Armenia crackdown: an ex-Soviet pattern?

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

Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty images/Newscom
Control: Troops guard the streets of Yerevan, the capital, where protests were broken up last week.

Call it the post-color revolution syndrome.

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.

Russian security forces quashed an opposition rally in Moscow Monday, following presidential polls that were handily won by Kremlin-backed candidate Dmitry Medvedev. A handful of protesters alleging electoral fraud were manhandled and arrested by police. Even the Kremlin-appointed human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, complained, "I see this [police behavior] as a strange and not entirely appropriate overreaction."

Fearing a popular revolt like the one that had recently occurred in Kyrgyzstan, security forces in Uzbekistan gunned down hundreds of protesters in May 2005.

Later that year, authorities in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, violently crushed street rallies protesting alleged fraud in polls that brought Ilham Aliyev, the son of the country's longtime strongman, to power.

The next year, Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko followed up his massive but disputed reelection victory by smashing opposition rallies in Minsk and putting hundreds of protesters in jail.

In November, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered police to end weeks of opposition rallies with a harsh show of force that injured scores and saw dozens arrested. Independent media outlets were put on notice; at least one, shut down. But Mr. Saakashvili quickly reversed himself: He ended the state of emergency and called fresh elections – and won handily in January. The opposition again cried foul, but Georgian society has, for now, settled down.

Few experts expect a similar outcome in Armenia, where political antagonisms are even sharper. The government this week closed down two local stations for continuing to report uncensored news. The independent English-language online ArmeniaNow news service complied with the ban, but ran a statement protesting state press controls that "could lead to the sort of propagandized media that re-unites Armenia with its Soviet past."

Most observers think that Sargsyan's victory was probably genuine, if not entirely fair. But they say the polls' bitter, violent aftermath may have fatally undermined the country's fragile democracy.

"The authorities have put a lid on a boiling pot, but the pot is still boiling," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the official Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.

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