Monday, March 03, 2008

Armenia state of emergency after disputed election

The Armenian government has imposed a 20-day state of emergency after police killed eight demonstrators protesting against a disputed election result.
Outgoing President Robert Kocharian has banned public rallies and imposed a communications blackout of internet, satellite and non-state TV in the capital Yerevan. The confrontations over allegations of electoral fraud have led to death, injury and property damage.

The violence erupted on the weekend between government forces and opposition activists. Police fired shots and used clubs and tear gas to disperse thousands of demonstrators. They also broke up a camp site where hundreds of protesters had stayed for more than a week. As well as the eight dead (seven civilians and one police officer), over a hundred people were injured in the clashes. Kocharian has since deployed hundreds of troops to enforce the state of emergency.

The violence is in response to the disputed presidential election on 19 February. President Kocharian's handpicked successor, Serzh Sargsyan defeated Levon Ter-Petrosian in the election. Western observers declared the poll “relatively fair” however Sargsyan had the benefit of massive state TV coverage. Official results gave Sargsyan 53 per cent of the vote while Ter-Petrosian received 21.5 per cent. Ter-Petrosian's supporters said the election was marred by ballot stuffing and intimidation. Armenia's deputy prosecutor-general came out in support of Ter-Petrosian and encouraged his supporters to continue protesting. Ter-Petrosian was subsequently placed under house arrest. After 11 days of peaceful protests, the demonstrations became violent on Saturday.

Yesterday, the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent a special envoy to Armenia to try to resolve the political crisis. Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva, whose country currently holds the OSCE'S rotating chairmanship, said he sent his special envoy to bring both sides to the negotiating table. Heikki Talvitie, a veteran diplomat with long experience in the region, will hold separate talks with Kocharian, Sargsyan and opposition leaders. "The OSCE considers dialogue central to stability, and stability is vital in the South Caucasus,” said Kanerva. “Everything should be done to avoid further casualties and any further escalation of tension.”

Levon Ter-Petrosian led Armenia for most of the 1990s. He was elected president in 1991 with four policy planks: the development of a market economy; democratisation; a realistic foreign policy unburdened by Russia or the Armenian genocide; and the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Ter-Petrosian was portrayed in the west as an introverted intellectual, a democrat, and a moderate. He was re-elected in 1996 but hardliners forced Ter-Petrosian to resign the presidency two years later due to his dovish stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Kocharian replaced him as president.

Kocharian and Sargsyan are both natives of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region over which Armenia and neighbouring Azerbaijan fought a war in the 1990s. Peace talks have stalled over Kocharian’s refusal to return Azerbaijani regions captured during the 1991-94 conflict. At the time Turkey froze diplomatic relations with Armenia in solidarity with Turkic-speaking and Muslim Azerbaijan. Complicated by the Armenian massacres of World War I (which Turkey refuses to acknowledge), the countries have not yet restored relations.

While there is close economic cooperation in the region between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia, Armenia prefers to deal with Iran and Russia. Armenia borders Iran and lies on a transit route from the energy-rich Caspian Sea region. Armenia currently relies on Russian pipelines for natural gas but intends to diversify its supplies by purchasing gas from Iran. Construction finally began in early 2005 on the Iranian portion of the pipeline. The 140km natural gas pipeline is financed by Iranian Bank of Export and Development at a cost of $30 million.

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