cancelled their trips, with each group numbering about 25-30 tourists. However, she quickly added, "We hope, starting in June, that we will be back to our routine."

As the summer approaches, some of the civic internships and humanitarian missions planned by students long in advance have been altered due to the disturbing news here.

California ophthalmologist Roger Ohanesian, director of the Armenian Eye Care Project, said his organization's semi-annual summer medical mission was immediately jeopardized by the news coming out of Yerevan in March.

Although the regular visit to train eye doctors and treat special cases will go as planned, Ohanesian says that several top eye specialists who had volunteered to treat patients in Armenia in June have now cancelled their offers, due to the unrest.

"Those of us who have years of experience dealing with the occasional tumultuous times in Armenia realize that chaos is almost always followed by immediate calm and security," said Ohanesian, who has been leading humanitarian missions to Armenia since 1993. "But those who know the country only by headlines and newscasts have understandable—if perhaps unfounded—reasons for concern of their safety. By any measure it is an unfortunate result of the current political climate."

And on the US' Capitol Hill, lobbyists for various Armenian causes, and especially genocide recognition, feel the weight of representing a country that has failed to uphold democratic principles.

"The violence of March 1 and serious charges of electoral manipulations are certainly causing discomfort among our friends in Congress and are being exploited by Turkish and Azerbaijan-funded lobbyists," wrote the Armenian Assembly of America's Jirair Haratunian in an editorial days after the Yerevan unrest.

Whether evaluated by the carefully considered congressional lobbying of a special-interest group, the single-minded passion of a nationalist on a blog page, or the non-partisan desire to perform humanitarian health service, Armenia's spring of discontent has severely altered internal and international relations.

And these latest days of frail revolution and faulty administration, raised to a higher level of alarm by the deaths of at least 10 and injuries of more than 300, are the legacy of neither Serge Sargsyan nor Levon Ter-Petrosian. They are, rather, the disturbing manifestation of institutionalized failed hopes and deferred dreams on both sides, and reveal a nation in need of a common and justified belief in itself.

Information for this article was reported by ArmeniaNow staff: Naira Bulghadaryan, Gayane Mkrtchyan, Gayane Abrahamyan, Arpi Harutyunyan, Suren Musayelyan, Marianna Grigoryan and Sara Khojoyan.

Originally published in the April 2008 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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