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Armenia crackdown: an ex-Soviet pattern?

A state of emergency remains in place, after protesters alleging election fraud were dispersed last week.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 2008

Control: Troops guard the streets of Yerevan, the capital, where protests were broken up last week.

Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty images/Newscom

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Moscow

Call it the post-color revolution syndrome.

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Armenia is the latest in a string of ex-Soviet countries to crack down hard on peaceful protesters alleging electoral fraud. Last weekend, security forces – using truncheons, tear gas, and stun guns – dispersed several thousand supporters of former president Levon Ter-Petrosyan.

They'd been camped out in the capital Yerevan's Freedom Square to challenge the results of Feb. 19 presidential polls, which were won by the pro-government candidate Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan. Eight people were killed in the violence, 130 injured, and more than 100 arrested.

President Robert Kocharyan declared a 20-day state of emergency, which was followed by a shutdown on independent news reporting and further waves of arrests, including 30 on Tuesday.

"The situation in the country is really very serious; society is deeply polarized" over these events, says Alexander Iskanderyan, director of the independent Center for Caucasian Studies in Yerevan. "We have never seen anything like this before, and it has been a huge shock."

But it's becoming a familiar story around the former Soviet Union. Armenian oppositionists allege that officials stole the election by harassing opposition activists, coercing voters, and stuffing ballot boxes, leading to Mr. Sargsyan's 53 percent to 21 percent victory over Mr. Ter-Petrosyan.

The opposition mounted nearly two weeks of protests, apparently following the playbook established in three "color revolutions" – in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan – that took place between 2003 and 2005, in which protesters overthrew governments and forced fresh elections.

"In the post-Soviet region, it's becoming almost a tradition to disagree with election results and take to the streets," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "There is a definite feeling of déjà vu" in the Armenian events, he says.

But no government has been overthrown since Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akayev was forced out in a revolt over alleged poll fraud in March 2005. Experts say that's because leaders have become much tougher and more savvy. They've moved to strengthen laws blocking opposition activity and been much quicker to deploy massive police force on the streets to crush protests.

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