Friday, 18 March 2011

Armenia protests gather pace

Could the Arab Spring spread to the Christian former Soviet republic of Armenia? During a large and determined rally in Yerevan on 17th March, opposition leaders were confident that President Serzh Sarkisian would be the next leader to be swept aside by people power. Former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, the leader of the opposition Armenian National Congress (ANC) said that “the events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere will happen in Armenia as well”.

Around 10,000 people are believed to have joined the rally, which moved across the city to occupy Freedom Square. The square has special resonance for opposition figures: in March 2008, security forces killed eight as they drove out thousands who had been protesting fraud in the elections which brought President Sarkisian to power.

The authorities treated the 17th March rally more carefully: riot police withdrew from the square's perimeter to allow the demonstrators to move in. It remains to be seen whether they will continue to exercise restraint until 31st March, when the wave of demonstrations is due to end. The presence of international diplomats and parliamentarians in Yerevan may, analysts argue, be one factor behind the government's soft approach, which included releasing several political prisoners.

Street protests are nothing new in Armenia, but the recent wave – which started on 1st March, the anniversary of the 2008 crackdown – have sought to capitalise on an economic crisis, the government's lack of accountability, and the example of the uprisings in the Middle East.

The rally was led by the charismatic if controversial Ter-Petrosian, who resigned in 1998. His ANC has been the most coherent and popular opposition group in recent years, although Ter-Petrosian's polarising character and divisions with other opposition parties have limited its appeal. The latest protests, however, have seen relative – and perhaps temporary - unity amongst anti-government groups. The leader of the nationalist Heritage Party, Raffi Hovannisian, went on hunger strike on March 15th, demanding early elections - also the demand of the ANC.

Opposition figures are keen to stress that unlike the Arab uprisings, the Armenian protests will remain non-violent. If they remain so, the authorities will probably tolerate them or try to disrupt them non-violently, through restricting transport to Yerevan on the day of large rallies (a tactic which has been used throughout March). Previous high-profile street campaigns have fizzled out and President Sarkisian may be calculating that the latest round also fades without forcing him to make significant concessions. But given Armenia's deepening economic woes and the tide of protests to the south, this could be a dangerous gamble.

Sources: Eurasianet, AFP, Armenia Liberty,

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